Meenakshi Sundareshwar is a small step towards more grounded depiction of South Indians in popular Hindi cinema

What Meenakshi Sundareshwar tries to do is open a little window of assimilation and acknowledgment, which is only the first step in a long journey towards normalising the presence of South India, without exotifying it.

BH Harsh November 08, 2021 10:19:47 IST
Meenakshi Sundareshwar is a small step towards more grounded depiction of South Indians in popular Hindi cinema

Meenakshi Sundareshwar released to mixed responses from both critics and audience. Directed by debutante Vivek Soni, the film tells the story of a newly-married couple who manoeuvre their way around small-town conservatism, trying to work around the travails of a long-distance relationship. The film has a lot of freshness in its execution, even though it suffers from some unevenness in its writing, and a weak final act.

But there is something that sets the film quite apart from any other contemporary Hindi film — the fact that it is entirely set in South India, and revolves exclusively around South-Indian people. Meenakshi Sundareshwar is a rare Hindi film with zero North-Indian visual presence.

There is no denying that popular Hindi cinema has largely been North-centric, featuring North-Indian protagonists with surnames like Mehra, Verma, Saxena, Khanna, and Kapoor. We rarely see a Banarjee, Parekh, or a More in a hero’s role. And yet, other northern states like Gujarat, Rajasthan or Uttar Pradesh have been visible in some form or the other, albeit with their share of stereotypes — playing peripheral parts in a story driven by the others.

Meanwhile, by choice or coincidence, our mainstream filmmakers just have not carved any visible space for South-Indian characters or set a story in South India all these years. As a result, South India has largely remained absent from our canvas (save for the location of Ooty that was once a frequent visual in our musical interludes in films from the '80s and '90s.)

Ask any regular Hindi film fan about a memorable South-Indian character, and they shall most probably recall films like Ra.One and Chennai Express, which used the elements and milieu of South India only for the sake of exotic flavouring and easy laughs, instead of making any statement towards South-Indian representation. (The visual of Shah Rukh Khan eating Spaghetti pouring curd all over it was one for the Razzies). Such casual representations have been harboured because of a presumed notion that compared to the rest of the nation, South Indians carry their identity and culture on their sleeves a lot more prominently. (Special mention has to be made here of the Hindi-dubbed movies from the South that rule the roost of TV ratings these days, and yet perhaps serve to its viewers as old-fashioned larger-than-life melodramas, while the mainstream Hindi movies continue to get away from the genre.)

Meenakshi Sundareshwar is a small step towards more grounded depiction of South Indians in popular Hindi cinema

Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone in a still from Chennai Express

Perhaps it all started with Padosan (1968), where Mehmood’s broad portrayal of a Carnatic music teacher was possibly the first bonafide representation in popular cinema of a ‘South Indian’ (as if it was one large state, instead of four different states then). In a rather coincidental turn of events, the otherification of South Indian communities was happening in Bombay around the same time, with Bal Thackeray openly calling for boycott and violence upon the Udupi restaurants. It pushed further away from the hope of a balanced, non-stereotypical representation of a South Indian.

While the form of mainstream cinema has changed gears significantly, the representation of South Indian people in Hindi cinema, however, has remained conspicuously lopsided. They are either confined to hit-and-miss parts in comic relief segments or are absent altogether. Even in films that are cosmopolitan by nature, and play little around a characters’ nativity, there is seldom any space made for a South Indian in these narratives. Films like Wake up Sid, Luck By Chance, and Love Aaj Kal have had cosmopolitan female protagonists who are moving to different cities for their work or career, and they are never from South India. Would Ayesha Banarjee (Konkana Sensharma) in Wake Up Sid have lost any of her charm as a free-minded woman had she come from Hyderabad or Chennai?  A progressive woman from West Bengal would always be more easily acceptable than one from Tamil Nadu or Kerala. That is the subliminal message passed on with writing decisions like these.

The rare occasion when a South Indian character is a protagonist (Ek Duje Ke Liye, 2 States), their nativity is often the cause of conflict as they find themselves seeking societal acceptance for a relationship with someone from the north. Very rarely have the filmmakers let a South-Indian just be.

Meenakshi Sundareshwar is a small step towards more grounded depiction of South Indians in popular Hindi cinema

Alia Bhatt in a still from 2 States

Eventually, the responsibility of ensuring South Indian representation has been undertaken by filmmakers who hailed from those states. In Company, Ram Gopal Varma wrote a Malayali Cop Srinivasan (played by Mohanlal) whose outsider status in Mumbai does not deter him from making a dent in the underworld scene. In Raj and DK’s Shor in the City, we had Saawan Murthy, a middle-class Telugu boy living in Mumbai and harbouring cricketing ambitions. In Mani Ratnam’s Yuva, Vivek Oberoi played Arjun, a Tamil-Brahmin living in Kolkata who, in perfect sync with his cosmopolitan outlook, cannot wait to begin his life in the US.

One could argue that this subdued hostility goes both ways, considering how most of the resistance to Hindi imposition has come from the southern states all these years, not to mention how, besides the Mumbai film industry, it is the south that holds fort for the most thriving movie industries in the country. A controversy had recently sparked off around the Tamil film Jai Bhim on similar lines, where a Tamil character played by Prakash Raj slaps a character deliberately speaking in Hindi, and trying to elude a blunt line of questioning, despite knowing Tamil.

Amidst such an environment, with an industry like Hindi cinema being this focused on homogenising cultural representation, a film like Meenakshi Sundareshwar tows a super-thin line, between sufficiently playing on the cultural elements of a certain milieu without looking stereotypical or caricaturish.

