Finally Sridevi returns to films! A low key and female centric family drama, English Vinglish allows ample opportunity to show off her great range and perfect timing. Gauri Shinde has written a nice story with a whiff of “Shirley Valentine” about it, and directs with assurance.
Shashi (Sridevi) is a wife and mother, taken for granted by her family – husband Satish (Adil Hussain), bitchy teenage daughter Sapna (a very convincing Navika Kotia) and son Sagar (the endearingly cheeky Shivansh Kotia). She is a good cook and keeps a lovely home as well as running a business making and selling ladoos, barely having a moment to herself. Shashi is accomplished and loving, but that is what is expected of her so she gets no credit for that. The family mock her for her lack of polish and poor English. The cheap shots are also a way of father and daughter bonding and excluding Shashi. Shashi is gracious and rarely retaliates, instead letting her beautifully expressive eyes show the pain.
When Shashi’s New York based niece Meera is about to be married, Shashi is sent ahead of her family to help with the preparations. Nervous at leaving her kids and husband, she is forced to go where she can be useful. Again, her feelings are ignored for the sake of convenience.
Shashi stays with her sister and niece Radha (the sparky Priya Anand) and spends her days missing her family at home. Daunted by America and feeling left out, Shashi secretly enrols in a dodgy “Learn English in 4 Weeks” class.
This is where the film detours into “Mind Your Language” territory. Taught by David (played by one of the worst actors I have ever seen, and I am including Mimoh in that list) and along with her fellow students, Shashi begins to come out of her shell. One of the students keen to get her right out of her shell is the dishy French chef, Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou). The tentative stirrings of romance between Laurent and Shashi are very well played even if his lines are cheesy.
The rest of the class start off as a collection of broad stereotypes, but the actors develop their characters really nicely. Sumeet Vyas, Rajeev Ravindranathan and Maria Romano are particularly good fun. I also liked the way food played a role in communication and relationships.
The story isn’t really about learning English as a road to happiness, but it is about getting your mojo back and gaining the respect of your loved ones. There is a theme of English language undermining Hindi and excluding people in their own country, but really she could have taken a pottery class or something else.
Much as I cheered when Shashi managed to navigate her way into the city or order a coffee, and I loved seeing her grow in self esteem and happiness, I have a slight problem with the character. She was so passive aggressive, even considering of her lack of confidence. Why make Radha cover for her so she could sneak to class? Why not just ask her sister to keep it quiet as a surprise for the family or at least not ask Radha to be an accomplice. Telling Laurent about her family in Hindi seemed at least partly a lie by omission rather than purely an outpouring of the heart given their level of conversational skills. Her final speech was two-thirds guilt-trip inducing perfect filmi Ma (and the opposite of the real situation) and finally one-third honesty about what she believed was needed for happiness. It made me like her less than I wanted to and I felt heavily manipulated at times as she is clearly meant to be the morally good person in the frame.
Shashi lost me at times, but Sridevi never did. Her performance was beautifully nuanced. As her self-confidence grew, Shashi’s expressions became less guarded and her eyes lit up. When Sridevi smiled she was radiant. I really wanted Shashi to be happy, despite my reservations. I think this was more about Sridevi than Shashi though – I am so happy to see her working in films again.
The music by Amit Trivedi mostly ranges from bland to twee. I’ve never been a big fan of his and the tweedly emo guitar thing is not my style. The songs are mostly in the background or used in montages of Shashi looking sad. It was all appropriate to the tone of the film but I won’t be listening to the soundtrack anytime soon.
Whether it was Gauri Shinde or former co-star Sridevi who won him over, Amitabh Bachchan makes a fun appearance. He plays a rambunctious man of the world and gave Shashi some much needed confidence and sensible advice. Priya Anand is a standout. I liked her sassy style in her debut (Leader) and she was very natural as the lively college student Radha. Adil Hussain is also excellent as the thoughtless Satish, and the children are perfect for their roles. Maybe too perfect – that girl is a right little cow. The random extras at the wedding were energetic and got into the dances.
The visual design is excellent. Shashi’s house in Pune looked lived in and real, even if her saris were a bit too fabulous. I drooled over some of her outfits; all of them in fact, except the dark pink one (I don’t like pink) and the mauve (it was a bit too shiny). The NRIs lived in a very American suburban house with Indian touches in the decor. It was a nice representation of their life abroad and the connection to home.
I saw this with four friends and at least three of them cried several times during the movie and we all laughed a lot. It’s a film I would have loved to see with my mother and then go out with her for coffee. It’s a well crafted film, with a good story and some fine performances. Despite some issues, I highly recommend it. Welcome back Sridevi!