So, what do you do?’ Shashi Godbole is asked on the first day of her English class. Shashi lowers her head, blinks nervously, tugs at the edge of her sari and murmurs: ‘I make laddoos at home and sell them.’ She continues to hang her head, expecting peals of laughter to break out any moment. ‘Wow, that makes you an entrepreneur!’ the teacher smiles appreciatively. Shashi looks up in shock. She doesn’t understand the meaning of the word, but something tells her it’s a term to reckon with. She breaks into a smile. Shashi feels important for the first time in her life.
English Vinglish is all heart. A delightful tale of one woman’s triumph against the odds, it warms the cockles of your heart and makes its place quite comfortably in it. A film that stands out for its unbridled honesty and holds its own for making you realise that it’s the small joys of life that matter in the big run.
English Vinglish revels in its simplicity, eliciting a smile here and milking a tear there. It is the story of the underdog, of self-respect and of taking the world gently by its collar and making it notice you — and ultimately root for you. Here is an uninhibited tale of the inhibitions that drag us down all our lives and our overwhelming need to break free.
Shashi (Sridevi) is one such underdog. A caring wife and loving mother, Shashi’s world is her family, even when she is constantly put down by them. She finds happiness in the seemingly minor things of life. For her, her children’s grades don’t count so much. ‘Is she good-natured? Does she have respect for others?’ is her only query at PTA meetings.
However, Shashi’s inability to speak English has her alarmingly rude adolescent daughter talk down to her at every given opportunity and an unsupportive husband (Adil Hussain) who admits — without flinching, we may add — that the only reason he comes back home is for his wife’s cooking. “My wife was born to make laddoos”, is his smiling dismissal of her.
For it is only in the kitchen when an under-confident, simpering Shashi comes alive. Whipping up laddoos is what gives her happiness, making her feel that she can take on the world. The joy on her face is indescribable when she sees her labour of love being gobbled down greedily. She may not know the language, but she speaks the language of food. Like that heart-warming moment when she bonds with her daughter’s English teacher over a delightful discussion on banana chips!
But take the rolling pin out of her hand and Shashi’s world collapses like a pack of cards. She thinks and rethinks before stepping out on the street and bumping into the English-speaking mothers of her children’s friends is a daily nightmare. So when she is told that she would have to travel alone to New York to help out in a family function, Shashi finds her world turning turtle. She stutters through the visa interview, stumbles at the immigration counter, but somehow makes her way to the Big Apple.
Once there, her inability to buy herself something as basic as a sandwich makes Shashi take one life-changing decision: to enrol for a four-week English speaking course, giving her the perfect window before her family joins her. It’s only natural that her moment of waking up to the world should happen in New York, the melting pot of so many cultures, the city that people come to with dreams in their eyes.
Debutante director Gauri Shinde builds Shashi’s world painstakingly — her insecurities, her fears and her desperate need to stand up and be counted. The heartwarming vignettes in Shashi’s daily life as she discovers a new city, a new language — and ultimately a new her — is what makes English Vinglish so touching.
Her triumphs may be minor, but they are so feel-good. You root for her when she manages to punch in the Tube ticket and smile proudly at everyone around; you clap and cheer when she uninhibitedly breaks into a Michael Jackson step in the middle of a busy New York boulevard and you break into a smile when she gives a lunch order in near-perfect English. Just as we put all our support behind the rakshaso ki sena in Chak De! India, here we egg on Shashi to come up with that perfect speech in English at the end.
However, one can’t deny that this is a linear plot with an oversimplified worldview. That a woman, no matter how accomplished she may be, needs to chit-chat in English to be taken seriously by her husband, high-fived by her kids and shown respect by the world in general. However, Shinde makes sure that English Vinglish appeals so much to the heart that you don’t really want to allow your head to get in the way.
A major credit for making the film what it is should go to the precise casting. Each actor fits snugly into his or her part, turning in a pitch-perfect performance. Adil Hussain stands out as the husband forced to see and appreciate his wife in a new light while Priya Anand as Shashi’s niece and confidante gets it just right.
Shashi’s classmates are a delight, giving the film its best moments. They are as diverse as a Tam Brahm who misses idlis and his mother in that order, a Spanish nanny who sleeps through every class, a Chinese beauty parlour worker and a Pakistani cab driver. Their struggle with a common language helps them forge a common bond.
The love story that never is between Shashi and her French classmate Laurent (played by French actor Mehdi Nebbou) gives the film its sweet moments. She vents in Hindi, he comforts in French. They speak their heart out, one not understanding a syllable of the other, but it’s their eyes that do all the talking.
But in the end, it is one woman who gives you every reason to book your ticket for English Vinglish this weekend. A woman who Hawa-hawaii-ed her way into our hearts more than two decades ago and returns after a 15-year hiatus to reclaim it. Each twitch of the eyebrow speaks a thousand words, a lopsided smile is the window to her heart and every tear makes you reach out to hold her hand. Sridevi makes Shashi her own, living the life of a woman who lives in each one of us. Years have been added to her face and the chiffon has given way to cotton, but that she looks beautiful only makes it better.
Watch out for that scene in which she interacts with Amitabh Bachchan (in a delightful cameo) and you will realise what you have been missing all these years.
Welcome back, Sri!