English Vinglish Turns 11

A short while before her tragically truncated life ended, Sridevi had told me. “I have done many films that I proud of, like Sadma, Mr India, Chandni, Lamhe …But English Vinglish turned out to be the most special film of my life. It was not just a film. It was a movement. It forced so many women and men to revise their attitude towards their mother and wives. I knew my character’s struggle. Not being fluent in English is considered a sign of illiteracy in our country. I think English Vinglish changed that mindset a bit.”

Admit it. At some point in our lives we have all felt that if we don’t speak good English, we are not destined to be successful human beings. Imagine a housewife–beautiful, efficient, charming, supportive…imagine if she looks like…well, Sridevi and still feels she is being taken for granted just because she can’t speak fluent angrezi.

Shashi Godbole’s children find her embarrassing at times. Her husband openly cracks jokes about her accent and poor grasp of a language we should have thrown out with Tom Alter’s wig in Shatranj Ke Khiladi. Shashi’s husband thinks he’s just being urbane and witty. But it hurts. We see that hurt in Sridevi’s eyes each time she is slighted and snubbed by those whom she loves the most.

We know this world. We know this woman too. Gauri Shinde brings to the comfort of the familiar a feeling and flavour of wonderment, discovery and beauty.English Vinglish is a fabulous fable of a woman’s self-actualization. Shabana Azm and Smita Patil i used to do such films in the 1970s. The issues in those films about unfulfilled wives were largely socially-defined: infidelity, adultery, betrayal. The betrayal of the unforgettable woman in English Vinglish is far less dramatic and therefore much more profoundly deep-rooted. Shashi breaks up a little every time the three most important people on her life – her husband, daughter and son – crack up at her vernacular accent.

Then comes the chance for redemption. A three-week vacation in the USA, a clandestine crash course in English and best of all, a chance to feel wanted and special when a fellow-classmate, a quietly striking French chef , gives Shashi the attention she doesn’t get from her husband.

This is the complete Middleclass Woman’s Fantasy.Go out on your own and find happiness. Debutante director Gauri Shinde wins over the audience at the story-level itself. And then as a bonus, she proves herself a master storyteller. The delicacy and grace with which Gauri Shinde builds Shashi’s life of half-fulfilled domesticity proves a master story-teller is at work here.

Sure, Shinde gets a tremendous boost from her cinematographer Laxman Utekar(who captures New York in its quiet mellow state of bustling grace), her music composer Amit Trivedi(whose music simply and fluently melts into the theme and storytelling) and editor Hemanti Sarkar(who cuts the footage the way Shashi would cut her vegetables, precisely, lovingly and without anxiety).

Finally it’s really the director’s call.In what I rank as the best debut by a female director since Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringee Lane, Gauri Shinde imbues a majestic mellowness and an unostentatious glow to the story of Shashi’s coming-of-age saga. Shashi’s ennui is not the in-your-face tragic pathos of Madhabi Mukherjee in Satyajit Ray’s Charulata or Shabana Azmi in Kalpana Lajmi’s Ek Pal. No case-history of domestic torture is built for our heroine. And no, the husband (Adil Hussain, brilliant in a thankless role) is not a cad sneaking into another woman’s bed.

The unseen and unforeseen forces at work in Shashi’s saga are far more subtle and therefore much more powerfully potent. The narration doesn’t try to pin its resplendent protagonist’s life down to boomarked vignettes suggesting a violent need to be liberated from her domestic life. It’s all very ….ummmm…normal, routine, recognizable and familiar.

The miracle of watching English Vinglish confer such a supple and contoured shape to Shashi’s life is attributable to the director’s high-concept theme and treatment. Gauri Shinde abhors over-statement. You hardly ever see Shashi break down.And so when the awards fall into Sridevi’s lap at year-end the nomination clip won’t be the Woman Who Suffers Wracking Trauma stereotype.

This woman is far more special than the bored housewives who look for an alibi to burst into their own version of Kaaton se kheench key yeh aanchal tod ke bandhan bandi payal to justify their succulent bites into the forbidden fruit. Sridevi simply sinks into the Big Apple, biting off juicy mouthfuls of NY’s sobering cultural grace absorbing the cultural shock with a dignity that films about journeys tend to undervalue. Not this one. English Vinglish a delectable geographical and emotional journey undertaken with a refreshing absence of bravura and selfcongratulation.

Much of Shashi’s inner power comes from Sridevi owning the role. This actress simply vanishes into her character living every breath of Shashi’s voyage from laddoo-making to self-actualization. The journey is so excitng for us the audience because we feel a new world of experiences unravel for Shashi even as she savours the newness of it all. When she watches an Elizabeth Taylor classic with her new friends in her English class we see what Vidya Balan couldn’t in The Dirty Picture. A woman who echoes the state of grace that she sees on screen.

Sridevi is the film’s backbone. To her good fortune, and ours, the film is supported by a uniformly impeccable cast. Hardly ever in recent times have I seen so many wonderful performers in one film who don’t seem to ‘perform’ at all. Whether it’s Shashi’s immediate family, or her sister’s family in the US, and her class-mates at the coaching institute(quite a bit of splendour in the class)…every character stays with us. Every person populating the plot is vididly sketched.

Finally of course this is Sridevi’s film. In the past she has given outstanding performances in awful films like Nagina and Judaai. Here her inviolable virtuosity and exceptional grace get brilliant support from every department of the film.Specially memorable are her scenes with her French co-star Mehdi Nebbou who is so splendidly supportive, we forget what a major star he is in France. Each time the two get passionate and emotional about one another they speak in their native tongues,certain that their words would not impede the meaning of their thought expression.

Words, this beautiful work of unassuming art tells us, are redundant. More so, when the embodiment of silent eloquence Sridevi needs to express her inner thoughts. She never allows her character to look like a victim. That is the real triumph of English Vinglish.

Sublime subtle seductive and thoroughly engaging English Vinglish is in some ways, a life-changing experience. It turns around the male gaze, making patriarchal tyranny seem like an acceptable tradition that we never thought we needed to break.With oodles of persuasive charm, the director breaks down the bastion of male pride with a film that generations will look back on with affection.As for the incandescent Sridevi, was she really away for 16 years?She makes the contemporary actresses, even the coolest ones, look like jokes with her flawless interpretation of a woman who seeks only respect because love, she already has.

Flaws? Yes one. Amitabh Bachchan’s cameo, interesting as it is, overstays its welcome. Actually Gauri Shinde plays the Big B the best possible compliment in the opening credits : “100 Years Of Indian cinema…70 Years Of Amitabh Bachchan.”

About The Author

Subhash K Jha

Subhash K. Jha is a veteran Indian film critic, journalist based in Patna, Bihar. He is currently film critic with leading daily The Times of India, Firstpost, Deccan chronicle and DNA News, besides TV channels Zee News and News18 India.


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