PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.28, NO.2 (Spring 2008)

The Banquet of Desire: A South Indian Sense and Sensibility



R. N. Simhan


R. N. Simhan (email:, an independent scholar based in Baltimore, has studied English and Journalism at Northwestern University, Humanities at the University of Chicago, Classics at the University of California, Davis, and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  A former arts critic for The Sacramento Bee, she is particularly interested in issues of spectatorship in literature and the arts.


Sense and Sensibility seems to invite criticism that borrows its terms from the sciences or mathematics.  We read of a geology of the text, the equilibrium of opposing forces, and above all, the geometry of relationships.1  The third-person narrator heightens the sense of distance from the characters and creates an awareness of the novel’s structures—whether of parallel experiences or socio-economic forces.  The structures that are uncovered and made problematic in the course of the novel are key to approaching a film that, while claiming the novel as its inspiration, could hardly seem more different.


Kandukondain Kandukondain or I Have Found It (2000) is a Tamil-language film set in modern South India.  Its Edward is an aspiring filmmaker, Elinor a computer programmer, and Brandon a bitter military man turned horticulturist.  As in most popular Indian films, the couples celebrate their love in song-and-dance sequences in exotic locales.  Against a backdrop of Egyptian pyramids or a Scottish castle, they shift from bharatanatyam to kathakali dance, from lime to tangerine saris.


Manohar (Ajith) pines for Sowmya in the Egyptian desert.


The twists of plot, drawn mainly from the 1995 Ang Lee film rather than from Austen’s novel, are exaggerated for maximum drama.  Here the Marianne character, Meenakshi, falls into a manhole during a flood and is rescued by Bala/Brandon, who happens to be nearby.  Later, Sowmya/Elinor dissolves into hysterics before Manohar/Edward reassures her.  The approach of the film to its source material is perhaps best described by the experience of Manohar as he makes his first film.  Fresh from studying filmmaking in the United States, he pitches a movie that sounds exactly like the 1994 blockbuster Speed, only on a train instead of a bus.  He finds his vision quickly threatened by the production team, which claims the film won’t succeed if it doesn’t meet expectations for a livelier plot than waiting for an explosion—and, of course, if it doesn’t have songs.  His father claims that foreigners are satisfied with chicken, but at home there must be a whole wedding banquet.  Manohar eventually decides to adapt the movie for a local audience, and it’s a success.


Notions of sense and sensibility in Austen’s novel are unstable, self-referential, and ultimately exceeded by the characters who might be thought to embody them.  In the film, however, the characters function more as unquestioned and exaggerated types that must be brought to a happy medium.  In the shorthand of the Penguin Classics cover, “sense must mix with sensibility.”  Kandukondain Kandukondain explores the place of the self in a pluralistic world, one that is globalized, high-tech, and yet traditional.  The film creates an emotional center, a sort of organizing principle for managing difference, by presenting itself as a banquet through which sentiment guides us, an array of options uprooted from their historical, geographical, and literary contexts and made available to the desiring eye of the audience.


Director Rajiv Menon replaces Austen’s ironic distance with a desiring gaze.  The camera lingers over the hills and lake near the village, the chiffons and silks of the saris, the roses and orchids of Bala’s flower farm.  The heroines, played by Tabu and Aishwarya Rai (Miss World 1994) are caught by a decidedly masculine gaze from the camera from the moment they step out of a bathing pool in dripping saris.  The filmmakers also track the men through scenes of spectacle, from the explosion of a landmine in Kashmir to a swordfight on a movie set.  The premium the film places on witnessing events means that most of the characters’ crises are included in the two-and-a-half hours on screen.  Even a past climactic event—the battle that cost the major his leg—is shown rather than inferred or narrated after the fact.  Given this insistence that everything be seen, the means of Meenakshi’s accident at the film’s climax is fitting.  During a flood, blinded by her grief over the Willoughby figure Srikanth (Abbas), Meenakshi steps into an open manhole and abruptly drops out of sight.  The Brandon-figure, Major Bala (Mammootty), promptly pulls her out, for the heroine cannot be allowed to remain unseen.  The gaze of this film is defined by that most common image of musical sequences, that of the heroine running away from the camera across a grassy field, sari fluttering.  Repeatedly, the viewer pursues a fleeing image that changes outfits, slips into mazes, remains just out of reach, beckoning.


Sowmya (Tabu) hides from Manohar, if not from the camera.


