The film, written and directed by the debutant Vivek Soni, and produced by Dharma Entertainment, is a Netflix original. It features Abhimanyu Dassani as an engineering student desperate to find a software-coding job, and Sanya Malhotra as the vivacious Bachelor of Arts student who is impressed by the young engineer’s answer that “engineers make the best husbands.”
When an arranged marriage meeting goes wrong, the bride’s thata (Shivkumar Subramaniyam) proclaims that the given names of the lead characters “Meenakshi” and “Sundareshwar” overrides any matchmaking mix up because it’s a match made in heaven. More so in the town of Madurai, where legend, history and culture are intertwined in the precincts of the 6th Century Meenakshi Sundareshwara Temple. The wedding procession outside the Meenakshi Amman temple, with the ladies dressed in their lustrous Kanchipuram silk sarees and gold jewelry, and the men attired in white lungis, is memorable. I could have spent the entire two-plus hours of the film just surveying the heritage architecture, ornate carvings, statues, and flower-garlands inside this hallowed place of pilgrimage in Madurai on the banks of river Vaigai.
It is gratifying to see the young Meenakshi conduct a mock interview of her prospective groom, get married with naïve faith, allow her husband to leave her on their wedding night to better his life, engross herself in the joint family, and even give up her job so she can teach math tables to a recalcitrant nephew (this reminded me of the unreceptive attitude of my grandson being homeschooled during COVID).
It’s exhilarating to watch Meenakshi order curry dosa, try to convince her sister-in-law to order non-veg, and break into a dance to the songs of Thalaiva Rajanikanth, flipping a towel and rocking dark glasses. But it’s not okay for Sundareshwar to leave his wife behind and try to negate her existence to his boss and coworkers. I did not like that part of the story, that too in reference to someone like Meenakshi, who like so many Indian women, is accommodating enough to accept the changes in her name, identity and life, and to take back seat when the couple’s names are inscribed on their new brass utensils.
But I found solace in Sanya’s ease with her character — her infectious grin and eye gestures felt natural. She reminds me of the incarnation of Goddess Parvati, in her confidence. Another character who leaves a mark is the athaiyai, Rukmini (Nivedita Bhargava), with her candid observations, and her prolonged fight over claiming the trendy apple-green saree for herself.
To balance out the second half of the film, I would have appreciated seeing Meenakshi engage in more spirited arguments about being treated like a doormat. But perhaps the writers wanted her to remain subservient to a husband who is Lord Shiva‘s namesake, and she remains true to her role without histrionics. However, much like Ayurvedic toothpaste, this leaves a confusing taste in the mouth.
The song Mann Kesar Kesar, with its sensuous lyrics and evocative visuals, is unforgettable! I have watched it five times. The song showcases the irrepressible joie de vivre of Meenakshi’s character. That’s what works in the first half of the movie.
The song, with music and lyrics by Justin Prabhakaran, and cinematography by Debojeet Roy, holds the enchantment of the Shiva-Parvati nuptials. Bravo! The cinematography about making her mangal sutra (thali), frying medu-vadas, with every one breaking out in spontaneous dance to the inimitable melody of shehnai, and beat of mridangam, whets our appetite for more. Setting the tone of the movie and harnessing all senses is the fragrance of sampige flowers, rava kesari, and the aromatic chandan. I am sure it has warmed the cockles of young hearts across the length and breadth of the country. That is the magic of authenticity.
Although I could not have been present at my parents’ wedding, it gives me comfort to watch Meenakshi Sundareshwar because I know that’s how my parents might have felt at their wedding. I am sure my father would have wanted to sweep my beautiful mother off her feet. This movie will always have a special place in my heart because on November 5th, 2021 (the date of the film release), my sweet mother ascended her heavenly abode to reunite with her own Sundareshwar.
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.