Bollywood and culture in an emerging India
English Vinglish: Mum’s the word
“English is a very funny language,” said Amitabh Bachchan many years ago, and many Indians agreed. In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s comedy “Chupke Chupke”, a character makes fun of the English language, ridiculing its pronunciations and syntax; and when Kamal Hassan sang “come fast, come fast, don’t be slow”, no one blinked an eyelid at the bad grammar in the song.
In the India of 2012, English is no longer a language to be made fun of – fluency in English is an indicator of upward mobility, of having a chance at “making it” in this country. As of 2010, English was the second-most spoken language in India, behind Hindi, and the number of Indian English speakers was double the UK’s population.
Indeed, in today’s India, if you don’t know the language, you might find yourself to be the object of ridicule and it is this very insecurity that director Gauri Shinde picks on and explores in her debut feature “English Vinglish”.
Her protagonist is Shashi Godbole (Sridevi), a meek Maharashtrian housewife whose broken English is the source of much embarrassment for her pre-teen daughter and mirth for her executive husband (Adil Hussain).
A family wedding in the U.S. means Shashi has to travel alone to New York City and deal with the Big Apple on her own. When she realises she can’t even order a sandwich and coffee, she decides to take matters into her own hands and gets enrolled in an English Speaking class.
So far, Shinde tells her tale with much affection and humour, picking out charming moments in a typical Indian middle-class household. She etches her main protagonist skillfully, and we get a full sense of Shashi, her motives and her weaknesses.
The second half drags a bit and Shinde gives in to the temptation to make her world a little too simplistic – there is the familiar cast of stereotypes in the language class – a romantic track with a handsome French chef and some homilies spouted. But despite these flaws, the film never loses its inherent charm.
You will find yourself smiling at Shashi’s efforts to learn what “judgemental” means (does it mean mental?) and her first journey alone in the subway, mainly because Shinde makes the characters and settings real enough for you to relate them to your own life.
Don’t we all have that relative or parent who struggles with a fancy mobile phone, or has trouble conversing with your friends, because they haven’t been able to catch up with the pace with which this country is moving?
“English Vinglish” is also Sridevi’s film, out and out.
Back on screen after 15 years, she has lost none of her magic and is perfectly cast as Shashi. Watch out for her in the last scene – you will find it difficult to take your eyes off her.
If you are willing to forgive a few minor problems, “English Vinglish” is a definite must-watch, a film that will warm the cockles of your heart as you walk out of the theatre.