Having been born in the 1980s, the first actress I liked the most was undoubtedly Sridevi. It helped that I was born in a Tamil-speaking family in Kerala, which meant that I got to see some of her finely nuanced performances in Tamil and Malayalam movies. I repeatedly enjoyed seeing her scorch the screens in Mr India, Chandni and Lamhe. There was no reason why I had to miss the comeback of a superstar.
Just as a few minutes pass after English Vinglish starts off, you realise that there are elements from our own homes playing out there. The movie is about an unassuming housewife Shashi (Sridevi), who is the butt of most of the jokes in her home because she cannot speak English. Her mispronunciations and broken words become a point of embarrassment for her husband Satish (Adil Hussain) and daughter. Things come to a turning point when Shashi is called to the US, to help her sister out with the wedding of her eldest daughter. A humiliating experience at a Manhattan café becomes the last straw for her and she takes note of an English language coaching centre and secretly slips away for the class every day, not just to learn English, but to regain her lost dignity and prove herself in her family.
Gauri Shinde has made a smashing debut with English Vinglish. Sheconfesses to have been inspired to write this script looking at her own mother’s life, who fumbled with the English language and could never gain control over it. But as you watch it, you will realise that the movie is much more than a story of a housewife trying to learn the Queen’s language. It is about a woman scoring a high to gain her confidence, which has been derided over years of insensitivity displayed by her family. Shashi is a parent who doesn’t know English, when the people who surround her family talk, walk and dream in English. It is this inability of hers which leaves her daughter embarrassed at a PTA, when Shashi requests the Principal to switch over to Hindi, as she would be more comfortable that way. Her ability to make mouthwatering delicacies is overlooked and so is her enterprising spirit in selling delicious ladoos.
Some of the scenes stand out for their sheer simplicity and comic brilliance, like the ones with her French classmate Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou) where she talks to him in Hindi and he replies in French. They don’t get what they are telling each other but perfectly understand each other’s state of mind. Shashi is simplistically humourous in the scene where she memorises the responses she has to give to the immigration officer once she lands in the US and messes it all in her nervousness. Shashi could have been any lady we knew – she could have been an aunt in our neighbourhood, a relative, or our own mother! She is full of imperfections and yet so lovable.
Amit Trivedi’s music scores a high point, with lovely numbers such as Navrai Majhi, Dhak Dhuk and Badla Nazara. Gauri cleverly sets the movie in culturally neutral space, with an intention to make a tri-lingual film. So Shashi, though presented as a Maharashtrian housewife, could very well belong to any part of India. Her story is bound to resonate in the heart of every housewife, who looks for not just love, but also some respect for the selfless and thankless work that she does. Excellent support is provided by Sujata Kumar as Shashi’s sister, Adil Hussian as Satish, Priya Anand as her niece Radha and Mehdi Nebbou as her French classmate.
I personally feel that had Sridevi and Madhuri been working in the 1950s or 60s, they would have got more chances to do justice to their potential. But there could not have been a better time than today for an actress to get meaty roles, what with movies like Saat Khoon Maaf, Ishqiya and The Dirty Picture hailing the comeback of the heroine! It is after 15 years that Sridevi is back on the silver screen and the film lives up to all the hype that her comeback has been carrying. It is her genius that a simple story becomes a joy to behold and she lives the role in every possible way. At the end of it, English Vinglish leaves a sweet aftertaste, like the ladoos Shashi takes pride in making. But the biggest success point of this movie is that while you walk out adoring the film and its makers, you will be all the more in awe of your mother.