Sunday, February 3, 2013

English Vinglish

English Vinglish (2012) is a very welcome return to the screen for Sridevi. She plays Shashi, a traditional mother and wife who finds herself becoming gradually estranged from her family. Her husband Satish (Adil Hussain) takes her for granted, and her teenaged daughter Sapna (Navika Kotia) is entering her rebellious phase.

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.

2 comments:

  1. I just saw English Vinglish on an international flight and enjoyed it tremendously. I found the cross-cultural interactions (which are innumerable) particularly engaging - for example, the brief exchange between passport officials about English and Hindi languages when Shashi applies for her U.S. visa, and the other members of the English classroom chewing out Laurent for publicly describing Shashi's eyes as small cups of coffee in pools of milk as disrespectful to the traditional woman she is.

    I was a bit ill at ease, however, by the "equality within the family" speech. Not that it wasn't in keeping with Shashi's character, which it very much was. As you note, she is trying to strengthen the identity she already has, rather than seek another (the tensions in the movie between these desires is wonderfully developed). I guess that I feel there is more at stake for her here than staying close to her family; that's the message of the speech, but we've seen so much more going on with her over the course of two and one-half hours.

    And I am struck by the gender contrasts and distance in filmmaking with Awāra (which I watched on my laptop during the same flight). In Awāra, Rita is the one who becomes the educated professional (rather than the husband, Satish, in English VInglish), and Raj (rather than Shashi) is the one who has suffered (including his male identity) from lack of access to education. Plus, while English Vinglish has a message about traditional family coming first and love in marriage being a bonus, Awāra puts romantic love at the fore with the improbable marriage left to an imagined future. I don't want to push these contrasts too far, simply noting that seeing these two films one after the other was striking.

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    1. M. Lapin, you are right to point out that there is more going on with Shashi than appears on the surface.

      In his book on The Wizard of Oz (BFI Film Classics, 1992), Salman Rushdie expresses outrage at Dorothy's final utterance, "There's no place like home": "How does it come about, at the close of this radical and enabling film, which teaches us in the least didactic way possible to build on what we have, to make the best of ourselves, that we are given this conservative little homily? Are we to believe that Dorothy has learned no more on her journey than that she didn't need to make such a journey in the first place?"

      Well, no, that's not what Dorothy is expressing. And similarly, Shashi's speech at the wedding that concludes English Vinglish isn't a conservative little homily, either. Shashi has undertaken a journey that has broadened and enriched her experience of the world. And she has sought a space where she can step outside the roles of wife, mother and sister, a space where she does not have to constantly respond to other's needs, but can fulfill some of her own.

      But ultimately she wants to strengthen her family ties, not dissolve them. And it's not only Shashi who is changed by her New York sojourn; her husband and children also recognize the extraordinary steps she's taken, and realize that they've been taking her for granted. As Shashi says during her wedding speech, "try to help each other to feel equal."

      Thanks for your comment!

      Best,

      P.

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