That a study titled “Hindi Filmdom—Bastion of Sexism” would preoccupy a doctoral dissertation or two will come as no surprise. Female actors hardly ever last more than a few years at the top and “Comebacks” —consider Madhuri Dixit with Aaja Nachle (2008)—are doomed because of expectations that the artist will take up exactly where they left off.
Defying the odds even after a 15 year hiatus, English Vinglish captures the still-vivacious Sridevi in a fantastic turn as a woman of a certain age caught in a turbulent, humorous and touching cross-cultural coming-of-age parable.
In a marvelously structured original screenplay by director Shinde, Shashi Godbole (Sridevi), a dutiful, sari-first housewife from Pune versed in only Hindi, rather suddenly arrives in New York to help with her niece’s big fat Indian wedding. Taking a sizable risk with her station in life and also taking advantage of the lag before her family joins her in New York, Shashi decides that the only avenue to break the culturally-imposed linguistic barbwire holding her back is to enroll in an English language course in Manhattan. Unbeknownst to her husband Satish (Hussain) in India and finding an accomplice in her niece Radha (Anand), Shashi sneaks out by day to take language lessons.
In a brilliantly age-commensurate role, the gifted, chameleon-like astute Sridevi as Shashi is alternatively coy—within her “Indian housewife” image—and also adventurous— within her “me-Shashi-from-the-India” (sic) outburst in a tightly knit language class.
Always-clad in suburban-wear saris, Shashi’s tour is made even more memorable because she makes no apologies for her Indian identity. Sridevi’s Shashi nails not only TOEFL—that ubiquitous exam many foreigners must pass to demonstrate English proficiency state side—but along the way, and without losing an iota of her Indian woman identity, also conquers New York as a Second Language. Any immigrant who has arrived from far shores to the bemused other-worldly maze that Manhattan poses, will readily fall for this hook, line and cappuccino.
That brings us to what English Vinglish is lacking. A woman-director, a rare breed in Hindi cinema, teamed up with a huge female star, should be able to tear into the guts of film artistry, yet it is disappointing that the filmmaker makes Shashi’s journey merely rudimentary and resorts to formulaic filmmaking. Shashi seems truly happy in New York.
Compared to her half-full life in Pune, New York offers Shashi a breath of fresh air, as if she is born again in Central Park. The midtown classroom with a gay teacher and a possible admirer in Laurent, the hunky French chef and fellow student (Nebbou), become Shashi’s surrogate family. To offer all this and then force Shashi into choosing is a small letdown.
At the height of her reign during the 1980s, Sridevi rocked the Hindi screen with huge hits like Nagina, Mr. India and Chandni. She had immense popularity and astounding appeal both in Bombay and the regional cinemas of her native southern India. Referring to Sridevi as “Lady Bachchan”—a testament to both her astronomical paychecks as well as popularity—was considered a boon. The legacy also made Sridevi the second richest female entertainer in India, behind only Lata Mangeshkar. Of all the female stars that have graced Hindi cinema over the last years 100 years, perhaps only Nargis was a bigger star than Sridevi.
Released simultaneously in Hindi and Tamil versions, English Vinglish got a huge boost and advanced accolades when it was not only released at the Toronto Film Festival in September but that rarest of events in India—a press screening exclusively for Indian media. There is also the YouTube-friendly and highly clever trailer that for most of its two minutes features a sari-clad woman (Sridevi) reading a lifesize censor certificate with her back to the camera. Finally, who can deny the online buzz of a two minute scene-stealing appearance by Bachchan himself as a draw? Here, however, even Bachchan takes a backseat to Sridevi.