Oh, the agony. I happened upon this film a few days ago, taking up Vibrant Vinay’s challenge to wander Indian cinema and take another look at the world. And – in the case of the star of this film – fall ever so slightly in love. Movie-star-love, mind. The kind that comes with watching a tangible talent struggle through bad stuff, triumph and affirm the love in their life, whilst looking tremendously nice.
So it was with English Vinglish and its star, Sridevi. Her Shashi Godbole is at home, belittled by her ghastly teenage daughter and snotty husband, for not speaking English. Her world is a Hindi one and a housewifing one – baking sweet balls of loveliness (laddoos) and tolerating debilitating mockery – but, yikes, her sister is getting married in America and she has to go on ahead…
So, you’d think English Vinglish is grim. A middle-aged mother, out of sorts and dogged by a peculiar kind of shame, has to walk a path of awfulness: off to a land of English-speakers. And it is painful in places, Shashi goes on an agonising journey of clumsy English and poor translations (albeit there’s a lovely put-down of an American border guard who asks her how she’ll cope without English in America), then pretty-much hides in her sister’s house. However, the film is so bright, beautifully shot and Sridevi (yeah, yeah, plastic surgery, I hear you) works with such a splendidly organised face and courageous character that the whole thing is tremendous fun.
With an interval.
I know! An actual interval. I had time to nip to the kitchens and replenish my macaroons.
Shashi then grows some: a humiliation in a coffee shop leads her to seek a four-week English course. And so she struggles through New York every afternoon, navigating her sister’s wedding arrangements with fortunate timing or fake illnesses, to a fresh-faced version of To Sir With Love. Which is cool, because she has raised a family, runs a small business with those laddoos and, well, is a grown-up with confidence not courage issues.
Okay, so, it’s cliché time. The class is a bunch of immigrants to America. None are short on caricature, but they add up to a fun troupe. They’re led by a gay teacher who may be English (Cory Hibbs is the variably accented David Fischer), and comprise a Mexican woman who’s been treated significantly worse by middle-age than Sridevi (Ruth Aguilar is Eva), a Chinese hairdresser (Maria Romano giving it good Yu Son), a cab driver from Pakistan (Sumeet Vyas as Salman), a Tamil IT man (Rajeev Ravindranathan as Ramamurthy), an African-potential-lover-for-David (Damian Thompson as Udumbke) and – last and most crushing-on Shashi in a number of scenes that made me very nervous – Laurent, a gallumpingly French chef (Mehdi Nebbou). All get their moments, be they silly or fond, and you will warm to them from the off. There are no surprises; you know they will go from eccentric to supportive and eccentric to saving-the-day-kind and eccentric. Which they do. But it’s all rather lovely.
So Shashi learns the language. The film makes her hide the fact – albeit her niece works it out – heading towards a showdown at the wedding itself. The English Vinglish song supports and then rather dogs Sridevi’s Shashi as her confidence grows. It’s catchy and distorts its lyrics enough to make me laugh in places, but, old Jack is getting wary of some Bollywood habits now. It’s over-played.
And that’s enough of the plot. You can work out the rest quite easily, but don’t put too much thought in. This is a pleasant, long (long) Sunday afternoon of a film. The brave journey of a woman who develops in front of us is made light and enjoyable by Sridevi’s seasoned innocence and a cast that smiles along with you. The Shashi-Laurent emotions are dealt with gently and with a welcome realism. For his crush grows and Nebbou gives him masculinity, hopefulness and the right kind of understanding. A nice balance with the realisations Adil Hussain and Navika Kotia, playing Shashi’s husband and ghastly teen, let play across their faces as Shashi’s growth lands on them.
Old Jack loved this film. The sub-titles are hard work at the start (too small, too blocky, too fast), but I got used to them and would recommend English Vinglish for senior eyesight. But be alert!
And the agony? I nipped over to Wikipedia while watching English Vinglish and learnt about the cast: most tellingly, about Sridevi. Terrific here, and a new star to ignorant old me, her career has run through decades of international success. If there’s such a thing as Bollywood royalty, Sridevi is head of the family. Or, at least, she was until February 2018. It’s a shock to learn a woman – spectacular and so in control, playing out confidence issues, the value of growth even in middle-age and hope – is dead. An accidental drowning in her bath. Real life is cruel. In the pretend world, Shashi is happy, in contact with her funny friends, and enjoying the respect we all deserve.
Go watch English Vinglish. On a summer’s day.