Indian screen legend Sridevi triumphs in a gentle, but affecting, story of a woman’s awakening self-respect.
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.
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.
Cast: Sridevi, Adil Hussain, Mehdi Nabbou, Priya Anand, Neelu Sodhi, Cory Hibbs, Sulabha Deshpande
Director: Gauri Shinde
Screenwriter: Gauri Shinde
Producers: R. Balki, Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, R.K. Mani, Anil Lulla
Director of photography: Laxman Utekar
Costume designer: Vera Chow
Production designer: Mustafa Stationwala
Sound designer: Resul Pookutty
Editor: Hemanti Sarkar
Music: Amit Trivedi
Lyrics: Swanand Kirkire
Not rated, 129 minutes