What Meenakshi Sundareshwar tries to do is open a bit window of assimilation and acknowledgment, which is simply step one in a protracted journey in direction of normalising the presence of South India, with out exotifying it.
Meenakshi Sundareshwar launched to blended responses from each critics and viewers. Directed by debutante Vivek Soni, the movie tells the story of a newly-married couple who manoeuvre their method round small-town conservatism, attempting to work across the travails of a long-distance relationship. The movie has a whole lot of freshness in its execution, though it suffers from some unevenness in its writing, and a weak remaining act.
However there’s something that units the movie fairly aside from some other up to date Hindi movie — the truth that it’s completely set in South India, and revolves completely round South-Indian folks. Meenakshi Sundareshwar is a uncommon Hindi movie with zero North-Indian visible presence.
There isn’t a denying that widespread Hindi cinema has largely been North-centric, that includes North-Indian protagonists with surnames like Mehra, Verma, Saxena, Khanna, and Kapoor. We not often see a Banarjee, Parekh, or a Extra in a hero’s function. And but, different northern states like Gujarat, Rajasthan or Uttar Pradesh have been seen in some kind or the opposite, albeit with their share of stereotypes — enjoying peripheral components in a narrative pushed by the others.
In the meantime, by alternative or coincidence, our mainstream filmmakers simply haven’t carved any seen house for South-Indian characters or set a narrative in South India all these years. Consequently, South India has largely remained absent from our canvas (save for the placement of Ooty that was as soon as a frequent visible in our musical interludes in movies from the ’80s and ’90s.)
Ask any common Hindi movie fan a couple of memorable South-Indian character, they usually shall most likely recall movies like Ra.One and Chennai Specific, which used the weather and milieu of South India just for the sake of unique flavouring and simple laughs, as a substitute of constructing any assertion in direction of South-Indian illustration. (The visible of Shah Rukh Khan consuming Spaghetti pouring curd throughout it was one for the Razzies). Such informal representations have been harboured due to a presumed notion that in comparison with the remainder of the nation, South Indians carry their id and tradition on their sleeves much more prominently. (Particular point out needs to be made right here of the Hindi-dubbed films from the South that rule the roost of TV rankings today, and but maybe serve to its viewers as old style larger-than-life melodramas, whereas the mainstream Hindi films proceed to get away from the style.)
Maybe it began with Padosan (1968), the place Mehmood’s broad portrayal of a Carnatic music instructor was presumably the primary bonafide illustration in widespread cinema of a ‘South Indian’ (as if it was one massive state, as a substitute of 4 completely different states then). In a quite coincidental flip of occasions, the otherification of South Indian communities was occurring in Bombay across the similar time, with Bal Thackeray brazenly calling for boycott and violence upon the Udupi eating places. It pushed additional away from the hope of a balanced, non-stereotypical illustration of a South Indian.
Whereas the type of mainstream cinema has modified gears considerably, the illustration of South Indian folks in Hindi cinema, nonetheless, has remained conspicuously lopsided. They’re both confined to hit-and-miss components in comedian aid segments or are absent altogether. Even in movies which might be cosmopolitan by nature, and play little round a characters’ nativity, there may be seldom any house made for a South Indian in these narratives. Movies like Get up Sid, Luck By Probability, and Love Aaj Kal have had cosmopolitan feminine protagonists who’re shifting to completely different cities for his or her work or profession, and they’re by no means from South India. Would Ayesha Banarjee (Konkana Sensharma) in Wake Up Sid have misplaced any of her appeal as a free-minded lady had she come from Hyderabad or Chennai? A progressive lady from West Bengal would at all times be extra simply acceptable than one from Tamil Nadu or Kerala. That’s the subliminal message handed on with writing choices like these.
The uncommon event when a South Indian character is a protagonist (Ek Duje Ke Liye, 2 States), their nativity is commonly the reason for battle as they discover themselves in search of societal acceptance for a relationship with somebody from the north. Very not often have the filmmakers let a South-Indian simply be.
Finally, the accountability of making certain South Indian illustration has been undertaken by filmmakers who hailed from these states. In Firm, Ram Gopal Varma wrote a Malayali Cop Srinivasan (performed by Mohanlal) whose outsider standing in Mumbai doesn’t deter him from making a dent within the underworld scene. In Raj and DK’s Shor within the Metropolis, we had Saawan Murthy, a middle-class Telugu boy residing in Mumbai and harbouring cricketing ambitions. In Mani Ratnam’s Yuva, Vivek Oberoi performed Arjun, a Tamil-Brahmin residing in Kolkata who, in good sync along with his cosmopolitan outlook, can’t wait to start his life within the US.
One might argue that this subdued hostility goes each methods, contemplating how a lot of the resistance to Hindi imposition has come from the southern states all these years, to not point out how, in addition to the Mumbai movie trade, it’s the south that holds fort for probably the most thriving film industries within the nation. An argument had not too long ago sparked off across the Tamil movie Jai Bhim on comparable traces, the place a Tamil character performed by Prakash Raj slaps a personality intentionally talking in Hindi, and attempting to elude a blunt line of questioning, regardless of understanding Tamil.
Amidst such an setting, with an trade like Hindi cinema being this centered on homogenising cultural illustration, a movie like Meenakshi Sundareshwar tows a super-thin line, between sufficiently enjoying on the cultural parts of a sure milieu with out wanting stereotypical or caricaturish.
What Meenakshi Sundareshwar tries to do right here is open a bit window of assimilation and acknowledgment, which is simply step one in a protracted journey in direction of normalising the presence of South India, with out exotifying it.
