Sundar (Nani) is a Brahmin, Leela (Nazriya Nazim) is a Christian, and Ante Sundaraniki is about their struggles to get married. This is all the movie is about, and by this short, one-line description, you might wonder, "So what?" We have seen millions of rom-coms and this genre rarely surprises us at all. Its beats, twists, and turns have become as familiar as ABC. Boy meets girl, family opposes the union, a plan is hatched, tears are shed, and they finally get together. How do you make this done-to-death material fresh?
Ask writer-director Vivek Athreya because he has an answer. One of the things he does in the film is that he creates an unreliable narrator. Sundar will ask for one hour of your time and narrate his past, but he wouldn't tell you the whole story. Take the scene from a flashback where he throws a bottle at an image. At first, you believe this action is the result of all the frustrating rituals Sundar has to bear. However, the same scene played the second time reveals that he threw the bottle because he was angry his crush had found someone else. This is not simply a gimmick. The film has this narrative style as Sundar tries to deceive others so that he and Leela can marry each other. By disclosing details slowly and strategically, Ante Sundaraniki maintains suspense, excitement, unpredictability, and a sense of discovery.
Another interesting approach taken by Athreya is that he gives different tones to the couple. When we watch Sundar's life, the mood is jokey. Although you do register how vexing it might be for him to live in a family that is overly concerned about him (they don't let him ride a two-wheeler, as a priest tells them it would bring bad luck to him), the scenes themselves are handled with humor and move energetically, so you mostly laugh at everything. On the other hand, the events at Leela's house are unfolded with a little more seriousness. You feel sad for her when she doesn't find her name mentioned in a review or when she is mocked by her classmates for wanting to stand out from the crowd. The pacing too in these portions is relaxed, giving the movie the opportunity to breathe. The difference in the tone not only adds to the fact that these two people belong to different worlds. But dig a little deeper, and you will find that the variation in tone also conveys how a woman has more burden on her than a man. When a problem arises, the girls are more severely treated than the boys. Hence, when Leela and Sundar return home from the US, she receives a slap from her mother after the pregnancy test, which lands like a blow on our senses, and he has an argument with his father, which is played out in a humorous manner.
In a typical rom-com, most of the attention is showered on the lead couple, while the other characters are pushed to the background or relegated to play brainless caricatures. The parents are rarely an exception, and sometimes, we don't even see them. In Ante Sundaraniki, the parents not only play an important role but behave like real people. They do not merely act foolish or serve as a source of comic relief. They are smart and use their brains to analyze and tackle a situation. Sundar's father does not blindly trust his son's lies. But he manages to conclude that Sundar is telling whoppers to get married to a woman of his choice. He also takes him to various clinics to verify the truth regarding his impotence. Leela's mother also forces her to take a pregnancy test at home before fully believing her. Even her sister advises her to only go ahead with such a big lie if she thinks Sundar is worthy. The characters in Ante Sundaraniki are perceptive and intelligent. Sundar recognizes that her mother is acting happy for his sake because when she is genuinely elated, she sheds tears of happiness. During such a moment, these people appear not as props but as inhabitants of a real world who possess intimate knowledge about one another.
However, Ante Sundaraniki is deft enough to flip a switch and transmute its world from real to fanciful. When a musician gives up music, her veena flies up in the air. When two people deeply fall in love, they don't move but float forward. During intensive planning, the younger versions of the two characters also join the discussion. Ante Sundaraniki consists of artists (singer, model/actor, photographer), and an artist's mind shifts between fantasy and realism.
Watching Ante Sundaraniki, I couldn't guess what would happen next or eventually, for that matter. The movie keeps throwing surprises, and you lap it up like an overexcited kid. I didn't know whether the adult Sundar and Leela met before arriving at the airport or if their plan currently is to elope. After the very unforeseeable first half, I wondered if the movie would run out of ways to keep things interesting. But it continued to astonish me.
The film stops itself from giving a lecture. It understands that the more lies the characters create, the more its point about the difficulties of interfaith marriage becomes clear. Even when a character scolds someone regarding their beliefs, it doesn't seem like a speech. It's a rebuke to their actions.
The handful of posts I came across online labelled Ante Sundaraniki as "lighthearted, easy-to-watch entertainment." The intention of these posts might be to praise the movie, but I believe that the words "lighthearted" and "easy-to-watch" do a major disservice to the film's quality. It misleads you to expect something along the lines of, say, Meenakshi Sundareshwar. Athreya's film, however, takes the clichés, rearranges them, and converts them into something fresh, stylish, original, and unpredictable. He really reinvents the wheel and keeps you occupied and guessing for the whole 176 minutes of runtime, during which you forget everything about your surroundings and are greatly absorbed in the film. That makes Ante Sundaraniki cinema for me. It's not just one of the best, but also one of my favourite films of the year.