“Hawa main tairti plastic ki thaili hai Meenakshi, ud gayi!” (Meenakshi is as free as a plastic bag fluttering in the wind). This dialogue from Aiyyaa sums up the character of its protagonist. Two different films – Aiyyaa and English Vinglish – released recently with two different women – Rani Mukherjee’s Meenakshi and Sridevi’s Shashi – who belong to different generations. But both women have a similar struggle: Each wants to be her own person in a world that has other plans for them.
Meenakshi is under pressure to get married but doesn’t want a marriage without love. Instead, she lusts after an objectified man. She even expresses her desire for him. Annie Zaidi, author of The Bad Boy’s Guide To The Good Indian Girl, likes that Meenakshi did not wait for a man to take charge of her life: “She was curious, not afraid to chase the man she likes, without worrying about the time of day or night, or worrying too much about niceties.”
English Vinglish’s Shashi is a middle-aged housewife whose husband and kids are indifferent to her. Social commentator Santosh Desai sees the film as her “quest for self respect”, which restores a sense of personhood to the figure of the housewife. By chance, Shashi lands in America alone. As she experiences her incidental independence, you feel dread for her: After getting a glimpse of her own potential, how will she go back to being a housewife? This moment for Shashi is not too different from the younger Meenakshi’s helplessness, where marriage is presented to her as the only option available.
But both films differ in concluding the heroines’ dilemmas. Meenakshi retreats into a world of dreams. The film gives her the chance to play the ‘hero’ – we hear her thoughts, but we have no idea what the object of her affections feels. When he talks, no screentime is wasted on his dilemma. He seems happy to love Meenakshi only because she is in love with him.
English Vinglish never allows Shashi her dilemma. All is resolved with her “I don’t need love. I just need a little bit of respect” dialogue. Here was a woman we all saw our mothers in, so it would probably have been too much to see her in doubt, never mind walking out of a marriage for another man, or worse, to be by herself.
Why must we stereotype the mother and the housewife? We have seen women in Hindi cinema make unusual choices: Waheeda Rehman’s character in Guide; Shabana Azmi in Arth; Tabu in Astitva; and recently, Konkona Sen Sharma in Luck By Chance. This is why English Vinglish feels dishonest – for a film that could see Shashi’s discomfort at the patronising manner in which her husband links her life’s mission to making ladoos, to end like this feels like cheating. The film is then just a reaffirmation of our patriarchal prejudices when it comes to women and mothers. And when her husband asks her, “Do you love me?”, we know, even if the film doesn’t , that Shashi’s answer could have been “No”.