Sunday, October 14, 2012

English Vinglish [dir. Gauri Shinde]

If you're a Sridevi fan, you should of course see English Vinglish. It is for her what Baghban and Bbuddah Hoga Tera Baap were for Amitabh Bachchan - a vehicle tailor-made to  her specifications and tapping her charisma and talent to full advantage.
Here Sri plays Shashi, an uber-caring housewife that also manages a small catering business, who is running low on self-worth because she is undervalued by her family. Especially she is needled by her frankly asshole-ish husband and teenage daughter for her inability to speak and read English. In urban India at least, it is a fairly common prejudice to automatically regard someone not fluent in the English language as lacking in understanding capacity. But I would question why a mother who seems otherwise so capable (and sufficiently aware about individuality to later show immediate acceptance of her English teacher's alternate sexuality) cannot teach her own daughter to understand that not everyone is oriented the same way, or at least not be stupidly rude about it.
So while on a trip alone to America to help with the wedding of her widowed sister's daughter, Shashi secretly (why she can't confide in her own sister is baffling) enrolls in an English-language class. Cue in a Mind Your Language / Zabaan Sambhal Ke type episodic setup where a bunch of (deliberately?) stereotyped immigrants (a French chef, a Mexican maid, a Chinese hairdresser, a Pakistani cabbie, a South Indian software guy) bumble their way through some very jerky grammar lessons from the aforementioned caricature homosexual English teacher. It's a little ironic given the film's theme that a fair amount of the humor in these situations arises from these stereotypes speaking halting English in various foreign accents. There are hints of a possible romantic attraction between Shashi and the handsome Frenchman, but of course nothing serious in that line is going to happen. You can pretty much predict everything that will happen from the word go, but that's really the sort of film it is, a feel-good ride, a mellow family drama where the underdog gets a chance to shine.
The film is hugely slanted towards being cute and digestible, and the extent to which it simplifies the characters and contrives the situations is patronizing. But all said, it's not offensive if you don't probe its machinations and Sridevi remains a delight to watch. The break from acting has not rusted her skills any, and her star charisma has been employed in a very measured, canny way. She shows that she can talk English and walk Vinglish with the best of them.

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