Director: Charlie Davis
Cast: Aparna Balamurali, Neeraj Madhav, Lakshmi Menon, Binu Pappu
Streaming On: SonyLIV
Floating somewhere beneath the extremely plain surface of Sundari Gardens is a story about a woman who has to fight against societal conditioning to just be herself. Sundari (an earnest Aparna Balamurali) works as a librarian in the same school she once studied in, but we get the feeling that she was destined for bigger things in life. She was a class topper and a talented cellist, but life had other plans and she now shifts her time between home (where she has to take care of her mother) and school where she knows the placement of every book and author in her library. But unlike other movies that may have painted her as a tragic figure stuck in a tired routine, she’s quite sprightly. There’s a smile on her face on most days and this is only widened when a new teacher named Victor (Neeraj Madhav) joins her school.
You might not feel it when you’re watching Sundari Gardens but there’s been a sincere effort to showcase her attraction towards Victor through a female gaze. He’s no Arjun Reddy or a bad boy macho man. He’s gentle, soft and a sweetheart and when seen through her eyes, there’s a maturity in the way this connection is created. The point that adds the most heft to this otherwise empty film is how it deals with the concept of divorce. Which means that when Sundari reveals to Victor that she’s a divorcee, there are no loud gasps or long cello solos to underline the moment. It is what it is and what’s most heartening is the casual way Victor reacts to this information. Equally unfussy is the way the film doesn’t make a big deal about the fact that she drinks too. Factor in the dynamics she shares with the other men in her life and you can sense that these ideas could genuinely have built up to something.
On one hand, the film is gentle and careful to never judge its protagonist, but you cannot say the same about the other woman in the film. We meet Sundari’s colleague who shares a similar fondness for Victor, but there’s hardly any dignity in the way this relationship is shown. She comes across as petty and juvenile, not fitting within the world of the movie. You find the same stereotypical notions dominate the writing, making even other female characters appear artificial and lifeless. You feel this in the way the evil sister in law™, behaves exactly like the evil sister in law™ and you can even make the case for the way a potential mother-in-law speaks and sounds like she has just exited a television serial.
All of this makes the film a tad frustrating to sit through. There’s hardly anything you can call craft and even in the way the first half uses a series of montages, you experience a severe lack of ideas. As a result, even the progressive points the film makes can only be seen as isolated points, never quite evolving into emotional events that leave an impact. Without much to say and without a nice new way to say it, Sundari Gardens is simply an outstretched drama that takes forever to get to its minuscule point.
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