Saturday, December 15, 2012

English Vinglish - Movie Review

This one is a must watch. 'English Vinglish' marks a solid and promising debut by Gauri Shinde who is a wonderful story teller who takes her story telling very seriously. She does not lose her focus on her story nor her characters, displays full faith in both (and does not seek to provide any unnecessary thrills by the side), she really cares for her characters and all this shows in the fine details that go into the film. If there were two things to pick - 'English Vinglish' stands out for that loving care that Gauri has taken in crafting this film and the superb performance by Sridevi who shows the stuff she is capable of and grows on you moment by moment as Shashi Godbole, the middle class Maharashtrian housewife who suffers from a lack of self-respect because her knowledge of English is 'weak'. Ah, how many of us would identify with her straightaway.

From the first shot of a middle class Maharahstrian household in Pune waking up to morning coffee, Gauri has you hooked. The  main cast of characters include Satish Godbole (Adil Hussain) as the flamboyant corporate executive married to Shashi (Sridevi), a conservative Maharashtrian girl who does not know much English and is constantly poked fun of by her teenaged daughter Sapna and her husband who share their private jokes about her English, and their cute little son (great find). Shashi is a good cook who prides her culinary talents and keeps herself busy with making and selling laddoos on order for her clients. Her cooking and her laddoos become her identity - though of course, she is much more than that and no one seems to recognise that. A grandmother at home completes the Pune cast. The story gets going when Shashi is invited to the USA by her sister who has settled down there for her elder niece's wedding and she is asked to go three weeks ahead. With her faltering English Shashi manages somehow and decides to do something about it by joining a 'Learn English in 4 weeks' course secretly. She meets a great cast of characters at the English class including her gay English teacher, a Pakistani, a Tamilian, a Mexican, an African and a Chinese. But sadly her final test coincides with the wedding and she has to make a few difficult choices  which it turns out are not so difficult after all.

Watching the movie and the attitudes of an India we grew up in towards English speaking and non-English speaking people, I'd say that this movie has far more searching questions to ask of us and our identities. It is not merely a funny social drama of a middle aged woman struggling to find acceptance and respect due to her not knowing English but a layered question. It is a subtle commentary on how knowledge of English is certainly not our identity nor a giver of wisdom or even of intellectual superiority (that is assumed by a rude 'whatever' these days), how communication can transcend mere mechanics of language and how we Indians (and many others who live in other countries perhaps) need to shed many more masks that we have acquired to cover our feelings of 'not feeling good about ourselves' as Shashi Godbole says. And this difference between the rooted ones and the ones who are not is never as clear as the time when Sridevi romps home shining like a star, confident in her roots, her values and her own space in the world as she decides that laddoo making is more important than her final test and that a Hindi newspaper to which she is used to is more comfortable than reading the NYT because everyone else is. Gauri Shinde's biggest achievement in this film is the way she tears up our hypocricy about English speaking (and with that little pin she opens up a can of worms on our double standards on things like our attitude to sexuality, to money, to our so-called middle class values, to religion and so much more). She does this so subtly and yet tells a fine story in such a smooth manner that it hardly jerks,  that there is hardly a ripple as she cuts and weaves through some delicate relationships, some deep wounds, some harsh decisions. Fantastic stuff.

Sridevi is unbelievably good. I have never been a fan of hers really in her earlier avatar considering the kind of movies that were made then but then you see her enter the role of Shashi Godbole and lead us all into her own world so beautifully, you cannot but agree that she fully deserved the 10 minute standing ovation she (and Gauri) got at the Toronto Film Festival and her comparisons to Meryl Streep and Audrey Hepburn, and more. The support cast is brilliant too with everyone fitting the part perfectly and doing a great job at it too. All in all it leaves you with a fine taste in your mouth and you are like on of those people who cannot but rave after eating one of Shashi Godbole's laddoos and reach out for more. Wah bhai wah.

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