Director: Vivek Soni
Writers: Vivek Soni, Aarsh Vora
Cast: Sanya Malhotra, Abhimanyu Dasani, Trishaan, Purnendu Bhattacharya, Ritika Shrotri, Sukhesh Arora
Cinematographer: Debojeet Ray
Editor: Prashanth Ramachandran
To be clear, the Tamil in Meenakshi Sundareshwar is awful — a more involved, and degenerate version of what we saw in 2 States (at least that had Revathi, cushioning the cultural atrocities). This is Dharma Productions, again, trying to co-opt the Tam-Brahm agraharam architecture for aesthetic diversity. This wouldn't be too much of a problem were it not for the pronunciations, which are not just off, but comically shrill, announcing their excessively enunciated incorrectness. As if the makers were interested only in the aesthetic and not the culture they want to portray. The way they pronounce "Thalaiva" as Tha-Laai-va, (a sharp and noxious throwback to Thalaivii promotions) or even something elemental as Appa and Amma betrays an effort. The actors make sure the first and second syllables are gin-clear, as if they were just learning the language, not mixing a sound into the previous or following word, as you would in a comfortable tongue — speaking not word by word, but thought by thought.
A Hindi movie set in Madurai of all places, associated with classical Sangam literature, casting North Indian actors for South Indian parts, you have the heroine ordering jigarthanda in a mess, but calling the mess a cafe. She will wear a thaali but call it a mangalsutra. In the 2011 Linguistic Census, Tamil Nadu was noted as the state with the smallest percentage of general speakers of Hindi. But the logic of movie magic knows no census, immune to and unaffected by outrage, padded by gajra looped around a hairbun and Kanchipuram silk saris.
Meenakshi is a Rajinikanth fan, her suitor Sundareshwar cannot watch films without nodding off. She interviews him, he woos her, and a spark is lit when they first meet, then they get married within a montage song, such is the urgency. Sundar is then shipped off to Bangalore for a job, while Meenakshi waits it out in Madurai. There is a sweetness here that girds every moment when they are together and then apart, a virginal innocence that can feel cloying. They negotiate sex like a dish, and kiss like kids circling around desire without entering it. It's sweet.
The film is, for the most part, preoccupied with this sweetness, with the long distance song 'Tu Yahin Hai' cooing in Madhushree's vocals. Ill will, lacking sex, or jealousy doesn't appear as a cloud over the couple. Both the lovers have no history as such, and have never been with anyone sexually. (There is a male friend of Meenakshi who makes a sudden, awkward appearance and is dispensed with just as suddenly and awkwardly.)
When marital discord arrives, it comes with this same sweetness, making even animosity look coy, and accusations like promises. Meenakshi comes to surprise Sundar in Bangalore and realizes, unlike what he has been feeding her, he is having a blast. She is hurt. Something rankles. They part. That is the weakness with which the conflict is plotted, but in the shadow of Justin Prabhakaran's score, it is all washed down. Meenakshi Sundareswhar isn't a smart film. It is designed merely to coo.
But such is Sanya Malhotra's craft that she can trip over Tamil in her sharp-edged attempts a few dozen times, and it makes no dent on your affection towards her character. When she gets mad, she screams in Tamil, and that over-pronounced effort sounds like gibberish — I had to rewind it twice to recognize the words she spewed — but the anger is still registered and felt. She is able to bring the required amount of ambivalence to this character, the way she did in Pagglait, without which the both movies would have suffered. For her character here is empowered but oddly domesticated, modern but always sari clad, even while sleeping. The best of saris, too, silk cloth matched with cotton ikat prints in the blouse, bright magenta, deep blue, gold borders, designed by Veera Kapur. But it is Abhimanyu's sincerity which often feels like stupidity, that is a hard-sell. I guess there is a charm to being clueless and subdued, but pushed to a point, the personality rings hollow.
The vision of the film, written by Aarsh Vora and Vivek Soni, directed by Soni, is extremely neat, and the end credits is a wonderful example of this. Every frame has a meticulous quality, framed by Debojeet Ray, a kind of discipline, but also a discomfort with chaos. So in the one scene where chaos is required for the humour to land — when Sundar's mother walks in on a kinky video call of him with Meenakshi, with him in handcuffs, shirtless, and the mother thinks he is kidnapped — everything feels staged, blocked, rehearsed, and much like the Tamil, it is difficult to buy into it, for when you recognize a performance as a performance, the compelling quality of art — one that involves, entertains, titillates, provokes — dies.