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I was born and brought up in Tamil Nadu. My mother tongue is Hindi and I grew up studying Tamil in school. Given all this, I am no stranger to how different cultures and languages can co-exist beautifully. However, Meenakshi Sundareshwar, which released recently on Netflix, does not get that mix right.
Before I even start addressing the representation issues in the movie, questions that immediately strike a viewer are, “Why would you even want to make a Hindi movie which revolves around two Tamil families? How does that make sense from a linguistic point of view?” Once we manage to somehow move past that without any satisfactory answers, we can look at how Meenakshi Sundareshwar deals with representation.
Meenakshi Sundareshwar starts off by telling the viewers that it is a story based in Madurai, a district in Tamil Nadu. They then proceed to show us a beautiful, traditional household which is clearly in Karaikudi, another district in Tamil Nadu. I know this because I have attended a gorgeous Tamil wedding of a friend in her ancestral Karaikudi house. So that is strike one for the movie.
While Sanya Malhotra is an incredible actor in this movie as well, neither she nor any of the other actors in the movie speak Tamil (excepting one or two who speak more in Hindi than in Tamil throughout the movie). Why would a Tamil family living in Madurai converse in Hindi with each other? Throwing around a few words like Illa or Seri or Apdiya does not count, since these words have often been used as vehicles of stereotyping in Hindi movies in the past. Tamil, which is one of the oldest languages in our country, has a long and wonderful tradition and it is hard for non-natives to get the zha sounds right. So why would you not take the easy and sensible way out and make the movie authentic by casting Tamil leads who can speak Tamil and Hindi? (Such people do exist, in case you are wondering.) Now that is strike two, and a major irritant at that.
Let us now move on to Bollywood’s obsession with Rajinikanth. I am a huge fan of the actor and have been following his work for years (even as his quality of movies have deteriorated in the recent past). However, Rajini and Kamal Hassan do not make up the entire Tamil film industry (or Kollywood) despite what mainstream Hindi movies might make you think. How much longer are Hindi movies going to fixate on Thalaivar? Can we move on to Vijay Sethupathi or even Sivakarthikeyan for that matter? (If you don’t know who they are, here is your chance to do a little research.) I am going to refrain from commenting on the scene where Sanya Malhotra seems deliriously excited watching Darbar in the theatre (or the scene with the saree that Nayantara supposedly wears in Bigil, a movie where she barely had a role) as a lot of people have commented on that already. Strike three for Meenakshi Sundareshwar.
If the creators of the movie had taken a little more effort and undertaken some basic research, they would have known that waiters in Madurai do not speak Hindi. They would have known that there is more to Madurai cuisine than kari dosa and jigarthanda (how can they not talk about parotta and salna?). They would have known better than to pass off a proper Karaikudi house as one based in Madurai. They would have known better than to play the Suprabatham at a time other than early morning. Finally, they would not have made the lead actors speak 99.9 percent of the time in Hindi.
At the very least, they could have probably tried justifying a lot of the issues by explaining the ancestry of the two families and why they speak Hindi primarily at home (which still would not have solved the problem of all the people in Madurai speaking in Hindi, but let us tackle one issue at a time.)
With OTT platforms enabling viewers to consume content from across the world without any language barriers owing to subtitles, the creators of Meenakshi Sundareshwar have no excuse. While there were several significant problems with it, Family Man, for instance, showed how different languages and cultures can co-exist authentically while remaining true to their roots, with regional actors representing their states and languages accurately. I fervently hope that Meenakshi Sundareshwar is the last Bollywood film which will disappoint South Indians like me with worn out stereotypes which revolve around false representations of Tamil people, limited again to a very narrow population – the upper class and the upper caste.
One good thing that has come out of it is however the fun memes and sarcastic takes on how the so-called mainstream Indian population sees (read stereotypes) the South.
Nanditha Ravindar is a development sector professional and a communications specialist with a soft spot for everything pertaining to gender and education. A voracious reader, the breadth of her bookshelf influences her writing greatly. When she isn’t busy reading or writing, you can find her indulging her inner foodie or kicking back with Tamil 90s music. You can find her on LinkedIn and GoodReads.
Featured image source: TheNewsMinute