Some reviewers have argued that Madurai, the place the story primarily takes place, has been included merely for the aesthetic worth. And I say, why not? Why does it should be such an objectionable conceit?
In fact, this movie might have been set wherever else, and presumably that’s the level. There’s a distinction between a location of a movie and that of a narrative, and Meenakshi Sundareshwar works on that precept, being set in Madurai however not so deeply embedded into it both, quite merely trying to inform a common story providing a freshness in its visuals. For an trade that has handled a South-Indian milieu like an anomaly, maybe an ushering by means of mere panorama and aesthetics ought to however be a welcome sufficient addition. It’s the normalising of those visuals and landscapes that’s necessary, to start with.
This jogs my memory of Shimit Amin’s Rocket Singh: Salesman of the 12 months (2009), which had a Sikh protagonist. Harpreet (Ranbir Kapoor) might have been Harsh Shah or Hemant Kale for that matter, however author Jaideep Sahni took a danger and went forward with a Sikh protagonist. As a result of why not? (whereas we’re at it, one should point out the brilliance with which Sahni included Harpreet’s spiritual id into his character, with out making it an overt a part of his character — not that it will have been flawed both)
Meenakshi Sundareshwar maintains a very good stability between cultural specifics and narrative universality. There are a number of visuals and moments distinctive to the neighborhood’s tradition. Once we see Meenakshi (Sanya Malhotra) overhearing the dialog between her household and potential in-laws, she has a filter espresso tumbler to maintain her firm. It’s a small contact however goes a good distance in establishing authenticity across the visible. The customs and rituals are built-in in a really low-key method, and but they register. When an aged lady finds her gaze caught on a lovely sari, the reference she thinks is aptly that of Nayanthara, a preferred Tamil actress — as a substitute of, say, Deepika Padukone. The cuisines that we often see are talked about with particular names as used down within the South — as a substitute of the generic ‘Idli-Dosa.’
However, there are a number of moments designed to be relatable and common. Sundar (Abhimanyu Dassani) telling Meenakshi concerning the book-cricket sport is a reminiscence straight out of ’90s nostalgia. The key affair pursued by Sundar’s sister could possibly be a ruse at any North Indian family, and nothing could possibly be extra common than the disapproving patriarch, who at all times undermines his personal son and his capabilities, and really vocally so.
Above all, the issues that the newly-married couple faces in managing their relationship maintain a whole lot of resonance — be it the tribulations of a long-distance relationship or dealing with the mood of elder, skeptic relations, or the little moments of daydreaming escapades within the midst of being surrounded by everybody.
And but, this here’s a predominantly South-Indian universe, the place North-Indians are barely current as ‘extras,’ if in any respect. The movie divides its time between the old-worldly Madurai and the cosmopolitan Bangalore. Even the opposite engineering lads are South Indian, and much faraway from the stereotypes. The boss is an eccentric metropolitan man, who might solely be recognized as a South Indian due to his identify. (In a intelligent bit, the one non-South Indian character is Diganta, a North-eastern boy who sheepishly admits to “being that uncommon North-east man who doesn’t play the guitar”).
This concept of a cosmopolitan-yet-local material of the universe displays most successfully by means of its feminine protagonist Meenakshi (Sanya Malhotra is undoubtedly the very best factor concerning the movie), who consistently defies our expectations. From the phrase go, Meenakshi appears roughly in control of her life (though we see her partake in a conservative organized marriage setup.) She is formidable, eager to make a distinction by means of her work. That’s what attracts her in direction of Sundareshwar as properly — that he goals to enterprise out on his personal, as a substitute of safely partaking within the household enterprise.
On their first meet, she breaks the ice by playfully moulding their dialog like a job interview. She is a fan of each Haruki Murakami and Uvamai Kavignar. So for a personality with such an city, progressive outlook, her love for Rajinikanth works in a subversive method, as a substitute of coming throughout as a stereotype (though it doesn’t add a lot to the plot.) As compared, Sundareshwar, a soft-spoken simpleton at coronary heart who doesn’t appear to have the rest in his life in addition to work and household, comes off as quite uninteresting and insipid. And but, his ambition to steer a career-driven life strikes a chord.
After which there may be the language. A number of the viewers members have seemingly discovered it tough to digest Hindi-speaking Tamilians. Nevertheless, one should do not forget that the very thought of a Hindi language movie in itself entails the leap of religion that each character, regardless of their metropolis or area, is continually talking in Hindi. Once we purchase a ticket for a Hindi movie, that’s one thing we comply with. It’s an unsaid understanding below which Meenakshi Sundareshwar operates. How else have we accepted movies like Devdas, Parineeta, and Maachis then?
None of that is to dilute the shortcomings of the movie. As identified by among the responses, the movie might have had a solid with extra actors who’re snug with the language, as a way to lend authenticity to the dialogue (a side which notably caught out for the Tamil viewers). Additionally, as evident within the reception by critics, maybe the writers might have made higher efforts to combine the milieu into the story. And but it stays that Meenakshi Sundareshwar took an necessary, albeit considerably flawed, step in direction of inclusivity in widespread Hindi cinema. And if something, this could act as a stepping stone for main filmmakers, and remind them of yet one more avenue that’s open for them in addition to the viewers, if solely the playing cards are performed proper.
Meenakshi Sundareshwar is streaming on Netflix India.
BH Harsh is a movie critic who spends most of his time watching films and making notes, hoping to create, as Peggy Olsen put it, one thing of lasting worth.