“Her eyes are like two drops of coffee on a cloud of milk”, says a French cook in English to and about a Marathi housewife in a New York classroom full of non English speaking students. How should then the said housewife react to this direct expression of another man’s love for her in a public setting? In another movie, she would be fuming and the audacious man would be on the receiving end of a drubbing on morality. Not in Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish. In this confident directorial debut, Gauri’s Shashi Godbole, played with amazing grace by Sridevi, reacts with a mild surprise and a hesitant smile: all conveyed with those two coffee-drops-on-clouds-of-milk eyes . Later on, when the French cook apologizes for being so direct with her, she says in Hindi that she was not offended but just taken aback a little since she is not used to being praised this way. This is the essence of this simple movie, there is no grand “conflict” in Shashi’s life, there is no high strung drama, it’s just a simple need to be “respected” and not “taken for granted”. This tale is sadly quite common to many a housewives who are there to serve their husbands and children (my mother, is one of them). That said, it will be a huge mistake to think of English Vinglish (EV) as a “women’s empowerment or liberation” movie. That, it is not. Shashi might look like a conservative woman strictly by her outwardly appearances, but she is not weak or oppressed by her family. She is a woman of free will and an open heart. For example, she does not think that girls must be “girls” which we understand in an endearing exchange between her and her son, Sagar. Sagar is telling on his older teenage sister Sapna about escapades to coffee shops in the name of studying:
Sagar – Chotee see skirt peheni hai…
Shashi – Skirt toh peheni hai na?
Sagar – Boys bhi honge wahan…
Shashi – Lucky hai woh boys.
It shows her faith in her daughter (and her upbringing of her) and an understanding of the girls of Sapna’s age. In another scene later in the movie, she is shown to be completely and nonchalantly supportive of gay relationships. There is no liberating her, she is liberated than most psuedo-liberals and does not care to flaunt it with her outwardly appearances.
She is a model housewife, takes care of the myriad demands of all her family members, runs a successful “ladoo” making business out of her house and takes immense pride in the world she has built. However, her husband and her teenage daughter take continous jibes at her for her lack of finesse with the English language – that one sign of sophistication and a symbol of you are someone of substance in the urban Indian society. How she overcomes this one limitation forms the crux of the rest of the story.
This movie would crumble without Sridevi. She becomes Shashi. She instills the grace, the lightness and the core strength that makes Shashi, Shashi. Gauri, probably wrote the character down to the minutest detail, sample these little nuggets:
– She also gets carried away with the English superiority complex and corrects a house servant when he says “Gipt” for “Gift”
– She is emotional, but once the emotions start overpowering her, she brushes them aside and takes charge of the situation: her breakdown and subsequent resolve after the coffee shop scene is one example
– She is passionate and fully committed to whatever she undertakes, being a mother or making ladoos or learning English: notice how tenderly she rolls her ladoos, just like how she would handle Sagar (who she affectionately calls “ladoo”). This passion also applies to her English learning, she goes above and beyond the classroom to take on this new daunting confusing language – from reading subtitles on the daily news to reading off of fridge magnets. She is committed 100%.
Many such little facets of Shashi’s character help us in truly understanding her and cheering for her. Writing a character is one thing, being that character on screen is another. There is no other actress I can imagine other than Sridevi who could have done justice to this role. To me, who has been a smitten fan of hers since I first laid my eyes on her 25 years ago in Mr.India in 1987, it was hard to imagine this is the woman who had set the subcontinent on fire when she pranced in the rain in a blue chiffon saree while making out with an invisible Anil Kapoor.
She shows complete control on every gesture, on every little nuance, so much so that she makes us forget that this is Sridevi. The only minor gripe I have with her is she does not sound “Marathi”, which I am willing to forego. She makes it all look so effortless, easy and breezy. There lies the true triumph of an actor, when the audience forgets that this is “acting”. Yes, a biased fan here, but in all objectivity, I would rate this performance as something actors of today (male or female) should observe to study on how to communicate more with less.
