I had not seen Kandukondain Kandukondain in a few years. I remembered it mostly as an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensability with a couple of good songs and some unattractive heroes. It’s amazing how a solid diet of classic Bollywood and a handful of Kannada movies can change one’s perspective.
For those you unfamiliar with the plot of Sense and Sensability, the basic story goes like this: Mrs. Dashwood is the second wife of a older man whose estate has all been entailed to the son from the first marriage. When Mr. Dashwood dies, Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters are forced out of their cushy home by her stepson’s conniving wife. The eldest Dashwood daughter, Elinor, falls in love with a man whose attention is distracted by other concerns and the second daughter, Marianne, falls in love with a flighty and impulsive man while all the time she is being watched over by the kindly, and older, Col. Brandon.
Kandukondain Kandukondain keeps the general flow of the narrative but updates the story for the modern age. Elinor is now Sowmiya, the principal of a small village school, and Marianne is Meenakshi, a poetry enthusiast with a latent talent for Indian classical music. They live with their mother and ailing grandfather.
The two girls have a conversation early in the film about the types of marriages they’d like to have. Meenu (Aishwarya Rai) chastises Sowmiya (Tabu) for accepting her fate in the form of an arranged marriage. Sowmiya challenges Meenu to tell her what kind of husband she would like. The answer doesn't describe a person as much as the feeling she’ll have when she sees him.
Meenu and Sowmiya are both immature in different directions. Meenu thinks nothing of the person she is marrying and is only concerned with the romantic feelings involved. Sowmiya meekly accepts her fate of an arranged marriage – despite the fact that her first fiancée killed himself and now she is branded “unlucky” by the aunties with marriageable sons.
But what about the gentlemen? Here is where I found one of the biggest differences between the first time I saw this film and today. When I first saw this a few years ago, my exposure to popular Indian films was limited to big budget, glossy Bollywood movies – the kind starring a boyishly handsome Saif Ali Khan or a doe-eyed Shahrukh Khan. Now, thanks to Netflix and some more disposable income, I’ve seen many, many more kinds of films – from old Bollywood potboilers to contemporary Sandalwood hits. Not only do I understand the cues of a popular Indian film narrative a lot better, I’m more used to the non-handsome yet compelling charismatic Southern heroes. All of this means that the men I found so unbearably unattractive a few years ago, now appear quite tolerable - even rakishly charming, in the case of Mammootty.
Sowmiya falls for a goofy wannabe director played by Ajith Kumar (on the far right).
She’s intrigued by this man who doesn’t seem to care about her reputation as “unlucky” or anything involving her intellect.
Meenu catches the eye of the gruff Major Bala (Mammootty), who was wounded fighting in Sri Lanka and now spends his days drinking himself into a stupor to combat his pain and lonliness.
He shows up to a village function totally smashed and lectures the crowd for enjoying life’s frivolities while he was fighting far away.
They all sit there and take it – too embarrassed or full of pity to say anything. Well, everyone except one person…
Meenu takes him to task and her pretty, innocent ways shock him out of his stupor and he accepts her challenge to clean up his act.
And then there is the fool Meenu falls in love with – Srikanth.
A fly-by-night investment banker, Srikanth literally arrives in the powerful storm Meenu requested way back in the beginning of the film. They share a love of poetry and a romantic nature.
But where Meenu is child-like in her appreciation of the world, Srikanth is just childish.
When she teases him about misremembering who wrote a particular line of verse, Srikanth lashes out.
I won’t spoil his narrative surprise but needless to say, his impulsive and childish nature get the better of him.
And we won’t discount the kind and generous Major Bala just yet!
But the romantic stories are only a small part of the film. More interesting is the narrative of the two sister having to find their own way in the world.
Just like in Sense and Sensability, the young ladies must leave their comfortable home when it is taken away from them but, unlike the Austen novel, the women do not end up in gentile poverty. They end up penniless in the big city and must learn to depend on themselves and to trust in their own judgement.
The other plot thread that totally flew over my head the last time I saw this was the meta-commentary on contemporary popular Indian films. The young wannabe-director who falls in love with Sowmiya is the conduit for a series of complaints about popular films – some of which are highly deserved.
All in all, Kandukondain Kandukondain is a highly satisfying masala film – yet it’s not something I would recommend for a beginner to popular Indian film. I certainly didn’t understand much when I first saw it and the reviews on Netflix from curious Westerners lured by the promise of Jane Austen would support my thesis.
Allow me to quote one Netflix reviewer LW 1350305 who says: The delightful goofiness of Bollywood in full bloom. I came to this movie after watching _Bride and Prejudice_ about six times. It boasts the same source: a Jane Austen novel, and one of the same stars: Indian It girl Aishwarya Rai. Yet while B&P maintains a slim attachment to reality, Kandukonden2 gleefully throws versimilitude into the Ganges, as characters glide through rivers, pose seductively atop pyramids, (pyramids? in India?!) and generally behave like lunatics.
No, no, and no. Also, no. Here we have a classic Westerner misunderstanding of the idea of fantasy song picturizations and of masala reality. Not to mention that this isn’t a Bollywood film and neither, strictly speaking, is Bride and Prejudice.
Still, those curious will enjoy the delightful performance from Aishwarya Rai and the beautiful score from A.R. Rahman - even if they don't understand exactly what is happening.