Sense, Sensibility, & Strong Esteem: Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000 movie review)

The following review is the first in a series, looking at texts I examined for possible adoption in a “Jane Austen and Popular Culture” seminar.

Over the past summer, I have spent some pleasant hours looking at a number of texts I am calling (for lack of a better, catch-all term), “Austen-adjacent.” Most were written works, which you’ll see explored here in future posts, but I also tried to expand my knowledge of the world of Jane Austen film beyond British and American productions.

Austen has been adapted globally with daunting fervor—seriously, where to begin? But, discounting Bride and Prejudice (a British, Anglophone production, albeit with some Bollywood actors and a Kenyan-Indian-British director), the world of international Austen film adaptation is a gap in my education. So I decided to grab Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Found It), a Tamil-language Indian adaptation1 of Sense and Sensibility from 2000 conveniently owned by my local library.

English film poster for Kandukondain Kandukondain, centering on Aishwarya Rai in green, surrounded by peacock feathers.

Have you ever seen an Austen adaptation that begins with soldiers in the jungle, landmines, and an assault rifle attack involving school children? Yeah. I was seriously wondering if I had gotten the wrong disc, or was seeing a preview for some other movie. But no—as I finally figured out about an hour into the film—all that was the backstory of Col. Brandon!

Kandukondain Kandukondain is a modernized adaptation that makes a number of changes to the story, although the core dynamic of a reserved sister (“Sowmya”) and a dramatic sister (“Meenu”) remains. “Modernized,” of course, in a way that now feels dated—in fact, even more dated than it really is. Based on the clothing styles, was 2000 still the ‘80s in India? And even that couldn’t excuse Col. Brandon’s—pardon me, Major Bala’s—avuncular mustache.

Probably the biggest change in the film is to the Edward Ferrars character, “Manohar.” Very unlike Edward (or Hugh Grant), Manohar is a slick guy. He’s a production assistant ambitious to become a film director, and he’s sworn off women until he directs his first film. He comes from a wealthy family who pressure him to join his father’s company, but this isn’t presented as a significant obstacle between him and Sowmya; his journey is more of a personal one of wanting to achieve his career dreams. The only rival girl is his really quite kickass female action star lead, but they’re the target of rumors, not actually involved romantically. Amusingly, he is remaking Speed, starring a woman, set on a train. I would so watch that movie.

Sowmya, meanwhile, has been branded “unlucky” since her first fiancé committed suicide over a rejection from another woman, and keeps getting rejected on the marriage market.2 It’s an interesting choice to make her mother and grandmother way more hyped up about marrying her off than romantic Mrs. Dashwood ever is in the 1811 original—I guess this is to compensate, plot-stakes-wise, for the fact that in 2000, she could stay single and support herself? As I’ve argued elsewhere, later retellings of 19th century fiction often crank up the oppressive attitudes and biases of individual characters as a tactic of compensating for the additional rights and systemic freedoms possessed by the heroines. Here, after the death of the family patriarch leaves them penniless (a midpoint twist rather than the initial catalyst, in this version), Sowmya finds work as a computer programmer and becomes the breadwinner of the family, bringing a needed touch of female empowerment into the story. (Although, disappointingly, she gives up her big break at work to be with Manohar at the end…)

As to the other sister’s plotline… this film is far more interested in Major Bala, the recovering alcoholic/amputee/bitter-former-soldier-turned-florist love interest for Aishwarya Rai’s Meenu, than it is in the adaptation’s equivalent of Willoughby, a rich, cherub-faced financier named Srikanth who annoys investors by quoting poetry at them. Srikanth and Meenu fall into instalove, but he doesn’t get a lot of screen time before he’s whisked off to deal with a financial crisis, which he does by marrying a wealthy heiress so that her father will give him the money to pay back poor people who lost all their money in his bad investment scheme. Meenu is furious with him for not eloping with her instead, but it’s actually hard to villainize him for his choice, which weirdly throws off the virtue dynamics of the story.

Similar to Emma Thompson’s wonderful Sense and Sensibility (1994), this film can’t resist softening the hardest pill for the modern reader to swallow in Austen’s novel: “Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. … She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another!” “Strong esteem and lively friendship” just don’t play as contemporary reasons to marry a guy, so Meenu must fall in love with Bala, just as Kate Winslet’s Marianne did with Alan Rickman’s Brandon.

And yet… what struck me as weird and frustrating and unromantic when I first read the book as a teen has now become one of the things that interests me most about this text. It’s a testament to the transformation of marriage in Western culture, from commercial or companionate to romantic, with a long period of both/and in between. Elinor marries for love; her sister marries out of “strong esteem and lively friendship”—plus a heavy dose of family pressure, literally described as a “confederacy against her.” We’re told that Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, and Edward “each felt [Brandon’s] sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all.” Who doesn’t want to be a reward?

This is, when you stop and think about it, a wild element to include in the final pages of your novel. I don’t know if these conventions just weren’t normalized yet or what, but as readers today we’re well trained to expect that in this situation—respecting a man, feeling family pressure to marry him—Marianne will either rebel or, through a series of hijinks, discover romantic feelings toward the guy. But nope—they just marry, and we’re reassured that “Marianne found her own happiness in forming his,” and since she “could never love by halves … her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.” Of all setting in which to explore this relationship just as depicted by Austen, Kandukondain Kandukondain actually seems like a perfect one, since mutually consensual arranged marriage is not only culturally acceptable in this context but actually depicted in the film. So I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed (though unsurprised) that they sidestep this, opting to have Meenu declare her love for Bala before they get engaged.

Perhaps the difficulty is that the movie is ending. With minutes left, in a visual medium, we can’t breeze forward as Austen does and see Marianne “in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village,” gradually falling in love with her husband. The marriage of convenience or esteem works better as a beginning. Still, in gaining a romantic ending that satisfies, we lose an intriguing cultural artifact.

1. I’ve seen many Bollywood films, but all in Hindi. Could a regional difference explain why the main actors in this movie other than Aishwarya Rai seem to have one name only, a la Madonna or Cher?

2. I can’t help wondering if the notion of the older sister whose fiancé died could possibly be an allusion to Cassandra Austen, since this plot point has no parallel in the novel.

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