Spoiler Alert: You may want to skip this post if you’ve not seen the movie and intend to see it.
So I watched English Vinglish last weekend. A lot had been said and written about the movie–all of it entirely complimentary– so I was kind of prepared to be disappointed. Well, I was not. The story is, no doubt, simple and feel-goodish but there is a sensitivity, an attention to detail and a certain earthiness to it which is not commonly seen in Hindi movies.
Sometimes a movie is able to give you wonderful insight into intra-familial relationships. Nothing you didn’t already know, but presented in a way that startles you. English Vinglish is full of such moments.
I found myself introspecting as I watched Sridevi’s character tolerate veiled and not-so veiled barbs, over her lack of proficiency in English, from an insensitive husband and a daughter who had a permanent sneer pasted on her face. Good heavens, I thought, I hope I never hurt my mother like that! My mother’s English was(is) only a little better than Sridevi’s in the movie. I mean, she can make herself understood if push comes to shove but is given to making errors. Growing up, did I ever make fun of her English? I am sure I couldn’t have been anywhere near as sneering and snooty as Sridevi’s incredibly rude daughter ( I wished I could get hold of her shoulders and give her a good shake) but maybe I might have sometimes laughed at a mispronunciation?
Ouch. Sorry Mom. It is apt that director Gauri Shinde should have dedicated this movie to her mother and others of her generation who were made fun of by their English-speaking children.
And then of course I felt immensely, immensely grateful for knowing decent English myself. It is not something I can take credit for. I mentally thanked my parents for the gift of a good education. It’s a privilege and must be acknowledged as such. It was comforting to realize that nobody can laugh at my English at least.
What I didn’t like was the way Sridevi took all the taunts from her daughter lying down–surely she could have told her off? Isn’t tolerating such rudeness akin to encouraging it? But then many people are self-effacing and unassertive by nature ( and of course they suffer because of it). In this case, Sridevi’s low self-esteem probably made her all the more tongue-tied.
The scene where Sridevi attends a parents-teacher meeting in her daughter’s school, much to her daughter’s mortification, reminded me of the one time when my mother had to attend the annual PTA meet in my school ( my father was out of station). I don’t remember feeling embarrassed at all though–after all none of my friends’ mothers were all that fluent in English and I was sure the teachers were not unaware of the fact. If anything, I was eager to make my teachers meet her because I thought she was beautiful, dignified and well-spoken in her own way.
Besides, I used to chafe at teachers who told us to speak in English at home too. By taking my non-English speaking mother to meet them, I wanted to send them the message that it is not possible for everyone, not for me in any case, to speak English at home and that I was none the worse for it. It is important to speak a language if you want to master it but one can very well do without having to speak it all the time, right?
Back to the movie. The most heart-warming part of it comes when Sridevi begins to attend an English course in faraway New York, where she is for her niece’s wedding. She proves to be a keen learner, of course, and gradually gains in self-confidence. And on the day of her niece’s wedding she manages to give a soulful, stirring speech in halting English which had me crying buckets.
There are quite a few funny moments. A fellow English-learner is shown to be besotted by Sridevi and once takes the opportunity to profess his love for her in front of the class, saying how beautiful she was and likening her eyes to–hold your breath–two drops of coffee in a cloud of milk. Yikes!!! No wonder Sridevi wasn’t impressed!
And then another student from India laments how his coworkers ‘ laugh at his behind’ because of his poor English!
The casting is perfect. Sridevi’s elder sister and her daughters look every bit like the NRIs in a Jhumpa Lahiri story, except they aren’t Bongs. Everyone suits the character they’re playing to a T, not least Sridevi herself.
She still retains the uncanny talent of getting her expressions just right. It’s a delight to watch her as a variety of emotions chase themselves on her face–hurt, resentment, fear, awe, joy, pride. No, she hasn’t lost touch at all. What a comeback!!