english vinglish (2012) – the unstoppable woman

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 definitelyΒ  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.

50 thoughts on “english vinglish (2012) – the unstoppable woman

  1. HOORAY!!! I’ve been looking to trusted sources for reviews before I take my mom to see it this weekend. So excited!

  2. I must say that you have mastered critical and appreciative hindi cinema reviewing…A very nice read. I like the reference to Sashi Deshpande’s characters. Hence Batul, I will go and see the film…Thanks.

  3. Just came back from seeing the film, Batul. I open the lappy wondering if I should share on facebook how lovely the film was, and read a review by my favorite reviewer. Yaar, you missed the claps and the whistles at Amitabh’s entry, Sridevis dialogues…More than anything, I felt like hugging my mother and saying sorry for all the times I have rebuffed her….

    1. Thank you, Grasshopper, … for calling me your favourite reviewer. πŸ™‚ I’m going back to see the film for the whistles and the claps. I did feel something was missing, what is a film without some halla?

  4. Perfectly told. Thanks for some more insights that I missed… πŸ™‚ Yes, i like Shashi. More so- cos her creator likes her. πŸ™‚

  5. banno, I have missed Sridevi. I’m so glad that her ‘comeback’ film is one that showcases her extraordinary skill at playing an ordinary woman (one has to only look at her filmography down south to realise how many great performances there were); even gladder that she is playing her age – happily! There can be no better role model than that! She did say in an interview that she identified so much with Shashi because that is *exactly* the way she was.

    English Vinglish is playing in a theatre close by and I think I shall go down and watch it. Thank you so, so much for this review.

    1. Thank you, Anu. I’d love to know what you think of it. Yes, Sridevi at the end of the film, waiting in the lobby, did seem a lot like Shashi despite being in jeans and t-shirt.

  6. Seeing the film will have to wait for DVD for me, apparently, but B, it will be a very good film indeed if it can hold a candle to how thoughtfully and evocatively written this review is.

    1. Hey Satish, thanks for the link. No, we had not seen it, so it’s going to be good Sunday reading. I’d really like to know what you think of the film.

  7. Great review, Banno. I saw the movie this evening and loved it. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. The lady sitting behind me called it “as sweet as a ladoo.” Sridevi is stellar. I hope they come up with more movies for her to show her acting chops.

  8. Banno, thank you. I’ve never really liked Sridevi, but after I read this review of yours (I left a comment too, but it disappeared, as usual…), I decided I had to see this. Have just got back after watching it, and thought I must tell you how much I liked it. A lovely, heart-warming little film. πŸ™‚

    1. Dusted Off, Yes, I have never been a big Sridevi fan either, except for ‘Chaalbaaz’, but she was really good in this film. I’m so glad you liked the film.

  9. Such a delightful movie with many heart-warming moments! I especially loved the little boy and his interaction with his mom, and the younger niece, Radha, and the Malayalee school principal! Nice to see warm mother’s-in-law on screen now! Shashi’s speech at the wedding actually brought tears to my eyes- all that a family should be, and yet so often is not.

    1. Dipali, for sure. The little boy was such a performer, and I liked the scene between the principal and Sridevi too. Yes, the wedding speech was the clincher.

  10. After seeing the trailer and reading your positive review, I am oh so impatient to see this film! But no hope of seeing it until I get a DVD when I can get hold of – sigh ! BTW I didnt much like Sridevi in her Hindi films (Himmatwali and the like..) but she was excellent in some of her Tamil films like Meendum Kokila – I have a great respect for her skills.

    1. Suja, I hope you get the DVD soon, the good news is that DVDs release quite early these days, don’t they? Yes, Himmatwala! That was the time I gave up watching Hindi films in the theatre for 10 years or so. πŸ™‚

  11. I’ve been wanting to see this movie since the first promo came out, sadly times hasn’t worked out yet. My mother who saw the movie this weekend, ADORED it. And Amma doesn’t give many movies a review beyond “so-so”. Having been a snotty teen myself, I now so badly want to see this. And I agree wholly that these kind of internal revolutions are way more inspiring to many than rebellious ones.

  12. Banno, just came back from the movie (an hour ago) and thought I should tell you how much I loved the film! Sridevi was awesome, and oh, Amitabh’s cameo was the best cameo I have seen in recent times!! I must say I found my eyes getting wet when Sri wept on screen hiding her tears; the scenes where she doesn’t cry but her expressions show her hurt? If I weren’t in a theatre, I would have wept unashamedly! (My seven-year-old son did so in the theatre – he was so upset that the daughter was being rude to her, or the cafe worker was being rude!) What a wonderful movie, and what a comeback! She was amazing!

    1. Anu, Dhanno and I cry unabashedly wherever we are. I’m afraid we are embarrassing to watch films with. πŸ™‚ Yes, Amitabh’s cameo was not only one of the best I’ve ever seen, but also I think one of the best things about the film, for me.

      1. Ha! I think you and I will do well in a theatre together; we can pass the hankies around. I was surreptiously wiping my tears away because I was afraid I would bawl if I didn’t. πŸ™‚ It also helped that the next scene would make me laugh out loud. Oh, how I’ve missed Sri on screen! And Amitabh looked like he was having so much fun!

        D’you know? The film received a standing applause from the audience at the theatre here. So if you meet your friends again, please let them know just how well the film was received here. (It’s in its second week at a mainstream theatre.)

  13. This is the best review of the film I’ve read so far. (That’s because it’s ‘same-to-same’ with what I took away from the film which I loved…just as much as I love Sridevi! :D).

  14. Thoughtful review, well composed. It is a well intentioned film, but the script could have been better especially in the earlier part. The Pune part becomes predictable and monotonous. Secondly, it is hard to believe that in CONTEMPORARY Pune, a middle aged lady named Godbole would be so bereft of English speaking skill and especially living in the kind of family she has. I am also a ‘vernie’ from Pune and identify with all the difficult stages that we have had to overcome particularly when it comes to English conversation. Yet, I find that portion unconvincing as a lot more could have happened there. The film really warmed up when she is in NY and the cosmopolitan ambiance is felt in the class room and in the city of NY. Interestingly, there is not much emphasis on the family atmosphere even there, but more on her personal space outside the home. I agree with your observations regarding the depiction of her affair and choices. Also NY that we see is relevant to her life and not the touristic one, as it normally happens in our films. The film does leave a warm feeling in the end and the use of the Marathi song is delightful and it is subtly, non-agressively ethnic.

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