Film: English Vinglish
Director: Gauri Shinde
Cast: Sridevi, Adil Hussain, Mehdi Nebbou
'English is a phunny language', Amitabh Bachchan told us in Namak Halal. English Vinglish starts with a title card that says, "100 years of Indian cinema. 70 years of Amitabh Bachchan." The film's producer, R Balki, has been a self-confessed Bachchan fan, who gave the veteran two of his most challenging roles in the post-Mohabbatein phase - a proud, arrogant, unmarried chef in Cheeni Kum, and a progeria patient in Paa. The attractive quality of both Balki-directed films has been the filmmaker's ability to underplay his characters' quirks and struggles, using subtlety instead of melodrama to narrate sweet, simple stories about simple people. Both films gave Bachchan opportunity to showcase his mettle as a fine actor.
English Vinglish, the directorial debut of Gauri Shinde - Balki's collaborator and wife - does something similar. It tells a story that revels in its simplicity, with aid from some witty writing and honest moments that elicit a smile here, a laugh there, and which leave you touched. Here too, at the centre of it all, is an actor who earned the tag of superstar years ago, but who appears to have reinvented herself to fit into Shinde's world with remarkable ease. In Sridevi, Shinde finds her Bachchan.
The film's opening shot shows Sridevi tying her hair in a knot, her dainty ankles touching the floor, a slender back peering out of her sari as she wakes up to her duties as a houewife. As opposed to actors who 'come back' more often than a Ram Gopal Varma film, English Vinglish is truly a comeback for Sridevi. Her last film - way back in 1997 (unless you count a delayed film that released in 2004) - was Judaai, where the actress nailed the role of a middle-class housewife who sells her husband to a richer woman in echange for a luxurious life. In these 15 years, film technique, concepts and audience tastes have undergone quite a change, and watching Sridevi slip in effortlessly in a film very different from her earlier filmography is interesting to watch. The housewife Sridevi plays in English Vinglish is a far cry from the one she played in Judaai - Shashi is soft-spoken and lovable, resolute and kind, and a lot less intimidating.
Her only drawback, if you want to call it that, is that she's not well-versed with the English language. A lovely scene in the film has Shashi meeting the principal of the school her daughter studies in. Shashi, a tad embarrassed, confesses to the principal who starts talking to her in English rightaway that her knowledge of the language is weak. The red-faced principal in turn apologizes for his inability to speak Hindi well, both characters relieved at finding a middle ground to communicate. The daughter, though, isn't very pleased. We've all been there - not always willing to flaunt our parents, worried that they may not seem as 'cool' as we want them to be.
Shinde brings many such real moments alive on screen, like Shashi's stumbling efforts while she travels alone to New York to attend her niece's wedding. Once there, she enrolls herself in a course that would help her learn English in four weeks, so she doesn't stick out like a sore thumb at the wedding. The interactions between the students, including a Pakistani cab driver, a Mexican nanny, a French chef, etc, are heartwarming and funny. Shashi finds a friend in the chef, who is smitten by her and helps her regain self-confidence. Neither speak each other's language - their inept English is the only communicating mode. And it's sufficient.
At 135 minutes, English Vinglish is an absolute delight. No scene's out of place, no character unnecessary and no dialogue forced. The script, penned by Shinde, is razor sharp and she brings little nuances to her characters that help create an environment you can relate to. Laxman Utekar's cinematography aids his director's vision. The best thing about English Vinglish is that it speaks a universal language - you can set the film anywhere, change the characters' nationalities and shoot in a foreign language - yet the story would work. That quality, and the fact that it is seeped in culture, makes English Vinglish the rare crossover film from Bollywood.
Without Sridevi, English Vinglish would have still worked, but the actress makes the film what it is. Her beauty remains untouched, the age only adding to the persona rather than taking away from it. The squeaky voice remains, and Sridevi may still not be a fit for diverse roles, but she makes Shashi her own, infusing life in the character and endearing herself to audiences in every scene. She's aided by two well-cast, able co-actors. Adil Hussain plays Sridevi's slightly authoritarian husband with ease, the Ishqiya actor delivering another performance that makes you want to see him more often. Mehdi Nebbou, the French chef in love with Shashi, is extremely charming and scenes between him and Sridevi are among the film's best.
You may find cliches along the way, yet English Vinglish is among the most refreshingly novel films made in recent times. Gauri Shinde makes an assured debut with a film that seems to have been made with more honesty than calculation, and with more heart than mind. If you're a Sridevi fan, you can't miss it. If you aren't, you still can't miss it.