Cast: Sanya Malhotra, Abhimanyu Dassani, Purnendu Bhattacharya, Varun Shashi Rao
Director: Vivek Soni
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
She worships Rajinikanth and koi bhi film ho kaisi bhi film ho she is there without fail in the front row to celebrate Thalaiva FDFS. He does not watch movies because they put him to sleep. She loves to read. He has never gone beyond book-cricket. She is chirpy and confident. He is a painfully self-conscious introvert fixated on a career in coding, which he thinks is as good as art.
The girl is Meenakshi (Sanya Malhotra). The boy is Sundareshwar (Abhimanyu Dassani). It isn’t attraction at first sight but sheer providence that yokes the mismatched twosome together. Both belong to Madurai, the city of the famed Meenakshi Sundareshwar Temple. What’s in a name or two? A great deal in the case of these two unlike poles.
A voice on the soundtrack – it belongs to Sundar – suggests that they are destined to not only meet but also to be hitched to each other. Indeed, both events – the meeting and the arranged marriage – happen in the first quarter of the 140-minute Meenakshi Sundareshwar, directed by debutant Vivek Soni, who is also the co-writer of the film with Aarsh Vora.
The remaining one and three quarters of an hour are expended on the young couple toing and froing between their hometown and Bangalore, where the guy relocates to work for a tech company that has a weird bachelors-only hiring policy, and on their hemming and hawing to keep the marriage alive and kicking through the complications of a long-distance relationship.
Meenakshi Sundareshwar is a strange film indeed. It isn’t often that mainstream Bollywood – this is a Dharmatic Entertainment production for Netflix – delivers a story that runs for nearly two and a half hours and manages not to let anything of any apparent import transpire on the screen.
But do not let that fool you. Meenakshi Sundareshwar does, in its own unhurried and unpretentious way, capture the reality of young people who have to labour to achieve life and work balance in an era in which relationships often suffer at the altar of career goals.
One is told upfront and in no uncertain terms that one half of the Meenakshi Sundareshwar pair is an inveterate Rajinikanth fan (the walls of the former’s room are plastered with framed portraits of her favourite star). You can, therefore, be forgiven for expecting her to demand that there be no dull moments on the first night. What comes to pass is exactly the opposite.
Meenakshi insists on sharing the turmeric milk on Sundar’s bedside table. She wisecracks about the need for the two wheels of a scooter to have equal air pressure for it to run safely. However, no matter what she has on her mind, any possibility of the marriage being consummated in a rush of passion is scuttled by a message Sundar receives on his phone. He has to report for a job interview early the following morning.
He knows it is going to be a make-or-break day for him. The new-fangled engineer has been looking for a job for a year without luck. If he does not find meaningful employment soon enough, the ultimatum from his dad (Purnendu Bhattacharya) is unambiguous: he will have to spend the rest of his life hawking sarees at the family’s decades-old shop. He dreads the thought and, therefore, decides that his honeymoon can wait.
Months go by because Sundar lands an internship in a Bangalore app-producing firm and parts from his wife. Heartburn, confusion, and miscommunication ensue. The pressures of living apart for an extended period take a toll on the two and cast a long shadow on the marriage even before it has well and truly begun.
It takes Sundar many months to realise that “communication is like oxygen for relationships”, long-distance ones in particular. An old college mate of Meenakshi’s (Varun Shashi Rao) and an ultra-conservative aunt (Nivedita Bhargava) are introduced to bolster the wafer-thin plot. They queer the pitch further for the newly-married couple but do so in a manner that feels a touch contrived.
The emotional pitching that Meenakshi Sundareshwar opts for is a definite strong point of the film. The two principal characters do not rave and rant – most of their communication takes place through electronic means – nor do their parents and siblings.
A confrontation does erupt at one point between Meenakshi and her aunt-in-law but it is, mercifully, brief and believable. There are many other disagreements that threaten to tear the couple apart – the most dramatic of them stems from the misadventures triggered by Meenakshi’s decision to visit Sundar without prior warning on his birthday – but none of the purported flashpoints disrupt the understanded tone of the film.
While that may work temporarily in the context of the film’s flow, the totality of the tale is adversely affected because the ponderous quality only enhances the feeling that Sundar and Meenakshi are only beating about the bush. The film would have done well to recognise that it is essential to harmonise pace and purpose especially since Meenakshi Sundareshwar deals with what feel like everyday issues in a style in which talk takes precedence over action.
But all said and done, Meenakshi Sundareshwar isn’t a complete washout. Although the two leads never look like they are made for each other – but that, to be fair, is what the film is about – individually they do look the part. Abhimanyu Dassani conveys the gawkiness of a man with limited social skills. Sanya Malhotra exudes enough charm and controlled vivacity not be swamped by the occasional verbosity around her.
The technical attributes of Meenakshi Sundareshwar aren’t insignificant either. The songs and the background music (Justin Prabhakaran), the lyrics that range from the plaintive to the playful (Raj Shekhar) and the cinematography (Debojeet Ray) are consistently noteworthy.
Had the writing eschewed the laboured pre-climactic twists and demonstrated greater flair, Meenakshi Sundareshwar would not have, like its two principal characters, needed either divine intervention or the love of Rajinikanth for its marriage of intention and execution to work. The former outstrips the latter.
Its inconsistencies and the inert stretches notwithstanding, Meenakshi Sundareshwar papers over at least some its flaws with its beguiling simplicity.