The problem with Meenakshi Sundareshwar is simple. It is not a bad film. But does that make it a good film? Well that is a question that is up for grabs. Here is the thing. It is November and the air is chilly. You are under your blanket and it is a lazy afternoon and you want to watch something – but you don’t know what to watch. You stumble on a film which looks decent in terms of the synopsis and you cannot go wrong with the cast on display. By the time you are done watching the film you feel a bit warmer, albeit tired (this one runs for over two hours but more on that later). You have liked the film, your afternoon was well spent and you are ready to dive back into work. It was a nice experience.
But the question remains. Is being a nice film anymore enough? Starring a brilliant Sanya Malhotra in her second Netflix outing of the year and and a gloriously watchable Abhimanyu in his debut film, Meenakshi Sundareshwar follows the simple story of two strangers who decide to get married via an arranged marriage and before they get to know each other well enough – they are thrown into the throes of a long distance relationship.
The premise is saccharine to begin with. Meenakshi is a huge Rajnikanth fan, a character trait that eventually becomes a very convenient tool to drive home the climax, and wants to work in a small firm where she can make a big difference. Sundareshwar on the other hand, is a simple and nice boy. That is it. He has no other defining trait except his honesty and his niceness. He just is. He thinks coding is an art and he wants to make a name for himself in the corporate sector and not take up his family business which involves matching falls with sarees. The saree shop, you might think, will go on to become a space where the two share a moment of abiding intimacy perhaps or discover something about the other. But the saree shop instead becomes the driving point in yet another pre-climactic conflict. After a point the contrivances are just too glaring to not notice straight away.
But the problem is not with the material at hand. The story and the premise are utterly believable. There is no question as to why Meenakshi chooses Sundareshwar. His honesty and his exuding goodness are precisely the only reasons why she takes an interest in him over the rest of her suitors. In this aspect there is deeply old world charm to this love story. We have only heard stories of such romances from people from the generation of parents. There is a lived reality to the awkwardness of the first kiss that the couple share. The moments Meenakshi spends in the house when Sundareshwar is away for an interview, playing with his shirt – pretending it to be him in person. There is a palpable desire for the unknown in the way the first kiss finally happens – in the way the couple steals moments of privacy in a joint family. These are stories we have seen in our middle class Indian households, and as long as the screenplay focuses on these moments of indifferent intimacy the film chugs along like a sun-drenched mood board. The issues arise when the film finds the need to address actual issues.
The third season of Little Things too tried to speak about the impact long-distance has on a couple in modern day India. A lot of flak has gone the way of the makers of that show too for the often glitzy nature of the production – but despite all criticism what made the third season in my opinion the best of the series was the honesty with which it talked about issues of long-distance. There was no noise about the same – the issues and conflicts were presented with quiet discomfort. But the writing was so sharp that they served a punch to the gut. We felt the pain and longing in Kavya and Dhruv and with them we too felt the anxieties of separation. But in the case of this film that never happens.
We know exactly what we are supposed to feel – but we never end up feeling it. The treatment of the film in the second half when Sundareshwar moves to Bangalore remains the same as the treatment in the first half. The colouring does not change. The isolation of a thriving concrete jungle like Bengaluru as opposed to the serenity of a small town like Madurai is hardly explored. The relationship which is the central pivot of the film too chugs along well. There are dollops of comedy (look out for a ridiculously hilarious scene of video sex gone wrong) and of course as we move along the conflicts keep coming. My issue was not even the nature of the conflicts as much as the way they were shown and resolved. Sundareshwar is not used to drinking or smoking and he is made to do both in the apartment he must now share with three other people. An ex-boyfriend who is in every way everything that Sundareshwar is not also turns up and becomes friends again with Meenakshi.
But the first time Sundareshwar drinks it is the setup for a drunken party with a dance number (which on a side note is just the right amount of peppy) where you know the moment the music sets in that everything will go wrong. The ex-boyfriend angle too leads to a very predictable showdown with the family members who (no points for guessing this) assume Meenakshi is having an extra-marital affair. Which is all fine as long as the points are driven home with some conviction. There is just too much gloss to the writing. It just isn’t sharp enough. It just isn’t sparkling enough. It just doesn’t hit hard enough.
Distance and love are tricky business and a reality we have either encountered or heard of from very close quarters and when a film which has the resources to get it right but just doesn’t, the disappointment soars. But despite these glitches the film succeeds in setting up the world. Now a lot is to be said about the decision to set the film in Madurai with practically none of the lead roles being played by Southern actors. Although I am no authority on this, the material reality of the setting does bring to mind questions like – would this story have been any different had it been in north India? Is it just the aesthetic of the Tamil house which drew the makers towards this setting? Are the accents authentic enough? Is it alright that we know that they are enacting an accent instead of speaking it? Ample food for thought. But despite these, the characters are full of life. There is the sister-in-law who says she will get along well with Meenakshi because she is a Dhanush fan herself. There is a young kid who predicts what the people around him are going to say before they say it. There is a math tutor who is brought to the first meeting of an arranged marriage simply because he is not done tutoring his student for the exams. It is hilarious.
But these moments of careful details come in bursts and spurts and are not enough to sustain an otherwise sagging film. The material is not the problem here. It is the treatment. Ultimately it comes down to the chemistry of the lead pairs to keep us entertained and sustained and invested till the closing hours of the film – which could have done with a tad sharper editor. Sanya in particular is effortlessly good. This is a character which is very detailed and she gives a deeply physical performance. The way her eyebrows get raised, the way her face twitches the way she walks. It is perfectly and fully realised to the very core.
The ending is satisfyingly sweet (almost too Dharma for the lack of a better euphemism). It has the gloss, the aesthetics right, it sure as anything elicits the performances needed to carry a film anchored by a mood more than a story where you are waiting for what happens next. It doesn’t have the sharpness of a Kapoor & Sons or the quiet rage of a Gunjan Saxena. It is content being a light watch and that is the biggest fault of the film. You know what will happen next. You know Sundareshwar will make an app which will have something to do with long-distance and relationships, you know the friend will take his revenge – you hope the couple will get back together. But the question is was the getting back something that was earned well enough by a film that clearly bites more than it is willing to chew?
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.