Meenakshi Sundareshwar movie review: Early charm gives way to a bad ad for arranged marriages

It may well be argued that this unquestioning acceptance of tradition accurately reflects most Indian homes. True enough, but if this film’s aim was to romanticise tradition, then its lack of energy and spark makes it an ineffective endorsement of arranged marriages.

Anna MM Vetticad November 05, 2021 12:41:24 IST


Language: Hindi  

Sundareshwar and his parents arrive at the home of Meenakshi, a potential bride, in urban Tamil Nadu. He is a qualified engineer intent on following his dreams, but has been served an ultimatum by his father: find a job soon or join the family’s thriving sari business. She is a business administration graduate whose goal, as she describes it, is to work for a small firm where she can make a big difference. As is common in India, the fact that both youngsters are unemployed is not a deterrent in their family’s pursuit of marriage prospects for them.

If you have watched the 2016 Telugu hit Pelli Choopulu and its Hindi, Malayalam, and Tamil remakes – Mitron (2018), Vijay Superum Pournamiyum (2019), and Oh Manapenne (released just last month) respectively – you know the plot twist served shortly after the couple meet. Unlike those films though, these two marry right away and that is how the story kicks off.

Meenakshi is a form of the Hindu goddess Parvati, Sundareshwar is a form of Lord Shiva, and the lead couple’s accidental tryst is described by a prominent character as providence. Their coming together is thus presented in the film as a result of divine intervention in the city housing the historic Meenakshi Sundareshwarar Temple - a metaphor, as it turns out, for the writers' interpretation of marriage itself. (Note: The subtitles repeatedly use “Sundareshwarar” when characters on screen say “Sundareshwar”.)

At first, the narrative’s determinedly languid pace, the unusual decision to set a Hindi film in Tamil Nadu and not north India, the avoidance of caricatures coming as it does from Bollywood where a cringe-worthy stereotype of Tamilians and south Indians at large was once a staple, the sincere effort to detail Tamil culture (in particular through the shooting of the song 'Mann Kesar Kesar') and the quiet chemistry between the lead pair give Meenakshi Sundareshwar a certain charm. I am no fan of arranged marriages, or conventional marriage per se for that matter, but Sanya Malhotra and Abhimanyu Dassani (credited here as just Abhimanyu) are sweet together, and I found myself unexpectedly rooting for their characters’ relationship. 

About an hour into Meenakshi Sundareshwar though, languor gives way to tedium when the film’s commitment to traditionalism is combined with a lack depth in the characterisation of the protagonists and the depiction of their evolution. The plot development that keeps them apart for months on end feels contrived, it soon becomes hard to figure out what makes him in particular tick, and ultimately it gets impossible to understand why on earth they remain with each other considering that they have nothing going for them. 

It is evident – and a reflection of the Indian reality – that Sundareshwar expects Meenakshi to stay invested in their relationship despite his debatable contribution to sustain it. What kills the film though is the expectation that the audience too should stay invested simply because the leads are legally married. The initial attraction between them transcends the barrier of the screen, but once that dissipates, they become uninteresting and the film itself becomes dull.

Writer-director Vivek Soni’s Meenakshi Sundareshwar is designed as an exploration of an arranged marriage involving conservative families where the couple themselves are a blend of conservatism and modernity. It is a theme worth exploring, but the screenplay by Aarsh Vora and Soni does not have either intellectual complexity or novelty. 

The weakness of the writing is especially stark when viewed in comparison with the Malayalam film Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam (The Engagement is on Monday) released last week, which is set entirely in the couple of days leading up to a betrothal featuring a reluctant bride. That film uses satire to poke holes in a social status quo, Meenakshi Sundareshwar asks no questions.

It may well be argued that this unquestioning acceptance of tradition accurately reflects most Indian homes. True enough, but if this film’s aim was to romanticise tradition, then its lack of energy and spark makes it a really bad ad for arranged marriages. 

Strange, because the narrative starts off effectively. Despite the predictable confusion in the opening scenario, the talented ensemble cast and refreshing portrayal of the bride stand out. Meenakshi is smart but not an insensitive, brusque smart ass lacking social graces written to fit contemporary Bollywood’s trite conception of a modern, independent young woman (read: Tanu Weds Manu, Tanu Weds Manu Returns and the recent Haseen Dillruba). 

Early in the film, Abhimanyu Dassani – who debuted with Vasan Bala’s Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota – nicely embodies Sundareshwar’s innocence and clinical mind. Sanya Malhotra has already displayed range in her brief career with impressive performances in Dangal and Pagglait, and as Meenakshi effortlessly conjures up chemistry with this somewhat boring boy. Besides, they look Tamilian to a T, not models in a costume drama, and thankfully do not try to mimic Tamil accents. 

Both actors and the lovely supporting artistes are left scrambling for an anchor though as the storytelling gradually becomes lifeless and the script wanders all over the place. (Minor spoilers in this paragraph) Meenakshi’s chemistry with her old flame (played well by Varun Shashi Rao) is not backed by detail in that sub-plot, and her conflict with her father-in-law comes too late to lift the by-now sputtering film. (Spoiler alert ends)

Meenakshi Sundareshwar movie review Early charm gives way to a bad ad for arranged marriages

Sanya Malhotra and Abhimanyu Dassani in Meenakshi Sundareshwar

When a Hindi film is set outside the Hindi belt, it goes without saying that the language calls for a suspension of disbelief from the audience, most certainly when it is situated in Tamil Nadu which has fought hard against the imposition of Hindi on the country since Independence. Hindi is not the natural language of this milieu, so Vivek Soni does the sensible thing of assuming that the viewer is intelligent and aware enough to know that, and tries to lend authenticity to the proceedings by throwing in snatches of Tamil here and there, in addition to recruiting several south Indians in his cast. Some of the north Indian artistes are unable to pull it off (Dassani has a noticeably Mumbai intonation when he speaks and singer Shashwat Singh does not pronounce “kanmani” correctly in 'Mann Kesar Kesar') but I would vote for this occasional stumbling any day over the cartoons of an earlier era. 

The very fact that Soni and the production company, Karan Johar’s Dharmatic Entertainment, have opted to acknowledge the existence of an India beyond the north and have done so without the usual Bollywood clichés is commendable in itself – commendable enough to forgive Meenakshi Sundareshwar’s needless and pointless Rajinikanth reference, although the strained writing of the character from the “north east” is less forgivable. 

Justin Prabhakaran rolls out a hummable soundtrack. 'Mann Kesar Kesar' – the tune, the singing by Singh and Aanandi Joshi, the harmonising and the picturisation – is my favourite of the songs. The remaining two are better when heard independently, but suffer because they enter the picture after that picture has lost its sheen.  

Meenakshi Sundareshwar has many of its nuts and bolts in place, but is lost to poor writing and to direction that confuses uneventfulness with realism, made worse by the inexorable 2 hours and 21 minutes running time. Even its goal of upholding one of the fixtures of Indian culture – the arranged marriage – remains unmet since it has no compelling arguments to offer. If you are an advocate or fan of this institution, I would recommend the Hindi classic Char Diwari starring Nanda and Shashi Kapoor, which was about how a young wife is drawn into her new life with a family of strangers. That film worked even for a cynic like me. Meenakshi Sundareshwar is unconvincing, unexciting and flat. 

Meenakshi Sundareshwar is streaming on Netflix India.

Rating: **

(Anna M.M. Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specialises in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other socio-political concerns. Twitter: @annavetticad, Instagram: @annammvetticad)

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