Fans of Indian cinema need no introduction to Sridevi, the star of more than 200 movies: admired for her sparkling comic timing, dancing prowess and acting chops, “Sri” ruled the marquee from the mid-‘70s to the early ‘90s before settling down to raise two daughters with her husband, producer Boney Kapoor.
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It took a very special project indeed to lure this very special talent back to the big screen, and English Vinglish is it.
Directed and written by Gauri Shinde, the film depicts the transformation of Shashi, a meek, put-upon Indian housewife who speaks only Hindi, into a confident citizen of the world, over the length of a four-week crash course in English.
The Eros release, which enjoyed acclaim (and according to reports, a standing ovation) at the Toronto International Film Festival, is up against strong competition from the satire Oh My God and India’s foreign language Oscar submission, Barfi!, but its universal message — conveyed with wit and heart — is persuasive enough to draw a sizable audience nevertheless. Indeed, a recent San Francisco Bay Area screening found the audience packed with families and young children, a heartening prospect given the film’s positive message encouraging diversity and tolerance.
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Shashi is a dedicated mother and gifted cook, the wife of a busy executive in the western Indian city of Pune. Her laddoos (a golden, sweet snack ball) earn raves and she even runs a small catering business, but her family treats her like a servant. Her teenaged daughter treats her with contempt, while the casually masked cruelty of her husband’s words (Adil Hussain) cut her to the core: “My wife was born to make laddoos!” he gloats.
When Shashi is called upon to fly to New York City — solo — to help her sister arrange a niece’s wedding, she is terrified (look for Amitabh Bachchan in a short, but memorable, scene onboard her flight). Once in New York, the Hindi-speaking Shashi is faced with ever-mounting humiliations, in a series of beautifully mounted, yet squirm-inducing scenes.
It is at this point that Shashi realizes that her lack of English skills is holding her back, and so when she spies an ad for an English class on a passing city bus, she decides to sneak out of her relatives’ house and navigate New York City’s subways and buses to get there.
Her fellow international students include a Pakistani cab driver, a South Indian engineer, a Mexican nanny and a smitten French man (Mehdi Nabbou), also a cook, who tastes her laddoos and tells her, “You are an artist.” Shashi retorts, “When a man cooks, it’s an art. When a woman cooks, it’s just her duty.”
It’s no surprise that by the end of the film, Shashi will conquer her fears, but the route Shinde takes to get her there is distinctively Shashi’s. The image of the newly confident Shashi striding down a Manhattan street, a takeout coffee in hand and a trench coat belted over her sari, will make you smile days after you leave the theater.
There is a growing body of work that shows Indian female characters flexing their muscles: Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham; Deepa Mehta’s Water; the late Jagmohan Mundhra’s Provoked: A True Story, starring Aishwarya Rai; and Amol Palekar’s Anaahat/Eternity, starring Sonali Bendre, spring to mind. And the work of Indian female filmmakers like Chadha, Mehta, Mira Nair and most recently Zoya Akhtar (Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara) is always worth a look.
With English Vinglish, female director Shinde — known for her documentaries and commercials — brings her own lifetime of experience into the picture. “It is my way of saying ‘Sorry’ and ‘Thank you’ to my mother, and a tribute to women,” Shinde writes in the film’s press notes.
Ultimately, what make English Vinglish memorable are the small, step-by-step choices Shashi makes to transforms herself. Yes, there’s grit there, but it’s tempered with compassion and dignity. The way the character has been crafted by Shinde, and interpreted by Sridevi, is gloriously feminine, and uniquely Indian.\
Five minutes into the film, and she’s already found her way into your heart as Shashi, the uncomplaining Maharashtrian housewife who quietly puts up with the playful but insensitive jibes her husband and kids take at her, for her inability to speak proper English. It’s such a terrific performance in fact, that it makes you overlook the rather trite notion that a caring wife and mother, who runs a small but successful catering business from home, must speak fluent English in order to regain her sense of self-worth.
Shinde, who has revealed that the film’s premise is inspired by a slice of her own mother’s life, constructs some moving scenes that are not hard to relate to. Shashi’s school-going daughter cringes in embarrassment at a PTA meeting when her mother asks a teacher if he could speak to her in Hindi because her English is weak. When another parent engages her mother in a conversation, she nervously steers her mum away.
There’s little that’s blazingly original here; much of it feels formulaic and predictable, in fact. Yet Shinde knows there’s comfort to be found in the familiar, and she mines feel-good moments in been-there-seen-that territory.
Things come to a head when Shashi reluctantly travels alone to New York to help with preparations for her niece’s wedding. Humiliated while struggling to order a coffee and sandwich at a Manhattan café, she impulsively enrolls for a four-week English speaking course at a language school. From this point on, the film resembles an episode of the popular BBC sitcom ‘Mind Your Language’, whose laughs are derived from a motley bunch of foreigners wrestling with English. Typically, the class comprises a Mexican nanny, a Pakistani cab driver, a Chinese hairstylist, a South Indian software engineer, an angry black kid, and a dishy French chef named Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou) who’s instantly attracted to Shashi.
In these classroom scenes, Shinde uses her characters to deliver a message about Indo-Pak camaraderie, and even against homophobia. Yet these seem like mere token-isms against the more natural, tender scenes between Shashi and Laurent. Like those moments when the two are conversing in their respective languages, and yet manage to convey what they’re feeling to each other – it’s these interludes that make ‘English Vinglish’ so watchable.
This is the story of how Shashi gets her groove back, and Shinde nails it by casting Sridevi in the central role. The actress is effortlessly charming as the neglected protagonist who discovers herself when she’s allowed to fly. She infuses the part with the right portions of vulnerability, restraint, and quiet strength, delivering a performance that is nothing short of perfect.
Even if it treads a safe path, ‘English Vinglish’ achieves believability through its supporting cast of mostly unfamiliar faces, including Mehdi Nebbou as Shashi’s sensitive French admirer, and Adil Hussain as her inattentive husband. Sujatha Kumar as Shashi’s older sister oozes warmth, and both kids playing Shashi’s children are spot-on. There’s also a delightful cameo by Amitabh Bachchan, who steals the scene he’s in with his impeccable comic timing.
Making an assured debut with a light, frothy film that still has something important to say, Gauri Shinde delivers one the year’s most pleasing films, and Amit Trivedi lends some of his best compositions to the soundtrack. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for ‘English Vinglish’. It’s warm and fuzzy, and leaves you with a big smile on your face.
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