Language becomes a symptom of Shashi's growing distance from their lives because she doesn't understand the English that her husband uses in speaking with his co-workers and her daughter uses to gossip with her girlfriends. Even her youngest child Sagar (Shivansh Kotia) uses English words and phrases that make her feel excluded.
Shashi travels to New York in advance of the rest of her family to help out with the wedding of her niece Meera (Neelu Sodhi). On her arrival she feels overwhelmed, dependent on her sister Manu (Sujatha Kumar) and her family, and distanced from much of what's going on around her. Even a task as apparently simple as ordering tea at a cafe becomes a source of anxiety and humiliation.
The tea incident is the last straw, and impulsively Shashi decides to sign up for a crash course for learning English. In the class Shashi encounters a cross-section of multicultural New York, but perhaps inevitably her instructor David (Cory Hibbs) and her classmates are all stereotypes of one sort or another: Pakistani cab driver Salman (Sumeet Vyas), Latina nanny Eva (Ruth Aguilar), Chinese hairdresser Yu Son (Maria Romano), and silent African Udumbke (Damian Thompson). All of her classmates, of course, have their own motivations for learning English, generally related to their jobs. The most poignant story is that of South Indian software engineer Ramamurthy (Rajeev Ravindranathan), whose co-workers won't see him as an equal until he speaks their language. The kindest and most sympathetic of Shashi's classmates is handsome French chef Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou), who shares her love of cooking and begins to develop a romantic interest in her.
Thankfully, writer/director Gauri Shinde avoids two major pitfalls. Had Karan Johar written this film, it would have been filled with references to Sridevi's earlier movies. Here I spotted only a few, and they're pretty subtle: a nice cameo by her Khuda Gawah co-star Amitabh Bachchan, and a shout-out by Ramamurthy to her frequent 1970s and 1980s South Indian co-star Rajinikanth. Sridevi was one of the most famous dancers of that era, but apart from a running joke about Shashi doing a Michael Jackson dance move for Sagar, her dancing is downplayed. The mostly low-key soundtrack by Amit Trivedi and Swanand Kirkire includes the catchy title song:
Shinde also sidesteps the familiar Bollywood (and Hollywood) "transformation through shopping" plotline. Shashi doesn't want to have a makeover, wear Gucci or become more Western. She's very comfortable with who she is; for her, learning English is a way of staying close to her family, not of taking on a new identity.
English Vinglish is a nicely observed and thoughtful film on issues of language, cultural identity, and family dynamics. It would have gotten my Filmfare Award vote for the Best Film of 2012 instead of Barfi!. And I hope it's only the first of many well-written, nuanced roles for Sridevi on her return.