Progressive ideas are left behind in a flat, hollow drama

Manager: Charlie Davis

Cast: Aparna Balamurali, Neeraj Madhav, Lakshmi Menon, Binu Pappu

Streaming on: SonyLIV

Floating somewhere below the extremely flat 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 at, but we get the sense that she was destined for greater 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 location of every book and author in her library . But unlike other films that might have painted her as a tragic figure stuck in a tired routine, she’s quite fresh. There is a smile on her face most days and it only widens when a new teacher named Victor (Neeraj Madhav) joins her school.

You may not feel it when you see it Sundari Gardens but there has been a sincere effort to show her attraction to Victor through a female gaze. He is no Arjun Reddy or a bad boy macho man. He is gentle, soft and a sweetheart, and seen through her eyes, there is a maturity in the way this connection is made. The point that gives this otherwise empty film the most weight is how it handles the concept of divorce. Which means that when Sundari reveals to Victor that she is a divorcee, there are no loud gasps or long cello solos to punctuate the moment. It is what it is, and what is most encouraging is the relaxed way in which Victor reacts to this information. Equally effortless is the way the film doesn’t make a big deal out of her drinking too. Factor in the dynamic she shares with the other men in her life, and you can sense that these ideas could have really built up to something.

On the one hand, the film is gentle and careful to never judge its main character, but the same cannot be said for the other woman in the film. We meet Sundari’s colleague who shares a similar fondness for Victor, but there is hardly any dignity in the way this relationship is portrayed. She appears petty and young and does not fit into the world of the film. You find that the same stereotypical notions dominate the writing, making even other female characters appear artificial and lifeless. You feel this in the way the Evil Mother-in-law™ acts exactly like the Evil Mother-in-law™, and you can even argue with the way a potential mother-in-law talks and sounds like she just left a TV series.

All of this makes the film a bit frustrating to sit through. There is hardly anything that can be called craft, and even in the way that the first half uses a series of montages, you experience a serious lack of ideas. As a result, even the progressive points the film makes can only be seen as isolated points that never quite develop into emotional events that leave an impact. Without much to say and without a good new way to say it, Sundari Gardens is simply a drawn-out drama that takes ages to get to its little point.

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