Coming of age
Mumbai: She has inner strength, charm, beauty and sincerity. A ball of wool outside kitchen and home, or when challenged to speak up. She cooks succulent, ghee-laced snacks in her kitchen. She pleases everyone. Her ignorance of the English language horrifies her hyperactive, overachieving teenaged daughter. Her husband finds her safe, easy to demand what he wants, be it tea or sex.
Know this woman? The aunt who perhaps studied in a vernacular-medium school, who never really enjoyed college or learnt much in college, graduated with a degree, and then got married?
Shinde’s premise is simple: A woman can change her situation, love herself, and get the family to love her back. It is a winning theme for a film, rife with dramatic possibilities—the underdog, her struggles, her victory against the odds. The writer and debut director builds up a buoyant mood from early on, moving with a linear and predictable graph. The husband is strikingly shallow—he is either ridiculing his wife, or is busy attending to office calls. The plot is thin, with the depth of a mediocre television serial. There is no defined visual scheme to accentuate the story. Some of the imagery is even tacky, like an introduction to Manhattan. We see Manhattan through a hurried montage of boring location shots, peppily set to a track which uses the word “Manhattan” many times over, composed by the film’s music director Amit Trivedi. So as far as cinematic technique goes, English Vinglish is sorely bereft of imagination. Its production value is uncompromised, and has the finesse of a lavishly produced commercial. The art direction is detailed, and the costumes are tasteful.
Shinde’s tools then are only actors and dialogue. English Vinglish is the journey of Shashi from a “vernac” wife and mom to an English-speaking wife and mom. After she reaches New York to help her elder sister (Sujatha Kumar) plan her daughter’s wedding, her not knowing English becomes a daily handicap. Shashi enrols in a four-week class to learn English. The sister’s journey has been different from hers, but here, too, the man is key. With the support of her husband (who is dead), she transcended the pettiness of the life they knew at Saraswati Vidya Mandir, the school in which both sisters studied. She has a career of her own in New York, and has raised two accomplished children by herself.
Shashi is inspired and eager to learn. The small class she attends secretly consists of people of various nationalities, genders and sexual preferences. While she begins to take baby steps towards a confident self, a French cook, her classmate, begins to fancy her. His metaphor for her eyes: two large drops of dark coffee on thick white clouds. For Shashi, a transformation need not be palpable or lead to a change in marital status, but is about how she can adjust her new self to her roles. The most revealing moments about Shashi are with her new friends, especially with Laurent, her French admirer. For example, in a moment of absolute self-pity, she shares her angst about being a mother to a daughter who does not respect her. “Why can’t a child respect her mother? You can teach your child everything, but you can’t teach her how to understand another person’s emotions.”
Shinde achieves a fine balance, to allow enough room for forgiveness and reconciliation. The feminist strand of Shinde’s story is accommodating, rather than alienating, and that complements the film’s overtly crowd-pleasing quality. There is song, there is a wedding, and there is Sridevi, cute and charismatic in equal measure.
The actor will not remind you of her electrifying old self here. She is mellow and restrained despite the characteristic tremor and shrillness in her voice. Her emotive skills are a thousand shades more restrained and calculated, fitting the role perhaps, but a far cry from the Sridevi we know. The secondary characters are forgettable; Adil Hussain as her husband has to work with a caricature, so his acting skills are a waste.
Sridevi works on the details, like her gait and her accent. A natural discomfort with English possibly makes her so convincing and utterly endearing. Ultimately, her imprint on screen is that of a star—this is one of the most persuasive comebacks of a Bollywood star.
English Vinglish is breezy, light-hearted cinema with a woman’s big journey at its core, and the abiding reason to watch it is the lead actor.
English Vinglish releases in theatres on Friday.