This recurring experience of pursuit is initiated by scenes that begin abruptly and temporarily disorient the viewer.  The significance of the battle scene that opens the movie is revealed only later when Bala appears with a prosthetic leg.  From the battle, and the camera’s focus on what remains of the major’s bleeding leg, the scene shifts to a woman’s ankles, capturing the viewer’s attention with the red fabric billowing around them—only to reveal that the focus of the scene is a male assistant rather than the woman herself.  This repeated pattern of disorientation forces the viewer to grasp for the thread that connects the scene to those previous.  The process of orienting oneself in the story mimics the effect of the film, which is to lead viewers into its world—a journey made by the protagonists themselves.


For each of the characters must undergo the process of looking for a place in an apparently alien world.  The Edward figure, Manohar (Ajith), has recently returned from studying filmmaking in the United States; his coworkers call him “New York.”  Major Bala’s disability and his diatribe about forgotten veterans testify to his self-perceived status as outsider.  The sisters Meenakshi and Sowmya soon become outsiders in their own home when their grandfather dies and their uncle, who has inherited the house, moves in with his wife.  Leaving their home for Chennai, the state capital, they become villagers in the big city.  The plot sweeps all of these outsiders toward a psychological, social, and geographic center in which differences collapse into an all-purpose mean that is valorized by the sentiment they share.


As a part of that movement, the sisters lose the defining qualities that stood in the way of successful romance—fatalism and romantic fancy—in favor of more “balanced” personas.  At the beginning of the film, Sowmya, the Elinor figure, says she did not choose “this face, this body, this femininity,” so why should she choose her husband?  A series of unfortunate events, starting with the suicide of her first suitor, leads her to imagine herself ill-starred.  She faces sudden poverty and disturbing rumors with a fatalism that proves to have a dark side.


Sowmya (Tabu) seems trapped.


Mistrusting herself, she fails to trust Manohar who, in a romantic comedy meet-cute, is mistaken for a potential groom as he inspects her house for a film shoot.  Sowmya’s turn to sentiment at the end—when she tearfully confesses her fears about spreading bad luck—mirrors Meenakshi’s shift to “sense” as she declares she loves the major for a loyalty that helped her see beyond his gruff exterior.  In a tidy denouement, sense becomes sensibility and vice versa, without the price paid by Austen’s silenced Marianne Dashwood (Tanner 379-80).


In Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, social and economic forces, from the clout of wealthy elders to the pressure of public opinion, operate like choke collars:  the more the subject resists, the more forcible the restraint.  While rich relations also hold sway in Kandukondain Kandukondain, the couples escape the system of nepotism and inheritance through their immersion in the working world.  Manohar refuses his parents’ money along with the bride and career they have chosen for him, but he soon finds other backers for his film.  Sowmya and her mother may not enjoy answering phones or working in a kitchen, but they nevertheless support themselves.  The chief causes of delay in the sisters’ relationships are not the distant movements of men or their hidden pasts, but their own ascents in the computing and music businesses.  The men offer them not a “living” but an affirmation of what they have already gained through experience:  the ability to succeed despite the shocks of circumstance.  That their marriages follow Sowmya’s promotion and Meenakshi’s newfound fame suggests, perhaps, the notion of marriage between equals.


The city of Chennai thus becomes the nexus for career and emotional growth, and any sense of loss in the move from village to city is forestalled by the musical interludes and the multiple (even global) settings they encompass.  Meenakshi can play at winnowing grain, like Marie Antoinette at her dairy, or dance among painted tribesmen.  Manohar can imagine himself dancing with Sowmya even as the audience sees the image flicker and realizes she’s actually the heroine of his film.  The rural and the urban, the local and the global, the animal and the human collide, not by any sort of logic, but by the force of emotion.  Desires are contained by being made visible options.


The music is a means of limiting the sense of loss.  Though the narratives of the musical interludes are self-contained, the melodies return at critical junctures of the story.  Manohar’s early song to Sowmya “What Will Your Answer Be?” refers to the question of love.  The song returns as instrumental music when he proposes at the end.  When she accepts, the melody is taken up by the nadaswaram, a reed instrument traditionally played at weddings.  The title song, “Kandukondain Kandukondain,” first celebrates Meenakshi’s relationship with Srikanth, the Willoughby figure.  When she declares her love for Bala, however, it plays again in the background.  Emotions leave their testing ground in the dream world and are incorporated, regardless of their original objects, into the film’s reality.