What Meenakshi Sundareshwar tries to do here is open a little window of assimilation and acknowledgment, which is only the first step in a long journey towards normalising the presence of South India, without exotifying it.
Some reviewers have argued that Madurai, where the story essentially takes place, has been incorporated merely for the aesthetic value. And I say, why not? Why does it have to be such an objectionable conceit?
Meenakshi Sundareshwar is a small step towards more grounded depiction of South Indians in popular Hindi cinema

Sanya Malhotra and Abhimanyu Dassani in Meenakshi Sundareshwar

Of course, this film could have been set anywhere else, and possibly that is the point. There is a difference between a location of a film and that of a story, and Meenakshi Sundareshwar works on that principle, being set in Madurai but not so deeply embedded into it either, rather simply attempting to tell a universal story offering a freshness in its visuals. For an industry that has treated a South-Indian milieu like an anomaly, perhaps an ushering through mere landscape and aesthetics should nevertheless be a welcome enough addition. It is the normalising of these visuals and landscapes that is important, to begin with.

This reminds me of Shimit Amin’s Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009), which had a Sikh protagonist. Harpreet (Ranbir Kapoor) could have been Harsh Shah or Hemant Kale for that matter, but writer Jaideep Sahni took a risk and went ahead with a Sikh protagonist. Because why not? (while we are at it, one must mention the brilliance with which Sahni incorporated Harpreet’s religious identity into his character, without making it an overt part of his personality — not that it would have been wrong either)

Meenakshi Sundareshwar maintains a good balance between cultural specifics and narrative universality. There are several visuals and moments unique to the community’s culture. When we see Meenakshi (Sanya Malhotra) overhearing the conversation between her family and prospective in-laws, she has a filter coffee tumbler to keep her company. It is a small touch but goes a long way in establishing authenticity around the visual. The customs and rituals are integrated in a very low-key manner, and yet they register. When an elderly woman finds her gaze stuck on a beautiful sari, the reference she thinks is aptly that of Nayanthara, a popular Tamil actress — instead of, say, Deepika Padukone. The cuisines that we frequently see are mentioned with specific names as used down in the South — instead of the generic ‘Idli-Dosa.’

On the other hand, there are several moments designed to be relatable and universal. Sundar (Abhimanyu Dassani) telling Meenakshi about the book-cricket game is a memory straight out of '90s nostalgia. The secret affair pursued by Sundar’s sister could be a ruse at any North Indian household, and nothing could be more universal than the disapproving patriarch, who always undermines his own son and his capabilities, and very vocally so.

Above all, the problems that the newly-married couple faces in managing their relationship hold a lot of resonance — be it the tribulations of a long-distance relationship or handling the temper of elder, skeptic family members, or the little moments of daydreaming escapades in the midst of being surrounded by everyone.

And yet, this here is a predominantly South-Indian universe, where North-Indians are barely present as ‘extras,’ if at all. The film divides its time between the old-worldly Madurai and the cosmopolitan Bangalore. Even the other engineering lads are South Indian, and far removed from the stereotypes. The boss is an eccentric metropolitan guy, who could only be identified as a South Indian because of his name. (In a clever bit, the only non-South Indian character is Diganta, a North-eastern boy who sheepishly admits to “being that rare North-east guy who does not play the guitar”).

Meenakshi Sundareshwar is a small step towards more grounded depiction of South Indians in popular Hindi cinema

Sanya Malhotra and Abhimanyu Dassani in Meenakshi Sundareshwar

This idea of a cosmopolitan-yet-local fabric of the universe reflects most effectively through its female protagonist Meenakshi (Sanya Malhotra is undoubtedly the best thing about the film), who constantly defies our expectations. From the word go, Meenakshi looks more or less in charge of her life (even though we see her partake in a conservative arranged marriage setup.) She is ambitious, wanting to make a difference through her work. That is what draws her towards Sundareshwar as well — that he aims to venture out on his own, instead of safely partaking in the family business.

On their first meet, she breaks the ice by playfully moulding their conversation like a job interview. She is a fan of both Haruki Murakami and Uvamai Kavignar. So for a character with such an urban, progressive outlook, her love for Rajinikanth works in a subversive manner, instead of coming across as a stereotype (even though it does not add much to the plot.)  In comparison, Sundareshwar, a soft-spoken simpleton at heart who does not seem to have anything else in his life besides work and family, comes off as rather dull and insipid. And yet, his ambition to lead a career-driven life strikes a chord.

And then there is the language. Some of the audience members have seemingly found it difficult to digest Hindi-speaking Tamilians. However, one must remember that the very idea of a Hindi language film in itself entails the leap of faith that every character, no matter their city or region, is constantly speaking in Hindi. When we buy a ticket for a Hindi film, that is something we agree to. It is an unsaid understanding under which Meenakshi Sundareshwar operates. How else have we accepted films like Devdas, Parineeta, and Maachis then?

None of this is to dilute the shortcomings of the film. As pointed out by some of the responses, the film could have had a cast with more actors who are comfortable with the language, in order to lend authenticity to the dialogue (an aspect which particularly stuck out for the Tamil viewers). Also, as evident in the reception by critics, perhaps the writers could have made better efforts to integrate the milieu into the story. And yet it remains that Meenakshi Sundareshwar took an important, albeit somewhat flawed, step towards inclusivity in popular Hindi cinema. And if anything, this should act as a stepping stone for leading filmmakers, and remind them of yet another avenue that is open for them as well as the audience, if only the cards are played right.

Meenakshi Sundareshwar is streaming on Netflix India.

BH Harsh is a film critic who spends most of his time watching movies and making notes, hoping to create, as Peggy Olsen put it, something of lasting value.

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