How Language Can Make or Break a Film
Language (or the absence of it) is a very crucial element for storytelling. During the silent era, masters like Charlie Chaplin communicated with their acting, body language, and screenplay. But once Talkies (movies with dialogues) entered the fray everything changed and there was no looking back. Apart from the cinematography, characterizations, costumes, and music, language too started adding authenticity, relatability, and topicality to movies, especially with respect to the culture, geography, and practices of a specific region or place.
Two movies currently streaming on Netflix—Meenakshi Sundareshwar and Alpha—serve as bad and good examples respectively of this maxim.
It’s hard to accept the use of Hindi as the primary language in Vivek Soni’s Meenakshi Sundareshwar (MS) where the principal characters of two Brahmin families in the heart of Tamil Nadu (Madurai), speak Hindi and not Tamil. Such a situation is close to impossible. Instead, it would have been easier to just show the two Tamil families settled in a city where Hindi is widely spoken—Mumbai, for instance. That would easily justify why the families speak Hindi (sprinkled with Tamil) as their primary language.
Alpha, a Hollywood production, on the other hand, is set 20,000 years ago in Paleolithic Europe and brilliantly depicts how man survived in that milieu. Directed by Albert Hughes, Alpha is a minimalist movie that relies on the screenplay and performances to narrate a primeval tale. The little language Alpha does use is, guess what? No, not English, but a constructed-language created by anthropology researchers.
While Alpha invests a lot of time and effort in the language spoken by its characters to add credibility to the movie, MS does the opposite where the characters speak in a language that does not belong to their region, in the process “Bollywoodizing” the entire movie experience.
The only reason, then, that comes to mind for using Hindi in MS is novelty. Bollywood is bored of showing Punjabi characters speaking Hindi mixed with Punjabi and has now decided to do the same with Tamil. It doesn’t work a wee bit, unless of course you are fine with the proverbial suspension of disbelief. I know, we all watch Tamil movies dubbed in Hindi, or Korean dramas with English audio. That probably is the only alibi to play along with MS.
Meenakshi (Sanya Malhotra) and Sundareshwar (Abhimanyu Dassani) are given beautiful introductions, with Tamil culture, music, and traditions intact to enter into an arranged marriage. But things start souring when Sundar has to work in Bangalore in an IT-firm that doesn’t hire married people. Strange, which era are these people living in? But let’s play along.
Soon, a simple arranged-marriage turns into a long-distance relationship and all the typical long-distance relationship issues and tropes crop up. The movie ends when Sundar realizes his folly and patches up with Meenakshi in Madurai in full-blown Rajinikanth style.
It’s difficult to invest in the lead characters of MS because they seem too simplistic and devoid of strong character arcs. They simply don’t fit in as millennials. MS is a movie that comes two decades too late.
Thankfully, the makers of MS don’t stereotype Tamilians but they do end up romanticizing Madurai, Tamil culture, and Tamil movies, which might not necessarily be a bad thing depending on what you expect from MS. The cinematography is picture perfect with the Madurai Meenakshi temple in the backdrop; the background score is consciously reminiscent of Kollywood music; and the vibe and tone of MS reminds one of Mani Ratnam movies. The only other saving grace of MS are the charming performances by Abhimanyu and Sanya, both doing complete justice to their limited characterizations.
Alpha is the story of how man survived in the Paleolithic age and domesticated wolves so eventually we all had our “best friend”: dogs. Panoramic imagery, top-notch visual effects, and a strong coming-of-age in the primitive era performance by Kodi Smit-McPhee (Keda) make Alpha an engaging watch.
Alpha might not be a unique movie or a great work of cinematic art. It has a simple premise that uses just 96 minutes to tell its story with minimum fuss and maximum authenticity. It does, however, get it’s basics right and sets a good example for others to follow: to not undermine the importance of spoken language in a movie.
Alpha is a must watch especially if you love pets and are curious to know how man tamed dogs’ ancestors, the wolves.
If you rarely watch Tamil movies and are fine with the language mismatch then Meenakshi Sundareshwar works as a light watch on a weekend. If you are someone who adores SuperStar (Rajinikanth), idolizes Ulaganayagan (Kamal Haasan), loves Vijay, Suriya, and Dhanush, then go for the real deal. My recommendation: Sivakarthikeyan’s Doctor if you are in the mood for a comic caper or Suriya’s Jai Bhim if you want to watch socially relevant powerful Tamil cinema.