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Sridevi vs. the English language
on June 2, 2013
I guess, one day, Sridevi Kapoor - but just "Sridevi" will do, thank you - surveyed her demesne and decided to heck with her fifteen year hiatus from cinema. I think I'm on firm footing when I say that I'd put Sridevi's scintillating performance in English Vinglish against whichever other best you can come up with for 2012.
It's a crap title, but that's the only negative thing I can think of about the movie. In an ocean of redundancy, English Vinglish surges against the tides. Does it add flavoring to learn that writer/director Gauri Shinde made the film in part as an apology to her mother, on whom she based the central character? Like the character's daughter, Gauri as a child was embarrassed of her mom's poor grasp of English. And here we were some years back, hailing Esperanto as the universal language.
In India, Shashi Godbole (Sridevi) is a dedicated housewife and devoted mother, never mind that she's marginalized by her husband (a smug Adil Hussain) and ridiculed by her daughter (Navika Kotia) for her provincial ways and for her inability to speak proper English. Shashi is a gifted cook who runs a modest business making and selling sweets to the neighborhood, an enterprise her husband looks down on. Y'know, here's a fella that's begging for an earnest asskicking.
The plot really kicks off when Shashi's older sister calls from New York asking for help in preparing for her daughter's impending nuptials. Picture Shashi in panic mode now, especially since she must fly for the first time and fly alone because the rest of her family aren't urgently needed and will meet her in New York in several weeks.
English Vinglish is mostly shot on location in New York, and it's there that Shashi embarks on her transformative journey. Okay, that's not right. It actually starts on that plane when Shashi ends up seated next to an obliging elderly gent (Amitabh Bachchan) who guides her thru the strange workings of an arduous international flight. For the duration of his brief cameo, Amitabh's helpful passenger does his darndest to enable Shashi.
It's not a film that sweeps you with the highest of stakes, and yet the scenes that play out are no less devastating. It's absorbing stuff, eyeballing this simple woman as she tries to cope in a scary, unfamiliar environment. I wonder, will you cringe in heartbreak like I did at the coffee shop scene as a thoroughly intimidated Shashi is braced by an aggressive counter clerk? Sridevi is so damn good. She reinforces that bit of wisdom that simple does not equate to stupid. Moments after this crushing scene, a gutted Shashi Godbole glimpses a bus ad claiming to teach paying students how to speak English in four weeks.
We track each of the hesitant choices Shashi makes, the small steps she takes to change herself, and we celebrate her incremental moments of triumph, until finally we arrive at that scene in which she navigates the bustling New York avenues with confident strides, handbag breezily flung over one shoulder. That scene makes me beam.
Gauri Shinde, who'd previously made short films and advertising spots, makes her feature film directorial debut, and it's a self-assured one. I guess we're waiting to see if she's a one-hit wonder. For now she's being lauded universally, and it's well-deserved. English Vinglish was such a pleasure to watch, a Bollywood feature that sharply separates itself from the homogenized efforts that sprinkle the breadth of Indian cinema. Shinde has crafted an unerring picture, inhabited by gentle humor and keen insight and emotional beats that run the gamut of gut-wrenching to uplifting. It's Gauri and Sridevi's potent shoutout to the hope and the dream of the Indian woman as a figure that retains dignity and is respected and cherished and treated as a peer. And who can make a kickass plate of ladoo.
What I have is the 2-disc set. Disc 1 has the feature presentation (English sub-titles available). Disc 2 has the following bonus material (totaling 00:24:19 minutes):
- 3 Deleted Scenes (no English sub-titles)
- Behind the Scenes Look (partly in English)
- Gauri Shinde's no dialogue first short film, "Oh Man!" (2001), in which a man isn't happy with his woman's provocative wardrobe
- Censor Certificate Trailer (really cute!)
- Theatrical Trailer