A Dosa, A Relationship and Two Houses: All the Things I Want (from Meenakshi Sundereshwar)
By Aditya Padinjat, UG'24
I can recall the moment Meenakshi Sundareshwar was dead to me. I know some of you may think this is a film review, but I won’t pretend. This is barely a film review; it is just me complaining. The film lost me exactly 1 hour, 56 minutes and 30 seconds in, when an address pops up on the phone of the protagonist which reads “Hotel Grande Exquisite 185, Sarjapur Outer Ring Road, Jayanagar, Bangalore – 560024”. More eagle-eyed Bangaloreans would have noticed that this address is absolute nonsense, containing elements from completely different parts of the city. Maybe this is something common to all Bollywood films, but for me it epitomises what I dislike about Meenakshi Sundareshwar: in an attempt to tell a serious story about relationships, representation and South India, its lack of attention to detail lets it down.
Before I detail my numerous gripes with this film, I must add a disclaimer: having regrettably watched this film twice, it is the Hindi film I watched the most. Therefore, the wider oeuvre of Bollywood cinema is almost entirely alien to me. However, the few attempts at depicting South India on screen which I have seen have left me unmoved. One of the first real arguments I had at Ashoka was about the movie Chennai Express and the picture it painted of South India, but that’s a whole other article in itself. The reason I tell you my tales of woe is only slightly for sympathy. It’s also to paint the wider picture of just how poorly South India has been portrayed in the eyes of a Bollywood-watching audience.
With that in mind, I had genuine hope for this movie. I watched the trailer and saw a movie that pitched itself as making a commentary on the challenges of long-distance love that switched between Madurai and Bangalore. The soundtrack by Justin Prabhakaran was fantastic, and appeared to be in the sweet spot between emotional and whimsical. The fact that it looked visually stunning helped too. The film being as bad as it was fills me with genuine regret.
Where the film most fundamentally fails, is in its attempts to build the world it exists in. This starts right from the language of the film. The dialogue is primarily in Hindi interspersed with dashes of Tamil and English to add splashes of local colour, but it is right here where the uneasy marriage begins. Tamil and Hindi are two very different languages originating from two different families, and do not mix well together. Words like “vango”, ‘amma’, ‘appa’ and of course ‘Thalaiva’ are dissonant with the predominantly Hindi dialogue. The strange attempt to mix the two together immediately shatters the reality of the world the characters occupy. The fact that neither of the actors playing the lead characters appear to know Tamil, adds to this issue.
The same issue is true of the sets of the film. Meenakshi Sundereshwar suffers from being both simultaneously visually stunning and nondescript. While the shots of Madurai are very nice to look at in isolation, the houses the characters live in are virtually identical. Both represent the affluent background the two lead characters live in but also fail to give us any real insights into who these characters are as people (aside from a shrine dedicated to Rajinikanth on a wall because why be creative?). But no matter how nondescript Madurai is made, it doesn’t come close to the bland corporate hellscape that Bangalore is made to look like when Sundar moves there for his job. Despite writing in a sequence where Sundar videos himself exploring the city, the city is made to seem glossy, grey and entirely devoid of any personality (not unlike some of the charac…ok I won’t). The pinnacle of this sequence is when Sundar attempts to mount a sign that says I💚BLR. While I don’t doubt that many residents of the city do indeed 💚BLR, they would also probably make the point that there is more to the city that generic backgrounds that appear to have been added by a green screen.
The finer details of the film provide stumbling blocks too, starting from the costumes and houses of the characters. The budget for these appears to have been significant, but the constant wearing of gold bordered silk sarees and the way the houses appear simply to be temples convey an affluent but unrealistic picture of a family. Even the smaller throwaway details add to this. The youngest child in Sundar’s family appears to have started on IIT tuitions right from the moment he was born. Meenakshi’s form of rebellion is eating kari dosa (a non-vegetarian type of dosa) despite the fact that kari dosa is a staple of the region they live in. The spectre of Rajinikanth hangs over the film throughout, but only appears in the first and last scene (despite the fact that Meenakshi, who proclaims to be a superfan, has spelled his name wrong in her notebook). Ultimately, all of these issues combine to create a film that looks visually stunning but appears to just fall back on tired cliches of what South India is actually like. For all of the chatter, the picture of South India is just the well-worn track of studious engineers, strict vegetarians, bland Bangalore tech companies, temples and an obsession with Rajinikanth. South India has been superimposed on the cliched Dharma films template.
What makes all of the failings of Meenakshi Sundeshwar even more frustrating is that the landscape of representing the South in Hindi media has improved in the last few years. The Amazon Prime show The Family Man is very rightly praised for using Tamilian actors to play Tamilian characters who speak in Tamil, which appears to be a novel concept to the powers that be in the offices of Dharma Productions. Another film which I enjoyed was Karwaan, which is centred around a road trip that crosses Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. What Karwaan does well (aside from casting Dulquer Salman because he makes everything better) is taking no liberties in the way it treats its surroundings. It boldly dares to treat its setting as just that, without needing to overdo things. The example was there for this film to follow, and it really wasn’t difficult.
Ultimately, Meenakshi Sundareshwar pitched itself as many things, and failed to deliver on most of them. In a way, what it does achieve is an outstanding impression of an exhausted Ashokan (read: me) in a DS, in that it manages to say all the requisite keywords to pique interest but never really gets around to answering them.