The rest of the cast adds an enriching color commentary to this formulaic plot. Mehdi Nebbou stands out as the French guy who falls for her. His performance manages to match the same economy of expressions, words and body language with Sridevi’s. Their exchanges in Hindi and French are endearing, neither understanding the other in words, but still “getting” each other.
Is this really Gauri’s first full length feature film? The outcome is sure footed and assured. She does not for once sell out to gimmicks, cheap thrills or extended “let me squeeze some more tears” scenes. Right from the opening scene of dawn breaking over the city of Pune and Shashi getting on with the chores of the morning until the final triumphant monologue from Shashi, the direction and the narrative never tries to cram too many concepts in the frame. It stays honest and clear to what it wants to convey. When you are in the English class, you participate in the friendly banter of the students, when you are at Shashi’s dinner table, you are sharing their familial warmth, when Shashi is getting harangued in the coffee shop you find yourself cringing inside, when she makes the final speech, you shine with her in her triumph.
There are many more scenes which I want to highlight, but will save it for another post so as not to ruin their freshness for the first time viewers.
I am definitely waiting for Gauri’s next movie, whether it features Sridevi or not. (Here’s a quick plug if Gauri ever reads this post: A mature love story between Sridevi and Mehdi Nebbou set in a Parisian bistro. A dish so delectable, I am salivating already).
I am no judge to the technical aspects of film-making, but wanted to highlight some aspects of the camerawork by Laxman Utekar. The entire movie seems to be shot from Shashi’s viewpoint and mostly stays at her eyesight level when she is Pune. There are a few scenes which stand out, when Shashi first views Manhattan it’s from the backseat of a car, an enclosed POV, kind of how she feels while seeing this new world from a safe place. She then views the city with her niece as a tourist – with awe and wonder, the camera is looking up to the grand buildings of the city, a harbinger of her opening up to this new world. Then after the coffee shop scene when her safe world is rattled to the core, the camera sees her looking down from the top and feels as if the city is closing in on her, almost making her claustrophobic. As the movie progresses and she finds her bearings and gains her confidence, not only is her walk more confident but the avenues and the buildings seem more open and airy due to the wide angle shots. These may or may not be conscious decisions by the DOP or the Director, but they worked for me in experiencing Shashi’s journey.
Amit Trivedi & Swanand Kirkire:
Amit Trivedi’s background score is quietly stirring, I almost did not hear it on the first viewing but consciously sought it out on the second viewing. Needless to say, a background music that is inconspicuous is the best kind. There are no lip-sync songs save for Navrai Majhi. Swanand Kirkire’s lyrics are relevant to the situations and he embeds the “English Vinglish” speaking style effortlessly in many word pairings “Coffee Voffee” “Sugar Vugar” “Taana Vaana”. My personal favorite stand alone track is Gustakh Dil sung by Shilpa Rao.
Personally, English Vinglish made me think on how I have treated and continue to treat people around me, especially those who are the closest. It definitely made me pick up the phone and call my mother to thank her for being who she is and apologizing for any insensitive remarks that I might have made.
The film ends on a cliched (yet very satisfying) scene where the protagonist delivers a monologue in fractured English with perfect body language by Sri, her hands move before she can find the words to express, you can almost read her thoughts which are a few steps ahead and she is still looking for that right word for her previous thought. This scene provides a satisfactory catharsis for the audience who have been cheering her journey all along. While it is an exceptionally well written monologue and delivered flawlessly by Sridevi, for me the moment where I cheered in jubilation comes right before her monologue: when Shashi gently asks her husband Satish, who is speaking on her behalf to the gathered crowd. She says two words – “May I?“. A voice inside of me screamed with jubiliation:
You may Shashi – you may tell the world that what matters most is that you communicate, listen, connect & respect. The language is secondary.
Another fan-voice inside me screamed:
You may Sri – you may show the non actors of today who are hailed on one Friday and disappear the next, what real performers and stars are. 15 years and your shine is only brighter. Welcome back, you were dearly missed.