Time stamp 47.09: In the Silapathikaram story, all of Madurai is said to have burned. Right now, my stomach is burning on behalf of the city that half my relatives call home.

Screegrab for Meenakshi Sundareshwar Review Screengrab/NetflixIndia
Flix Film Commentary Tuesday, November 09, 2021 - 19:20

As a Tamil, as someone who writes regularly on cinema, I’m asking Bollywood, on humanitarian grounds at least, to stop making movies about us. The few who know me well enough are aware I can happily digest huge helpings of cringe-content, but Meenakshi Sundareshwar has me struggling to keep my lunch and temper down. It’s only been 9 minutes into the movie when I write these lines.

Madurai has seen few worse insults than this hapless film. Also, vazhakkai bajji is made with raw plantains. It is quite popular all over Tamil Nadu, not specific to Madurai. It is a savoury dish. However, the dessert served to the potential groom’s family with an extended comic sequence thrown in? It’s called pazham pori. It happens to be from the neighbouring state of Kerala, but that’s okay, we don’t expect most north Indians to even be able to name all five states in the south. Correctly identifying each state on a map or more complicated tasks like knowing the cuisines of individual states, is beyond Bollywood, I understand.

By the way, it’s pronounced Meen-aak-shee here, oh filmmaker (Vivek Soni) supposedly so fascinated by Madurai’s famous temple that he’s named his female lead after the same. No Tamil and certainly no one in Madurai says “Min-akshi.”

“Engineers make the best husbands,” says the potential groom and lead character Sundareshwar at around 12 minutes 47 seconds into the film. I’d just recommend the filmmaker watch VIP 2 that can a) for the most part, assure you that they do not, b) teach you how to make cringe content marketable at least.

The film, once the wedding is fixed, intensifies its mission to strip away the actual culture of the state for a Brahminical imagination of Tamils. Even the adaptation of the Chetan Baghat novel Two States would at this point be ruing its missed opportunities at cultural misrepresentation.  

Time stamp 47.09: In the Silapathikaram story, all of Madurai is said to have burned. Right now, my stomach is burning on behalf of the city that half my relatives call home. What is this Brahminical, vegetarian version of the city that seems to have been filmed mainly inside Dakshinachitra outside of Chennai city limits instead of Madurai? Where is the real Madurai — the land of seeraga samba biriyani, brotta, varieties of meat dishes? I’m strongly reminded at this point of Suresh Raina’s reply to the question, “How do you like Tamil Nadu?”The famed cricketer said, “I like it a lot because I’m also Brahmin,” about a state where the Brahmin population is barely 2% and historic movements have taken place to break their hegemony. 

Again and again, we see that a non-meat eating, agraharmesque version of Tamil Nadu is all that has registered in the collective north Indian memory. That excruciating sequence of “Min-akshi” and another character telling each other they don’t eat meat before secretly ordering kari dosai (nobody in the scene seems sure how to even pronounce it) is really, really not representative of most Madurai folks, I assure you.

At 58.16, I’m questioning my career choice itself. My job is the only reason I’ve made it this far into the movie without cancelling my Netflix account or seriously considering an early afternoon drink to help erase the memory of the last one hour. Friendly advice: Googling “how to make a long distance relationship work”, even if you are in the IT industry, is perhaps not the ideal way to keep the romance alive. Have you considered, I don’t know, just getting to understand your partner(s)?

I made it to 02.09.20. This itself is an accomplishment. The flood of relief that the film is almost over has however stuttered to a halt. Inside Madurai’s Sri Meenakshi (groan) Theatre is playing the AR Murugadoss-directed Rajini film Darbar (2020). One filmmaker and writer from Tamil Nadu commented on their social media after watching Meenakshi Sundareshwar that the protagonist’s delight watching Darbar defies believability. Darbar was so bad that even Rajini fans had trouble stomaching it. Unlike “Min-akshi”, I’m a true Superstar fan and the only reason I hadn’t run away during the interval break of Darbar was because I was too shell-shocked by how awful the film was to even move from my seat. Clearly, Vivek Soni has zero idea of Rajini’s hits and misses among his fan base. I doubt this aspect mattered to him, since the stereotype of Rajini-loving Tamils was all he was aiming for.

This stereotype extends to the level of it being a plot point to move the climax sequence in the film. Can the couples whose romance has been restored at a Darbar screening please stand up?

Finished watching Meenakshi Sundareshwar, what else?

One writer, in a well-known news platform, says that Meenakshi Sundareshwar avoids “exotifying” south Indians and represents us without using stereotypes or caricatures. The writer is also of the opinion that the film “normalizes'' our existence. I have many questions starting with, is there a different, geo-locked version of this film for only north Indian viewers, because exotifying, caricatures, and stereotypes pretty succinctly describe the version of Meenakshi Sundareshwar we Tamils have suffered. Secondly, Tamils and the rest of south India have existed for generations, despite the Hindi belt politicians' continued attempts at cultural colonization. I’d go so far as to say, many of us delight in how the south remains a bastion against these attempts. If “normal” means a Brahminical-friendly homogenisation, no thanks, we don’t want in.   

Regarding the casting of north Indians who can’t speak a word of Tamil to star in a film centered around Madurai, grating as it is, I suppose Tamil cinema has itself to blame too. If our industry didn’t have such an obsession with pale north Indians who don’t even speak the language, to the point that it appears the industry despises dark-skinned Tamil women, I’d be able to call out the infuriatingly alien casting choice by Vivek Soni with more authority. Most Tamil film directors appear to wish that the women of our state looked like north Indians. Bollywood has delivered to them the same.

To the Tamils and other south Indians who have not watched Meenakshi Sundareshwar yet, I envy you. Carry on blissful ignorance of this more than two hour long trolling of us, and consider if Netflix is still worth spending on.

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