Dir. Gauri Shinde
As the opening date of Sridevi's first movie in 15 years approached, I began to notice a rising pitch of excitement and anticipation among desi women of a certain age. So many of my friends and acquaintances in their 30s and 40s were beside themselves, unable to contain their delight at the prospect of their childhood favorite returning to the big screen. An outstanding article by Supriya Nair captures what Sridevi means to that generation. (It also includes a fascinating discussion of Sri's masterful song from Mr. India, "Hawa hawai.")
As an outsider, I have no childhood memories of Sridevi to draw on to fuel my anticipation - only an admiration for Sridevi's obvious gifts, which to my eye are so often far out of proportion to the horrible movies she graced with them. Nair's nostalgic exploration traverses the many faces of Sridevi - her comedic radiance, her raw ingenuous vulnerability - that captivated and confused a generation trying to find its voice in a nation transitioning to modernity. Reading this piece helps me understand why the women I know awaited the new movie, Gauri Shinde's English Vinglish, with such thrill and expectation. Seeing the movie made real for me all the praise I'd ever heard for Sridevi. She is a gifted, empathetic, and thoroughly charming performer. And English Vinglish is a beautiful, lovable movie, fully worthy of her gifts.
Sridevi's Shashi Godbole is an overworked, underappreciated Pune housewife who, like the classmates Supriya Nair remembers from her school days, also finds her voice in a confusing world. Shashi's family unthinkingly undermines everything she does from which she might derive a sense of pride or accomplishment. Shashi's husband, Satish (Adil Hussain), has no problem with modern women in his working life, but it's clear that he prefers a submissive galley slave at home. He tells her in so many words that he only bothers coming home from work because of her cooking. More than that, he belittles and discourages her from pursuing her independent business, hand-crafting and delivering laddoos. Shashi's preteen daughter sasses her, as young girls will do to their mothers - but the girl's embarrassment has an edge that gets under Shashi's skin. She is disgusted by what she perceives as her mother's backwardness - especially her inability to speak English. When a business meeting keeps Satish from a parent-teacher conference, Shashi attends in his place, to the girl's utter mortification. Shashi is elated after a charmingly successful discussion with one of the teachers, but her daughter destroys that elation in a single verbal stroke, leaving Shashi bruised and uncertain.
One has the sense - thanks both to taut scripting and Sridevi's masterful performance - of a woman bursting with intelligence and creativity, a woman who harbors a flickering sense of her own power, as yet unable to find a suitable outlet for it. When preparations for a family wedding land her in New York with a month to herself, Shashi sees an opportunity and leaps at it, signing up for an intensive English course. What follows is a delightful and touching adventure, as Shashi discovers the capacious strength and courage that has been in her all along, and presses these into service of her pursuit of respect for everything she is and can do.
I crave stories like this, stories about mature women finding ways to express themselves independently, tapping into strengths they may not even have been aware they had. And in this, English Vinglish delivers beautifully. This is Sridevi's movie from beginning to end, and she is simply outstanding. She is in every scene, and her famously huge eyes fill the screen with emotion and sensitivity. The physicality of Sridevi's performances is legendary, but her work in English Vinglish is entirely different in character from her comedic physicality, on display in iconic pieces like "Hawa hawai," with their nods to the tradition of Lucille Ball. Here, rather than comedy, Sridevi's body language conveys broadly ranging emotion. Beaming with delight after her conference with her daughter's teacher, Shashi visibly deflates under the girl's mocking words. In a later scene, Shashi talks with her sister about the latter's great success as a businesswoman in New York. While her sister sits straight-backed and confident, Shashi slumps in her chair. Later, though, Shashi's posture and stride grow more sure as she navigates the subways and streets of the city daily on her way to class. How satisfying to see her strut down a crowded avenue wearing a trenchcoat over her gorgeous Sabyaschi sari, clutching a cup of coffee.
Another delight of English Vinglish is that it doesn't take a romance for Shashi to find her confidence. There is a romantic element - one of Shashi's classmates, the dashing Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou), falls for her quite hard - but there is little sign that Shashi returns his feelings beyond friendship. Indeed, Shashi seems to find Laurent's romantic interest somewhat frustrating and beside the point. Instead of being inspired by male attention, Shashi is inspired by recognition and respect. When her English teacher (Cory Hibbs) tells her that her laddoo business qualifies her as an "entrepreneur," Shashi glows with wonder as she tries the word on for size - and walks unnoticingly right past the smitten Laurent.
Recognition and respect is exactly what Shashi does not get from her husband Satish, who is a first-class jackass. Even when attempting to pay her a compliment, he belittles her - as when he exclaims "My wife was born to make laddoos!" after dismissing the business earlier in the film as a frivolous waste of time. But here the script and Shinde's direction again achieve flawless balance - Satish remains just this side of mustache-twirling cartoonishness, even as his maddeningly demeaning comments make one want to punch him in the head. The disrespect from her family makes Shashi's climactic speech about the vitality of support for one's family - delivered, of course, in slow but increasingly confident English - all the more satisfying.
If I have to lodge even one complaint about English Vinglish, it's that the movie shortchanges Sridevi's wonderful dancing. She does dance a little in the film's final song, and while her bashfulness at doing so is entirely consistent with Shashi's character, it would have been nice if she cut loose for more than a few seconds once that tentativeness is established and overcome. But this is such a small nit to pick about a movie that is a true delight. The journey that Sridevi takes us on with Shashi, learning to flex her strength and her voice, is beautiful. It's one that I am sure I will revisit again and again - an instant favorite.