At the beginning of the film, Manasa Samyuktha (Keerthy Suresh) is shown brewing a delicious cup of chai. Yes, “chai”. According to the film, if you ask a waiter in an American restaurant whether they serve “chai”, they will definitely understand what you mean. Manasa earlier calls herself a “tea addict” (not a “chai addict”, mind you) but does not bother when it comes to using the word “tea” anywhere else.
For a story based on a woman who wishes to create a business empire for Indian chai in the US, Narendra Nath’s Miss India is surprisingly childish and myopic in its approach.
But where was I? Ah yes, Manasa Samyuktha is shown brewing a delicious cup of chai. Not just “Manasa”. Not just “Samyuktha”. Manasa Samyuktha. The makers intend to make us remember her full name throughout the film, and without fail. I do not blame them. If there is anything worth remembering about this poorly-written character, it is her name and Keerthy Suresh’s performance. Everywhere she goes, she ensures that she introduces her full name to people, but what is weird is when everybody keeps calling her Manasa Samyuktha everywhere and every time. Not just “Manasa”. Not just “Samyuktha”. Manasa Samyuktha.
Once again, I digressed from the point I was making about her brewing delicious chai; however, that is exactly how the film is – it is confused (and unclear, despite praising its protagonist for her “clarity”) and has a lot to say, but ends up sidelining the very topic it is based on: chai. The opening sequence is breathtaking; the camera hovers lovingly over each ingredient used to make the special chai, and we perceive every little detail involved – be it the vapours emerging from the cup or the drops of milk mixed with the aromatic spices – almost as if we are seeing it through Manasa’s eyes. Therefore, we close our own to accept this beautiful vision which the makers have provided us, raise it to our lips to taste it … and it is bland. Cold. Because Miss India is no different from old tea in a new kettle.
Through flashbacks, we are introduced to Manasa and her middle-class family. It is the classic underdog story. They are all sedulous, hardworking people, who work even harder to rub it on our faces that they are sedulous and hardworking. Even after they move to San Francisco, they continue to stress the fact that they are middle-class people and are struggling to earn money, which makes little sense because there was a mention of Manasa’s brother pursuing robotics (the film is ambiguous about several things that way), which should ideally be providing them with a lot of income. Before their move, the family is struck by misfortune, and the sudden obstacles thrown into the story make the whole situation appear staged, fake, and almost forced; they are not of grave importance, because these are frantic efforts of the makers to showcase the female lead as fierce and determined in the face of trouble, and definitely not to provide any depth to her character. It is so clichéd that you can see these coming a mile away:
1) Father is diagnosed with stage-five Alzheimer’s? Check. He cannot work? Check. The family loses its only earning member? Check.
2) Selfish sister chooses to marry? Check. The family disowns a potential earning member? Check. More money troubles for the family? Check.
3) Grandfather dies? Check. The family is grief-stricken? Check. All right, now pack them off to the US.
Like many other things in this film (such as Manasa’s habit of looking at her feet while lying, or the significance of her rocking a black dress, for instance), these events are conveniently forgotten.
Keerthy Suresh’s character is so poorly written that we are as clueless about her aspirations as she is. When somebody asks her what she wishes to pursue, she simply says, “Business”. Business? What business? The way in which she achieves her dreams is so preposterous that we cannot help but roll our eyes. Armed with a thousand dollars, she spends it all on some of the worst marketing strategies I have ever seen, and yet, she astonishingly garners fame and appreciation faster than you can say “Manasa Samyuktha”. She establishes the company of Miss India and we wonder what her inspiration for the name was, which is yet another thing that the makers don’t bother explaining. It is perhaps expected that we will be awed and clap when she spouts motivational quotes (or the history of chai) every five minutes or when she magically solves her problems with these same quotes, but I promise you, my eyes were suffering from the severe after-effects of rolling them all the time. It also did not help when I realized that a quote by Swami Vivekananda – which was used in the conclusion – was a silent joke, as the director’s name matches the philosopher’s birth name: Narendra Nath.
Keerthy Suresh tries her best, and perhaps she deserves a cup of chai for this, unlike the others in the movie. Miss India reminded me of Keerthy’s previous disastrous OTT venture, Penguin. The screenplay, the dialogues, and the characters are no better that the latter. The dudes in the film try to appear romantic and professional, but end up with stiff expressions. Characters play Truth or Dare in a pub, of all places. The female lead is praised for explaining the concept of a SWOT analysis to her friends who are also pursuing the same degree as her. Every single Indian in Miss India coincidentally speaks Telugu. The antagonist is Telugu, the investor is Telugu, random strangers are Telugu, and in a ridiculous twist, even the Americans in the film comprehend Telugu. (This reminded me of French people speaking Telugu in World Famous Lover). A proficient coffee-manufacturing rival (Jagapathi Babu) employs a senseless tactic to combat Manasa’s growth by stationing bikini-clad women to serve coffee to his customers, and I shudder to think of how he might have achieved this position. The fact that not a single American in his Board bothered questioning it (they praised it, for god’s sake) makes me shudder some more. This is also a man who has a subordinate ready to provide a five-minute introduction for him every time he meets somebody. I half-expected him to throw a clever Boston Tea Party joke when Manasa nearly went bankrupt, in an attempt to redeem his character. Sadly, he didn’t.
This is the story of a woman who battles sexism and intense rivalry to achieve prominence. Yes, the sexism is shown everywhere – be it her brother refusing her help to carry their luggage, or during the arranged marriage family drama. But despite all this, Manasa Samyuktha does not appear as a strong, independent woman who emerges victorious in a battle against chauvinism. Whatever she attains in her life is due to the men who flock around her; she barely seems to have any agency of her own. She gets her first job from a man who is clearly attracted to her, gets an investor who is clearly attracted to her, earns her first thousand dollars from a rival who sees her as a “hot” or “beautiful” woman rather than a contender with mettle and talent, and acquires a chai recipe and a life goal from her grandfather. Whatever obstacles she overcomes, whatever she achieves, seems to be purely due to luck, rather than her own intelligence and planning. I am sorry, Narendra Nath, but plainly depicting a woman who refuses to marry is not how you show how capable she is. Be it the business angle, or the sexism themes, or even the recipe of the special chai, this was, simply put, not my cup of tea. A rushed (and absurd) climax sequence and an unnecessary plot twist gave me the post-Penguin cringe. If anything, the beautiful shots of San Francisco and the music by S. Thaman are the only relieving factors.
Miss India tries to fill its empty cup of a plot with too many things, but it ends up spilling all over. There is nothing significant about the title either. You could call it ‘Manasa Samyuktha’ for all I care, and nobody would bat an eyelid.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.