Kandukondain Kandukondain nevertheless betrays a certain anxiety about the incorporation and decontextualization of so many elements.  The film quotes, at a number of junctures, the words of the Tamil poet Subrahmanya Bharati (1882-1921) in both dialogue and lyrics.  A journalist and freedom fighter as well as a poet, Bharati is known for patriotic and devotional verses that are often set to music.  But Srikanth’s references to Bharati, however, are somewhat out of context.  (Granted, this kind of decontextualization is not uncommon in Tamil films.)  The Bharati poem that Srikanth sings as he carries Meenakshi home after she’s sprained her ankle may seem to offer fitting words for a romantic leading man, but historically it was written for the poet’s young daughter.  On a newscast, Srikanth quotes the poet’s famous statement against colonialism to explain his success in the stock market (“no fear, no fear, and no fear at all”).  The spectacle of back-up dancers wearing turbaned, mustachioed Bharati masks suggests that the poet is a mask that can be donned, removed, or replicated at will.


Meenakshi (Aishwarya Rai) dances among men wearing masks of the Tamil poet Bharati.


As for the incorporation of many codes and voices, linguistic problems arise as early as Manohar’s first scene, in which a Punjabi actress is chided for failing to lip-synch Tamil properly.  (Dubbing is a standard practice for a film industry in which actors do not necessarily speak the regional language of the film.)  The sisters’ grandfather keeps repeating a word that his relatives interpret as “ooyir” (life).  After his death, they realize he meant “ooyil” (will), a miscommunication that results in the loss of their home.  Such misunderstandings seem to vanish in the film’s second half.  When the actress’s mother and Meenakshi’s nurse speak Telugu and Malayalam, the other party responds in the same language or in Tamil.  Communication is somehow not impeded.  Meenakshi enters the film industry as the singing voice for an actress, a “playback singer,” but when her successful recording is released, it is her face that appears on ads in the music store.  Fears of miscommunication and the loss of individual voices are resolved in the ideal world of cinema, in which all languages are understood and the voice is always linked with its source.


Questioning Kandukondain Kandukondain’s fidelity to the text of Sense and Sensibility or the spirit of Jane Austen is, while not completely irrelevant, nevertheless criticizing the filmmaker for something he does not appear to have attempted.  As Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield point out, the film’s connection to Sense and Sensibility was not advertised until it was released for the world market.  While Kandukondain Kandukondain resembles the novel in its basic plot points—marriageable sisters with contrasting personalities and inheritance woes—the similarities are so broad as to make the question of two texts in close dialogue fairly moot.  Rather, the filmmakers mine Austen’s story for personality types that assist in quick characterization and present built-in opportunities for parallels and contrasts.  The network of opposites extends to landscapes and lifestyles as well, so that the leveling of “sense” and “sensibility” to a happy medium and the subsequent marriages become a metaphor for an India in which the past lives comfortably in the present, the rural in the urban, and the individual in society.


Kandukondain Kandukondain makes this idealized world visible and audible even as it reveals that it is essentially a cinematic creation.  The family house doubles as a film set, Meenakshi as the voice of an actress, Sowmya as the imagined lead of a film.  What links the protagonists is not just love, but the film industry itself.  Rather than alienating the viewer by revealing the puppet masters, the film seems to revel in the artifice that creates a sparkling surface.  Like his character Manohar, Rajiv Menon gives us a film aimed to satisfy the perceived expectations of his audience:  songs, exotic locales, and stars in love.


Meenakshi (Aishwarya Rai) dances into the distance.





1.  See, for example, Lock (246-55), Ballaster (xxv), and Tanner (357-58).




Austen, Jane.  Sense and Sensibility.  Ed. Ros Ballaster.  New York: Penguin, 2003.

Ballaster, Ros.  Introduction.  Sense and Sensibility.  Ed. Ros Ballaster.  New York: Penguin, 2003.  xi-xxxi.

“Bharati, Subrahmanya C.”  Encyclopædia Britannica.  2008.  Encyclopædia Britannica Online.  28 Mar. 2008

Kandukondain Kandukondain.  Dir. Rajiv Menon.  Perf. Mammootty , Ajith, Tabu, Aishwarya Rai, Abbas.  DVD.  AP International, 2000.

Lee, Ang, dir.  Sense and Sensibility.  Perf. Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant.  DVD.  Columbia, 1995.

Lock, F. P.  “The Geology of Sense and Sensibility.”  The Yearbook of English Studies 9 (1979): 246-55.

Tanner, Tony.  Appendix: Original Penguin Classics Introduction by Tony Tanner.  Sense and Sensibility Ed. Ros Ballaster.  New York: Penguin, 2003.  355-83.

Troost, Linda, and Sayre Greenfield.  “Appropriating Austen: Localism on the Global Scene.”  Persuasions On-Line 28.2 (2008).

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