Dhanno and I saw ‘English Vinglish’ (directed by Gauri Shinde) at a trial show early this week. Dhanno thought we were going to a premiere. The difference between a trial and a premiere is the difference between backstage and the limelights. So, Ranbir Kapoor did not show up, much to Dhanno’s disappointment, and the good fortune of my arms which would otherwise have been badly pinched by her, in frenzy. However Sridevi did come in, at the end of the show, to meet the guests. Dhanno said she made up for all the stars who were not there, even Ranbir Kapoor.
If there was any measure of proof required that Sridevi was at one time called the female Amitabh Bacchan of the industry, it is in the cameo role played by Amitabh in the film. There he is, playing his age, and there she is, playing hers. Quite a role reversal, from the old days, when Amitabh as a hero, played lover to actors like Raakhee and Waheeda Rehman in one film, and son in others, them moving on to older roles, and him moving on to younger heroines.
Amitabh however seems unaffected by such calculations, and appears in a boisterous, playful cameo, the kind which makes you sigh and say, “Amitabh is Amitabh”. He is definitely one of the rock-solid reasons why I would go back to watch ‘English Vinglish’, and screech to my heart’s content, (since I cannot whistle), for the other day, we were restrained by good manners, though I could feel the reverberations of repressed whistles behind me, as Jo valiantly ‘controlled’ .
For donkey’s years now, I have fraternized mostly with women like Jo, or Hemanti Sarkar who has edited ‘English Vinglish’. When I joined FTII, we were 6 women in a class of 40, which was considered a decent ratio of female representation. Most of us had come there making extraordinary choices in our lives, leaving behind lives that society and conditioning deemed fit for women then. And most of us continued to live lives, governed by our choices. Which is not to say that I have not met women over the years, governed by the men in their lives, or roles preset by society, but I must confess I have often been impatient with them, or dismissive.
It would be easy enough to dismiss Shashi (Sridevi), the protagonist of ‘English-Vinglish’, as she gets repeatedly snubbed by her corporate executive husband Satish (Adil Hussain) and viciously humiliated by her teenage daughter (Navika Kotia). Shashi is what is now almost a term of denigration, a ‘housewife’. To boot, she is also a ‘vernacular’ student, someone who does not know English. That she makes delicious food, runs a small business of her own, supplying laddoos and other home-made snacks to order, and is a loving, generous wife and mother is taken for granted by her husband and her daughter. Shashi does have a supportive mother-in-law (Sulbha Deshpande) who however does not question the order of things and a bright, affectionate son, Sagar (Shivansh Kotia).
The strength of the film lies not in the story, which is simple and predictable, but in the nuances of Shashi’s character, who reminds me of characters from Shashi Deshpande’s stories, emotionally restrained, dignified, and with a core of strength that belies her superficial submission to the norms of a conservative marriage. It is in the care with which she rolls the laddoos in her hands, the perfection she aims for as she replaces a raisin exactly in the centre of a laddoo, the quiet bitterness which she swallows at yet another insult, the ease with which she wins over her daughter’s principal, the gleam in her eyes at the thought of an examination, her bubbling pride as she learns that she is an ‘entrepreneur’ and above all, in the joyful physicality of her relationship with her little son. It is in the exchanges between Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou), her classmate who is taken in by her, and herself, as they talk, she in Hindi, him in French, that communication is about self-expression and listening, and not language.
There have been many stories told of women in soulless marriages, redefining their roles in their homes, through ‘showing’ the other person, making the other realize how wrong they were, or by having a romantic liaison. Shashi is not out looking for adventure or love, but respect. But her strength lies in the fact that she does not look for anything outside herself, she is not out to prove a point to anyone, she does what she wants to do just because she wants to do it. When Shashi is unable to cope with ordering a coffee and sandwich at an American cafe, she realizes that either she can continue to feel sorry for herself, or she can overcome an obstacle, and learning English is just that.
Her triumph may be a small one, but it is definitely not in the mastery of a language. It is in the ability to take up a task, and finish it against all odds.
‘English Vinglish’ eschews melodrama of any kind. There is no lingering over Shashi’s emotional reactions, no wringing out of tears from the audience. The pace of the film allows you to genuinely begin to empathize with Shashi, as you get to know her, to cross over your own judgement of a woman like her. Gauri Shinde has written the screenplay and story herself, and what keeps the film from being ‘slow’ or ‘significant’ is her affection for her characters, and a lightness of touch in the way the scenes are written and edited that does not push the audience into thinking of Shashi as a victim.
While it can be argued that Shashi does not exactly rock the status quo, preferring husband to romantic lover, family to independence, I think that it is women like Shashi who stand a better chance of inspiring women who are in similar situations, than someone more rebellious would be. Even as Shashi puts two laddoos in her husband’s plate at the end of the film, as a proof of her love, you know she has found her sense of pride which will change her place in her home. This is re-affirmed as her husband gazes at her while sitting in the seat beside her on the plane back home. You think of the stranger she had met on the way to America, and Shashi herself, nervous and awkward. Shashi now is a poised woman, smiling to herself.