A momentary loss of taste and I found myself turning to mainstream Bollywood for comic relief on a sad Saturday night. Sadly but not surprisingly, what I left the movie with was an abundance of cringe, in a worse mood and not an ounce of relief.
See, I haven’t been very up to date with Bollywood releases. The last time I watched a movie in a movie theatre was in 2017 (this is a wild guess, it might be even longer than that). I was not interested in the same meet-cute-which-was-actually-stalkerish tropes that Bollywood stuffed down our throat. Even my over-the-top (OTT) platform’s history was crowded with the ‘90s and ‘00s movies and TV shows, with a sprinkle of an Ayushmann Khurana/Rajkummar Rao movie. Even the latter, I watched while engaged in a deep and intellectual conversation with my Instagram feed.
Cutting to the chase, I am certainly not the girl standing outside a theatre every Friday. Therefore, I had no real idea about how bad big-production-house-backed content was. Until I succumbed to my entertainment thirst and watched Meenakshi Sundareshwar— a romantic drama about a Tamil couple surviving a long-distance marriage, filmed in Hindi with a sprinkle of Tamil slang (yes, you guessed it, they say ‘seri’). There are Tamil dubbed versions available for a Tamil romance filmed in Hindi. The irony was not lost on us, was it?
The movie is written, directed and produced by North Indian bigshots including the man behind the K-dynasty: Karan Johar. It stars the token North Indian actress, Sanya Malhotra in the leading role, taking the blatant carelessness of presenting a barely-authentic Tamil love story, to a notch further. What other peak of cinematic brilliance could a troop of men, who are undoubtedly sensitive about a South Indian woman’s life and the perils of a South Indian romance, provide?
Meenakshi Sundareshwar may be the most recent movie to completely miss what it means to be a Tamil. However, it certainly is not the first or perhaps, the last of it to come. For a long time, a North-Indian-dominated Bollywood has been obsessed with South India— the way they look, dress, appear, speak and eat is a marvel to them. And then deep within this wonder and astonishment over another culture, lies a goldmine of the target audience—full of ideas. Ideas of their perspective of employment, the common language, education, love and marriage, justice and so on. Ideas that do not get translated onto the big screen because Bollywood quite literally translates them for a North Indian crew.
Yes, it is never for the audience. The audience is quite comfortable watching dubbed or subbed South Indian content. It has been a running theme that people will approach the South film industry for entertainment for a decade now. They are comfortable from the first viewing so the catastrophe that was Meenakshi Sundareshwar was not unavoidable. It is for the convenience of the crew so Mr Johar can easily pitch in directors and screenwriters to furnish a poorly-crafted film.
More than Bollywood’s blatant ignorance of what an audience is comfortable with, the issue is that the South comprises over 250 million people yet Johar can’t get even an ounce of accuracy. A person can be something beyond their custom and staple food, the “fanaticism” towards a celebrity and the colour of their skin. There is so much more to explore about them than what is presented to us superficially. Why can we not speak about the complicated and deeply political relationship they have with the idea of Hindi as the national language? Why can we not speak about the problems the South Indian diaspora faces in terms of caste connotations and racial differences?
I know a film is a medium of entertainment and not a Civics lecture. But, can the do-good-common-man trope that Rajkummar Rao and similar brethren have adopted and snagged box office records off, apply to the South Indian diaspora too? Can we move past rasam-sipping and Rajnikanth-obsessed narratives and explore a more authentic experience of being a South Indian?