“English Vinglish”… Okay Vokay

Posted on October 6, 2012

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In Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish, Sridevi plays a housewife named Shashi. (This is a movie that’s not afraid to be cute. The rest of the family comes with S-names too: husband Satish, and kids Sagar and Sapna.) Like many women in our country (and many men too), Shashi is a creature of routine. She wakes up, ties her hair in a knot, makes coffee for herself and chai for the others, barely gets to scan the Navbharat Times before having to whip up different kinds of breakfast (daliya for the mother-in-law, toast for the children, parathas for Satish). She’s a housewife on a treadmill without a STOP button, and as someone educated in Saraswati Vidhyalay, where no one spoke English, she is subject to constant ridicule from the others, especially Sapna. If this woman went to the US and enrolled herself in an English-language class and – in four weeks – learnt what takes the average child years to come to grips with, then we’d have on our hands a heartwarming empowerment saga, even if sounded like a fairy tale. (Besides, what are most fairy tales but templates for female empowerment sagas?) We may even be grateful that Shashi’s empowerment comes through in relatively subtle and sober ways, unlike say, Rekha’s transformation in Khoon Bhari Maang, where empowerment entailed supermodeldom enabled by bronze lipsticks and gold turbans

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But Shashi is a rare woman. She doesn’t just dream about how her life should be – she is already pursuing a passion. She’s a fantastic cook, and she makes laddoos which she stuffs in little patterned boxes and sells to a regular clientele, many of whom welcome her with the kind of smile we give only to those who make us immeasurably happy. If Shashi is a satellite at home, constantly revolving around the needs of others, she is the centre of this parallel universe. In her own little way, she’s a star. She lords over her helper, Ramu – when he says “gipt,” she corrects his pronunciation, the way her kids do with her English. She’s the boss, and as the film tells us later, she’s an entrepreneur. Another film would have this as Shashi’s trajectory, this transformation from unacknowledged housewife and mother to beloved vendor of sweets and distributor of joy in the neighbourhood. The very skills that are taken for granted in her home are the ones that make her a success outside. If this isn’t empowerment – digging deep within and learning to recognise what comes to us naturally, what we’re good at, and using that talent to succeed – then what is?

So when Shashi feels that this is not enough, and that she needs to learn English in order to feel like a success, it feels… not wrong, but weird. I don’t doubt for a minute that there are people like Shashi, who, despite being a success in some way, feel like failures and want to succeed in other ways. The story is what it is. But it feels strange to see a feel-good message movie where an innate talent is mocked constantly – Satish, played by the wonderfully understated Adil Hussain, is fond of announcing that his wife was born to make laddoos – and the acquisition of a new talent (if learning English can be called that) is celebrated from the rooftops. Wouldn’t a better way to go about it lie in showing that Shashi made a success of herself despite not knowing English? Shouldn’t her snooty, convent-educated daughter learn to love and respect her mother for what she is, a laddoo-making, Hindi-speaking housewife? (Instead, we’re shown that Sapna feels ashamed about mocking her mother only after Shashi makes a cautious, though very winning, speech in English in front of several Americans. Just what is the point here – that even a mother who speaks halting English is better, somehow, than a mother who speaks only Hindi?)

Shinde’s conception of Shashi is at once praiseworthy and a problem. We’re thankful to be spared the clichés of the dejected, repressed housewife crying herself to sleep at night. When Sagar says, “gussa aa rahi hai,” Shashi corrects him. It’s “aa raha hai,” she says. And as this scene comes after the one where he’s made fun of her English, we enjoy Shashi’s quiet victory. In another very good scene, Shashi goes to Sapna’s school for a parent-teacher meeting, and she tells the teacher that she cannot speak English, so could he please speak Hindi. A lovely role-reversal lies in wait. This teacher is from Kerala, and his Hindi is about as good as her English. They muddle along and manage, and once again we register Shashi’s victory, having gone to a convent and forced the English teacher to speak to her in the language she’s most comfortable in. Even Satish, as Shinde sees him, is not a cruel husband – merely an insensitive one who treats her with the casual contempt we often (and unknowingly) accord people around us who don’t fill out our outsized expectations of them.

There’s no hate here; it’s just that the love has dimmed – otherwise, we couldn’t be hearing a song that went Piya bin dil lage na as Shashi gets ready to go abroad all alone (for her niece’s wedding), with the rest of the family following her after a few weeks. Shashi doesn’t like it when Satish hugs a female co-worker. She complains that he doesn’t express these affections with her. But when he makes a motion to embrace her as he’s seeing her off at the airport, she moves away, embarrassed. These contradictions are lovely – they make these people human. In the US, we meet Shashi’s sister, who still misses her dead husband the way an amputee feels an itch in a toe. Shinde doesn’t pile on the melodrama – there are no tears, just an unsentimental expression of a sentimental thought. And in this gently nuanced world, the imposition of English feels like the fall of an axe. Wouldn’t Shashi be better served by a husband who wakes up to her for what she is than the fact that she tries to become someone he wants her to be? What next? Handcuffs and lingerie in the bedroom?

There is a lot to like in English Vinglish, which is the very definition of a gentle and urbane entertainment, but I couldn’t get past this manufactured premise, which makes all successive events seem manufactured. In the English class populated by broad gay and straight stereotypes dispensing broader comedy, Shashi befriends a Frenchman named Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou), who wants to be more than a friend. When he calls her beautiful, she walks away, but later she tells him that she reacted that way because she’s not used to compliments. But what about the praise showered on her culinary skills by her customers in India? Didn’t that give her a sense of the izzat, the respect, she so craves? Even the scene where Shashi is humiliated in a café by an aggressively unsympathetic African-American feels manufactured. (Though this scene does help us see, at the end, why she prevents her husband from punishing their son, who causes a similar accident with knocked-over plates.) After a while, it gets a little monotonous watching Shashi make wounded-puppy eyes every time she feels hurt by Satish or by Sapna. Scenes seem to exist simply to allow Shashi to make crisp little on-the-road-to-empowerment speeches, like the one about Laurent being appreciated as an artist (he’s a chef) while she’s just thought of as doing her duty in the kitchen, or the brilliant outburst about the cruelty of children.

But few actors can make wounded-puppy eyes like Sridevi, and her performance single-handedly keeps us watching. The trying-to-not-look-too-flustered look when her kids make fun of her during breakfast, the sly and knowing way she regards Satish while insinuating that if she weren’t such a good cook he wouldn’t come home at all (and to think that this man prizes an English-speaking wife over someone who makes the most delicious meals; what was that again about the way to a man’s heart being through his stomach?),the whimpering after the humiliation at the café, the subdued sense of achievement after finding her way to the language class with the help of strangers, the way she hangs around her husband when he picks up a call from the US and the way she reminds him about a name he’s forgotten, the way she sells her big speech at the end – Sridevi nails it all. This isn’t just a performance but some sort of greatest-hits collection of a certain style of performing that very few actors are capable of today, a slightly exaggerated style that has its roots in mime and our classical dance. It’s a refined form of silent-film acting, where the actor needs no words to push across an emotion, and it’s wonderful to be reminded, once again, of how well this style can work in a certain kind of film, even one that doesn’t quite deserve her.

Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.