“My wife, she was born to make laddoos!”says the grinning husband to the white boy who’s being inducted into the family. The white boy, whose name is Kevin, has just taken his first-ever bite of a moist, delicious little globe of motichur goodness produced by the aforementioned wife, Shashi, and he looks suitably overwhelmed with delight. Then the camera moves across to Shashi, and that single fluid moment, as we watch her face silently transform from happy to tremulous to brave, encapsulates everything that the film wants to show us.
What Gauri Shinde’s debut film insists on showing us is so deliberately unspectacular, so quiet and dull and taken-for-granted, that when we see it in real life (and we see it all the time), we merely avert our eyes. It is the predicament of the person whose personhood is summarily dismissed by a refusal to value the work they do—casually, perhaps without malice—but resulting in no less cruelty than if it were intentional.
Because English-Vinglish, despite its name, is not just about English. English here is a placeholder. Being fluent in English, in the sadly skewed universe of contemporary India, automatically codes you as modern, fashionable, worthy of respect. Not being fluent in it relegates you to the backroom, a second-class citizen, unworthy of display.
Dibakar Banerjee’s films – Oye Lucky most of all, but also Pitobash Tripathy’s character in Shanghai – have given us what are perhaps Hindi cinema’s most nuanced commentaries on English as a marker of social class. What Shinde does in English-Vinglish is very different, not just because her style involves broader strokes and a happier, more feel-good mood— but because the domain she chooses to set her film in is the family.
Shashi is, first and foremost, a wife and mother, and Shinde’s masterstroke is to create a character whose fears and conflicts and insecurities are almost never a consequence of direct assaults made by the wider social world. Her experience of the world comes to her filtered through her husband and children.
So it is Shashi’s own daughter who is embarrassed and angry at Shashi’s inability to understand her classmate’s English-speaking mother—the classmate’s mother seems, at worst, oblivious. It is the same daughter who sulks for hours because Shashi speaks to her teacher in Hindi while the Malayali Christian teacher himself seems quite charmed by this woman who unselfconsciously talks to him about banana chips and wants to know if her daughter is not just a good student but also a popular one. The loyal clients she’s built up for her high-quality home-made laddoos are glad to have a friendly chat when she makes her delivery rounds in person. It is her husband’s lackadaisical dismissal of her excitement about the day’s sales that silences her.
So it makes complete sense when Shashi, at the film’s end, describes her view of family as a little world within the wider world, a space in which you ought to be held safe from the judgements and cruelties of the wider world. It is as close to a statement of worldview as a Hindi film heroine has ever been allowed to come, and whether you think of it as beautifully hopeful, or sadly, simplistically delusional, it is unlikely that you will come away unmoved.
Because in the deliberate simplicity of its canvas—and its protagonist—lies the strength of Gauri Shinde’s film. By refusing to situate the vexed question of English in a larger socio-political context, by focusing its attention on the home, it does simplify the issue—but it also holds up a mirror to what must be the most mundane, most neglected aspects of our social lives: how we treat our mothers.
And yet, the reason why English-Vinglish is so successful is because it is careful not to underline its chosen subject too heavily. Shashi is not above the occasional well-aimed barb—“Oh, main bhool gayi, important baatein toh sirf English mein hi hoti hain na?”—but her deepest wounds are ones she hugs tightly to herself. Our sense of Shashi’s intense privacy, her shyness, helps the film steer clear of melodrama, and lends itself rather beautifully to the few moments when she does open up. It seems entirely fitting that she speaks her heart out only to a man who does not understand her words.
That besotted Frenchman (Mehdi Nebbou) is one of the people in Shashi’s English class, a cheerfully updated version of Mind Your Language that provides the film with most of its lighter moments, via a slightly caricatured but affectionately drawn collection of immigrants—a Pakistani cab driver, a Tamilian techie, a Spanish-speaking nanny, a young Chinese girl, a largely silent African man—all struggling to improve their English.
The New York segment is necessarily shot with the eyes of the dazzled outsider—all skyscrapers and downtown views— but Shinde also manages to fill it with nicely-observed moments that anyone who has ever negotiated the terrifying newness of any (Western) city will immediately identify with: the minor but life-altering trials—and triumphs—of making Metrocards work, finding your way to an interview, placing an order in a café without holding up the queue.
But eventually, it is Sridevi, with her trademark winsome girlishness of old now beautifully balanced by a new quiet dignity, who makes us experience each of these triumphs as her own. Go, cheer her on.