There are actresses and there is Sridevi. There are comeback films and there is English Vinglish. First of all, it is difficult to believe that Sri has actually completed almost thirty years in Hindi films (Sadma 1983) and that the actress Rani Mukerji is paying tribute to in her wet blue saree and patent pout in her comeback film next week, has made a comeback after almost two decades! And in a totally different avatar!
Here is Sri, who has metamorphosed from her chirpy, charged Hawa Hawaii, Nagina and Chaalbaaz days, to play a serene middle-aged mother like Shashi in English Vinglish. Not a yummy mummy. Just a plain laddoo-shaping mother, always putting her family’s needs first.
To be honest, it may not be a good idea to watch this film after one has just argued over household chores with the man-spouse. But then there rarely is a day in the life of a couple steeped in domesticity when they do not negotiate their power dynamics. And at the heart of it, English Vinglish is just about that — questioning the notion of equality in a marriage.
Shashi is a homemaker-cum-part-time snacks-maker in Pune. She has a wonderful family — a charming son, a husband who is always busy to talk on the phone, and who doesn’t mind joining his teenage daughter in laughing at her mother’s inability to speak proper English. “If you don’t study, you will have to stay at home making laddoos,” the husband tells his son in banter. Shashi is content to gulp down such playful insults. She is aware of how her inability to speak English and be worldly is hampering her ability to earn respect in her family. It takes a ride across to New York to organise her niece’s wedding, trying a glass of wine, and a distressing order for coffee with a rather belligerent waitress, to push Shashi to enroll for a English class on the sly.
On her own, Shashi finds her way through New York and friends who are struggling to be accepted and embraced in a supposedly multi-cultural city. She also finds a confidante in her teenage niece and an admirer — a Frenchman who shares her love for cooking. She learns English, of course. But not before she learns to respect herself first.
There are a few glitches, mostly to do with authenticity. It’d be almost impossible to find a woman of Shashi’s demographics of a forty-something high caste Brahmin Maharastrian woman in Pune, to be totally unable to comprehend English. A bigger issue is with Sridevi’s looks — somehow her emaciated form doesn’t really work for her character of a fried snack-making home-maker.
Even with these flaws, debutante Gauri Shinde has a mature film. With Shashi’s story, she is able to delve into the anguish of many unworldly parents who feel irrelevant to their children just because they don’t dress or speak in a certain accepted way. She explores the many nuances of communication between a couple and makes us question the equation of power and hierarchy in marriage and parenthood.
Husband Mr Godbole (Adil Hussain) does a fine job so does Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou). But most endearing is a fun cameo by Amitabh Bachchan. It’s a good film. Like Bachchan tells Shashi in the film, “Enjoy. Beshaque, befikr, bindaas.”