Note: this is my personal blog, these are my views. If you don't want to know anything about English Vinglish before the film comes out, then I suggest you don't read any further, and just wait for the film to come out. Also, don't watch the trailer. Almost everything I say here is in the trailer, so if knowing even that much upsets you, don't watch it.
Early morning. A family chats around the breakfast table. The conversation touches on the typical day-to-day stuff familiar to any family, but as the scene unfolds, we notice one difference: much of the conversation happens in English, with the exception of one person: Shashi (Sridevi, in a much anticipated comeback after 15 years away from making films). As we soon come to realize, Shashi’s difficulties with the English language, her inability to speak or understand more than just a little of it, mean that she often finds herself feeling insecure, either with her family (who find her efforts at English amusing), or in public. Shashi’s teen-aged daughter is especially judgemental, and cruel in a way that only teen-aged daughters can be with their mothers. The one thing Shashi’s family completely overlooks is that her lack of English does not make her completely incapable. She is a passionate, talented cook, who runs a very successful home-based ladoo making business.
When the family is invited to the marriage of Shashi’s niece in New York, the plan is to send Shashi ahead, five weeks early, so she can help her sister with the wedding plans. Shashi, understandably, doesn’t want to go alone – she has enough difficulty navigating something as simple as a parent-teacher conference; the thought of having to fly to New York, with her limited English, and having never travelled anywhere on her own unnerves her – but her husband (Adil Hussein) insists that he will bring their two children later, and the process of preparing her to make this first solo journey begins.
So Shashi memorizes enough English to help her get through US immigration, exchanges some of the money she earns with her ladoo business for American dollars, and boards a plane to New York. Her nervousness is palpable, but fortunately she is helped on her way by a lovely stranger (Amitabh Bachchan in a cameo), who shows her the ropes of air travel (“You may confidently push the button,” he tells her so she can call to request a glass of water), and who, in one of the film’s many touching moments, translates an English film for her when a dejected Shashi finds the plane has 50 English channels to watch, but only one Hindi one, showing a film she has already seen on television.
The New York Shashi is introduced to by her niece is a wonderful whirlwind of a place, and Shashi’s delight at all this newness is palpable. But when Shashi is left on her own, she soon finds New York a bewildering and difficult place to be in. Even something as simple as ordering a sandwich and a coffee turns into a disaster.
And although she initially sits on a bench and weeps, the resourceful Shashi soon finds herself taking things into her own hands to turn all of this around. She sees an ad for English language tuition on the side of a bus, decides to sign herself up, and in this way, the transformation of Shashi from insecure housewife to confident and self-assured woman begins.
Gauri Shinde’s film is, at its core, about the delicate and occasionally difficult dance that goes on in relationships – between husband and wife, mother and children, between a woman yearning for respect and working to get it from those who owe it to her, but rarely show it. It’s a deftly written film, funny and tender by turns, and perfectly captures the difficulty facing those for whom language is a barrier to acceptance and success. The film fumbles occasionally: the disrespect shown by Shashi’s daughter and husband is, at times, a wee bit heavy-handed. And Shashi’s fellow classmates, including a Latina nanny, a South Indian working in IT, the French chef, Laurent (who befriends and falls in love with Shashi); and their gay teacher, David (Cory Hibbs), risk, at times, seeming like stereotypes – in fact, in the case of David the only reason, really, for him to be gay is for Shashi to deliver a delicate and wonderful message about tolerance. It’s an important moment, and especially revelatory about Shashi’s own values, but perhaps that’s a message that could have been delivered differently (although it should be noted that there’s one other gay character in Shinde’s film who is a complete contrast to the occasionally flamboyant David). That said, though, these characters are a representative slice of New York, and Shinde makes them human and likeable, especially David, who enthusiastically motivates and encourages his students to learn. When Shashi tells David that she has a little business making ladoos, he tells her she is an “entrepreneur”, a concept that makes her beam with pride and pleasure.
But English Vinglish more than makes up for its occasional missteps by having its heart squarely in the right place. Amit Trivedi’s songs – so fresh and playful – add an extra emotional layer to the film. And in creating the character of Shashi, Shinde allows Sridevi to return in a mature and sensitive role that places her acting abilities front and centre.
And what a performance the luminous Sridevi delivers! She delights and charms us from beginning to end, allowing us to share Shashi’s worries, her insecurities, her sorrows, and her triumph. We see her absolute pleasure and passion for her business, as she delicately and almost tenderly rolls each ladoo. We feel her anguish and frustration when, once again on the receiving end of her daughter’s scorn, she wonders how she ended up a trash can, dumped in whenever her family feels like it. But this is contrasted with the absolutely delightful relationship she shares with her adorable young son, one of the charming high points of the film. We share her strength and her triumph as she finally masters the English language well enough to make a speech at her niece’s wedding, and as she finally, quietly, demands the respect her family owes her, and ultimately gives her. Every first experience is special, the film tells us; and Sridevi makes Gauri Shinde's first feature, English Vinglish special, indeed.