Meenakshi Sundereshwar: A Small Film With a Big Heart

The biggest leap Vivek Soni’s Meenakshi Sundereshwar takes is that it is set in Tamil Nadu. A prominently Hindi film, set in a state and culture that has objected the “nationalisation” of the Hindi language since Independence is a bold move. But Soni and co-writer Aarsh Vora masterfully manage to create a nuanced, cultural Hindi film set in Tamil Nadu. They manage, rather beautifully, with some Tamil dialogues, gajras, food, dance and gorgeous Kanjeevaram sarees. Some Hindi actors are unable to get rid of their North Indian/Mumbai-ness but, even the weaker links manage through. And that is the biggest victory of Meenakshi Sundereshwar.

Set in the beautiful town of Madurai, Meenakshi Sundereshwar is about a coincidence. One of the characters in the film calls it providence. So, it’s assumed, even though there is a massive confusion in the initial scenes, that Meenakshi (played by a terrific Sanya Malhotra) and Sundereshwar (played by an honest Abhimanyu Dassani) have come together by a way of divine intervention. For the first half of the film, you are happy about this said intervention, but after that, it’s a little painful to sit through. This is an arranged marriage. Both Meenakshi and Sunder do not know anything about each other, of course beyond the names, hobbies and other superficial information. On their wedding night, Sunder gets a job interview, then an offer and has to move to Bengaluru, and she can’t go with him. They stay apart for months, and as and when we see them losing grip on their marriage, the writers lose theirs on the writing. While in Madurai, the film is beautiful. In Bengaluru, emotions start to fade away and don’t seem to return until the very end, and by that time, it’s too late.

Sanya Malhotra is not only talented, but also irresistible in a very charming way.

I have no opinion on the concept of arranged marriages. If it works for you, it works for you. It’s a very individual call. However, in the Indian society, more often than not, it’s the only call. Meenakshi Sundereshwar isn’t the kind of film to challenge this tradition. In fact, it is an ode to it. The recently resealed Haseen Dillruba, also on Netflix, showed us the horrific aftermath of an arranged marriage. Meenakshi Sundereshwar reinforces our faith in the tradition. What was the end of the world for Rani (Taapsee Pannu in Haseen Dillruba), is solace for Meenakshi. But neither Meenakshi, nor Sunder have enough meat to them to keep their relationship going beyond a point. And as their marriage wobbles, so does the audiences’ interest in this relationship. In one scene, when Meenakshi’s friend asks her what’s wrong with her marriage, she says, “ab hum aur kya wale phase main hain, baat karne ke lie kuch hai hi nahi.” The second half of the film felt a lot like this dialogue.

And this left me disappointed, because the film starts off on a wonderful note, and has it going for itself for the first hour. Romanticising tradition isn’t an easy theme to play with but for Meenakshi Sundereshwar it works. It is when the film begins to step out of this theme that it starts to shake. Having said all of this, nothing takes away from the fact that this is a film with a big heart. Watch out for the supporting cast – Meenakshi and Sunder’s families, especially the latter’s. Meenakshi comes from a nuclear family, Sunder from a joint one. She mixes so well with her new family, that it’s striking. Look out for the women in the film and the relationship they share, and the beautiful sarees that they wear.

Abhimanyu Dassani, credited as just Abhimanyu, gives an honest performance. His control over Sunder is remarkable, as is the consistency in his performance. I don’t know if his stoop is natural or enacted, but I loved the body language he lends to an under confident Sunder, and also how he emotes in silence. There are moments in which he falters, but most of them, like his Mumbai-ness, are forgivable.

But the real star of the show is Sanya Malhotra. Malhotra is one of my favourite Hindi actors. Within a short span of time, she’s proved that she’s not only talented, but also irresistible in a very charming way. She lights up the screen every time she appears, and in Meenakshi Sundereshwar that happens for almost every single second (not literally, but yeah). As Meenakshi, she’s both empowered and traditional. Malhotra balances between Meenakshi’s characteristics with perfect ease. Even in the most emotional sequences, she holds her ground and doesn’t overdo a single scene. Watch out for her moments of silence too. She aces them!

Meenakshi Sundereshwar has a lot working for it, a lot doesn’t. But it has its heart in the right place. It’s a small film, with a genius theme. The idea is great, but underwriting takes the cake. However, nothing takes away from the fact that Meenakshi is going to go down as one of Sanya Malhotra’s finest performances, she’s that good! And what’s even better than her is the music by Justin Prabhakaran. Mann Kesar Kesar will win your heart away!

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