Since Hindi movies are overstuffed with Punjabi slang and big fat Delhi weddings and all things North Indian, the makers of Meenakshi Sundareshwar find a new land and culture to fetishise: the Tamil Brahmin community in Madurai.
There, they find Hindi-speaking Tamilians who wear gorgeous cotton silks and gold baubles and play the Suprabhatam, who love their jigarthanda and Rajinikanth but nevertheless mangle their mother tongue and barely manage to get their tongues around the “zh” sound that vexed British colonialists.
About the most authentic Tamil accent in the 142-minute movie belongs to the pre-recorded female voice on the cellphone warning that the line is busy.
However, Vivek Soni’s debut feature isn’t a comedy about community stereotypes. Rather, Meenakshi Sundareshwar embraces the stereotype and then tries to subvert it with a zeal that can only be admired. The screenplay, by Soni and Aarsh Arora, revolves around a young couple who have an arranged marriage and forge a long-distance connection after work sends the husband to another city.
The Netflix release earnestly leaps into what appears to be an alien culture for most of its cast and crew. It has read up on the broad elements that constitute community identity and then laid out its findings with full-blooded chutzpah. This is clearly a well-researched production: the Tamil word for underwear pops up in the dialogue.
At the heart of this potential meme-fest is a love story that works in fits and starts. The spirited and confident Meenakshi (Sanya Malhotra) marries the dull and diffident Sundareshwar (Abhimanyu Dassani). It’s a union on par with the gods Parvati and Shiva, to whom the famous temple in Madurai is dedicated, declares one character (we told you their research was good).
Alas, the match between the beauty and the bore, the Rajinikanth fan and the movie hater, the reader of novels and the devotee of coding is halted before it can get fully underway. A workplace complication tears the couple apart. He moves to Bengaluru, where he struggles to prove himself and deal with a tyrannical boss (Sukhesh Arora). She stays behind in Madurai and tries to convince herself that she is having fun.
Although Sundareshwar’s father Mani (Purnendu Bhattacharya) is a domineering type, Meenakshi does not have too much trouble evading the local grapevine and going on lunch dates with her old pal Ananthan (Varun Shashi Rao). If discipline is lax in this part of Tamil Nadu, it’s being rigorously followed in Bengaluru.
The big secret that separates the newly-weds threatens to come dancing out into the open to the tune of Naan Autokaaran, causing strains in the relationship.
Except in the song Tittar Bittar, director Soni rarely acknowledges the whimsy that underpins his movie. Soni takes his contrived plot and manufactured conflicts very seriously, attempting to mine laughs and tears from awkward situations and the couple’s separation.
It’s almost impossible to overlook the safari tourism aspect , given that the film strains for credibility. Tamil words and phrases are dropped into the Hindi dialogue and Rajinikanth worship is woven into the plot. But there is barely anything authentic even for non-Tamilians in Meenakshi’s dealing with her in-laws or her general demeanour and behaviour. The actual throb and thrum of Madurai are invisible in the touristic locations and the fake Tamil flavour.
Beyond the play-acting lies a pretty-looking romance marked by loaded looks and shy smiles. Sanya Malhotra and Abhimanyu Dassani make an endearing pair, and are especially sweet when they say nothing at all, which is a relief, since neither of them can do Tamil. The stilted nature of their interactions complements the awkwardness that each of them is trying to overcome.
The soft-voiced and expressive Malhotra, in particular, is always better in the smaller moments. In a movie that misses the big picture of whatever it is trying to say, Malhotra is among the few grace notes.