Subtleness is less expected from Bollywood, so it was pleasantly surprising to watch the understated subordination of Sridevi's character Shashi by her own husband and daughter. Even more subtle is the family's treatment of the grandmother - in one scene, Shashi's husband Satish casually tells his mother that she wasn't going with them to America because she had no passport to travel. The subordination of Indian homemakers and more broadly, Indian women in society and within their own homes, and the neglect of aging women within families is honestly conveyed in English Vinglish, the debut film by first-time director Gauri Shinde.
The opening scene is fresh and well-thought-out. Shashi is the first to wake up and ready the breakfast for her family. She prepares coffee in the same way she does every morning. She does not know how to pronounce the name of the brand Nescafe correctly, but that is not what concerns her. Her foremost duty is to take care of her dear ones - her working husband, her teenage daughter, her young son and her sweet mother-in-law. The moment they occupy the dining room, she begins serving toast and tea, sitting down only after each member in her family gets food. The first reaction she gets is 'Oh the toast is burnt. Why am I getting burnt charcoal toast?!' and similar jests and jabs for all the effort she has taken in making their morning. Shashi is then teased by her husband and daughter for butchering the word 'jazz', beginning the core plot of the film. The next few scenes surround Shashi's everyday life, which includes preparing motichoor ladoos for neighbors, poojas and ceremonies, a hobby that supplements the household income but isn't taken seriously by her workaholic husband. Shashi's teenage daughter is very critical about her mother's English speaking skills and is uncomfortable in taking her mother to the parent-teachers' meeting while her son is too young to be finicky about her mother's English and only wants her to mimic Michael Jackson steps.
Shashi's language skills become especially worrisome when she is invited by her sister to NY for her niece's wedding. Her husband does not send the kids along with her, saying that she herself would find it hard to adjust and communicate in NY and taking the kids along would just complicate the matter. So Shashi, a common housewife (according to her family) lands in New York, getting acquainted with a magnanimous gentleman on her flight (cameo by Amitabh Bachchan). She does not face much trouble when her sister or niece is present but after a humiliating experience alone at a café, she tries contacting an English Speaking 4 week course, seeing the advertisement on the bus. Shashi starts taking the class, along with a Latina, a Pakistani, a South Indian, a Frenchman, an African and a Chinese and run by a gay teacher. She learns valuable lessons at the class, learning that she is an entrepreneur and finding comfort among people like her, not in nationality but in their inability to communicate in English. Her secret life as a student turns problematic when the Frenchman falls in love with Shashi (easily the most interesting element in the film) and when her family arrives in New York. Will she be able to learn English and more importantly change her family's perception about her?
I found many aspects of the relationship between Shashi and her family to be parallel to my own family's; my mother left her job after sixteen years of service and is now a freelancer and part-time German teacher, earning her Masters in German after leaving her job. I know my mother isn't a person who loves cooking, though she makes good food; like Shashi, she makes us bread and tea for breakfast a lot many times and we (my father and I) love to tease her cooking skills. My father, who brings much of the family income, sometimes disregards my mother's freelancing as an actual job, only regarding a 9 to 5 job as 'actual' work. This made some scenes involving Shashi and her husband very engaging for me; also, the incident at school involving Shashi and her mother reminded me of the time I felt embarrassed in going to the theatre with my grandmother once. The relationship between Shashi and her son reminds me of the unconditional love shown by my 4 year old cousin to my grandmother.
I was very pleased at how much I could connect with certain aspects in the movie and I applaud Gauri Shinde for taking care in making the interactions between Shashi and her family as realistic as possible. The characterization of Daadi is also wonderfully subtle - in my own family I have felt this relegating role of my grandmother and her sad acceptance of the same. But (I'm going to be hated for saying this) the cameo by Bachchan could've been deleted - it was that OMG Sridevi and Bachchan moment for those who've seen their previous films together, but apart from that it served very less purpose. This time could've been used instead for more personal interactions between Sridevi and her fellow students. As mentioned above, the silent chemistry between Shashi and Laurent is the most touching element in English Vinglish. The film works best in the latter half when it's less about English and more about themes like love, loyalty, responsibility, understanding, celebration, independence and realization.
Even though she wasn't exactly Marathi, Sridevi is lovely and lovable as Shashi, excelling especially in the second half and shouldering the weight of the movie. This can be said about the other characters as well, and all this happens because the writing sparkles with honesty, care and thoughtfulness. English Vinglish is a simple, funny, and engaging and touching film that succeeds with the help of Sridevi and the casts' performances and Gauri Shinde's strong understanding of the characters she created.
Verdict: 6.2 out of 10