Director: Vivek Soni
Writers: Vivek Soni, Aarsh Vora
Cast: Sanya Malhotra, Abhimanyu Dassani, Trishaan, Purnendu Bhattacharya, Ritika Shrotri, Sukhesh Arora
Cinematographer: Debojeet Ray
Editor: Prashanth Ramachandran
Meenakshi, one half of the couple in Meenakshi Sundareshwar, is a beguiling woman. She comes from a traditional, middle-class Tamilian family in Madurai and is content to have an arranged marriage. But within that marriage, she wants companionship, sexual adventure, honesty and sparkle. It’s the first time she is living in a joint family but she’s adept at fitting in. She is respectful and loving toward her in-laws but when provoked, she firmly pushes back. She can be petulant and mischievous – in their first meeting, Meenakshi tells a fumbling Sundareshwar, ‘Mujhe nervous logon ko aur nervous karne mein bahut maza aata hai.’ But she is also wise and forgiving. And above all, she is a Rajnikanth fan. Thalaiva lights up her life.
Sanya Malhotra portrays Meenakshi with a wonderful lightness of being. Like she did in Pagglait, released earlier this year, Sanya propels the film without showy histrionics. This is an actor with emotional transparency who brings a character alive with small gestures and expressions. Even when she is doing a Rajinikanth impression, she stays in character so it is Meenakshi impersonating Rajnikanth. And even in moments of grief, Sanya doesn’t overplay the drama. She is both imminently relatable and watchable.
So is the first hour of Meenakshi Sundareshwar. Director Vivek Soni, who has co-written the romantic comedy with Aarsh Vora, sets up the relationship between Meenakshi and Sundareshwar with warmth and wit. The two meet accidentally but the match seems celestially ordained – Meenakshi Sundareshwar, another name for Shiv-Parvati, is also one of the most revered temples in Madurai. But the couple’s wedding night remains unconsummated because Sundareshwar has to leave early to report to a job in Bengaluru. Even before they have a chance to be friends, Meenakshi and Sundareshwar also have to shoulder the burden of a long-distance relationship.
With precise writing and deft camerawork – the DOP is Debojeet Ray – Vivek establishes the families of Meenakshi and Sundareshwar, the various characters and the tensions within them. Sundareshwar doesn’t want to join the family’s saree business. His passion is coding, which he describes as an art. His father’s casual disdain, his nephew’s precociousness, the warmth between the women in the family is nicely etched – at the wedding, Sundareshwar’s bhabhi declares that since Meenakshi is a Rajinikanth fan and she is a Dhanush fan, they were always meant to be family. The film is peppered with these lovely asides.
Vivek also does well with the growing attraction between Meenakshi and Sundareshwar – the hesitant exchanges, the sly hand holding, their slow discovery of who the other is. The affable awkwardness of their first kiss will make you smile. Meenakshi and Sundareshwar are the opposite of another movie couple who have an arranged marriage – Rishu and Rani in Haseen Dillruba. If those two gave us a twisted take on the aftermath of marrying a stranger, Meenakshi and Sundareshwar make a solid case for why it continues to be the preferred mode for so many young people.
Abhimanyu Dassani brings a low-key charm and amiable conventionality to Sundareshwar. This is a man who wears the color blue because it is safe. Sanya’s character has more verve but Abhimanyu doesn’t try to upstage his co-star. Both hit the right notes. You want Meenakshi and Sundareshwar to find happiness.
The Madurai portions have specificity and detailing with solid casting by Taran Bajaj – the hapless tutor who can’t get Sundareshwar’s nephew to learn his math tables was my favorite. Vivek also skillfully roots the narrative in the sights and sounds of the city. The rituals of the two families, the cuisine, the Kanjeevaram saris, mangalsutras and gajras in the hair – all add to the lived-in textures of the film. Watch how Vivek uses a long corridor with windows in Meenakshi’s home, first as a space for romance and later, melancholy. Meenakshi and Sundareshwar stealing glances across the barred windows is old world in the best sense of the word.
But the writing and staging becomes broader when the narrative shifts to Bengaluru. Sundareshwar’s boss, who is pathologically competitive – he insists on hiring only single people because they are likely to have more focus – and Sundareshwar’s colleagues aren’t given any depth. The boss feels like a poorly imagined, bargain-basement version of the eccentric, rock-star founder typified by masters like Steve Jobs.
The plotting also starts to falter. Vivek and Aarsh get lazy in their maneuvering. They rely on tired devices like a jealous work colleague and an overbearing relative to push Sundareshwar and Meenakshi into corners. It’s too contrived. And even though the film gives Meenakshi ambition – she speaks about preferring to work in a smaller space where she can make a big difference – the narrative doesn’t do much with it. I think many of the issues the couple face could have been solved if Meenakshi had found a job she could put her energy into. She might have been grateful for the long-distance husband then!
What doesn’t stumble is the terrific soundtrack by Justin Prabhakaran – especially the gorgeous ‘Mann Kesar Kesar’ and the thumping ‘Vaada Machaney’, which deserves to become a party anthem. The music infuses vitality into the film.
Meenakshi Sundareshwar doesn’t realise its full potential but the film is sweet and undemanding enough.
You can watch it on Netflix India.