For perhaps the first time EVER, I have seen a Hindi commercial film that I enjoyed. It stars Sridevi as Mrs Shashi Godbole, an "ordinary" housewife living in Pune, who goes to New York to help her sister plan the sister's daughter's wedding. The catch? Shashi speaks Hindi and is extremely uncomfortable/awkward when attempting to speak in English. Nevertheless, her husband Satish, played by Adil Hussain (a stage actor, I'm told) insists that she travel alone to the US, three weeks in advance of himself and their two young children, Sagar and Sapna. Once in NYC, she finds her way to an English speed-learning class and painstakingly builds a new voice for herself.
I admit to being biased against commercial Hindi cinema. For me to like a soppy family-values film like this one was like a carnivore eating raw zucchinis with a happy smile on its face. Even now, several days later, I continue to think about my enjoyment of the film with surprise. Mind you: I would not watch it again. It's a one-viewing movie with a uni-dimensional pay-off. The single most riveting feature of the film was its star and also, in some ways, its greatest flaw. Sridevi's presence was dazzling, but I mean this in the way of a deer caught in the headlights of a hunter's jeep on a moonless night. I couldn't look away from her for even a second.
While most of the supporting cast were flesh-and-blood characters, Sri-D was like the CGI element in a live-action film. Her waxy-fair skin, unmoving eyebrows, Bambi eyes and gorgeous saris were all so blemish-free as to be completely unreal. But she lent a quality of absolute conviction to her role. I would for instance be shocked to discover that the actress wasn't herself someone who believed 1000% in the values that her character upholds in the film, i.e., that of considering her family and "Indian Culture" as the gods of her heart's religion. She came through as the ideal of Indian Womanhood that all our mothers would like their daughters to uphold, even though we all know it's unattainable.
The mystery for me was that she managed to hold my attention nevertheless. I didn't want to like her, but I DID. Was it because of the golden laddoos that she made and sold as a successful home-enterprise and the fact that she had a passion that really did go beyond family? The hurt feelings she wasn't afraid to show when her husband described her as "… born to make laddoos!"? The reality of India's cruel Hindi-English divide even within that impregnable fortress, the Indian Family, where Shashi's ten year old daughter feels free to express absolute contempt for her mother? The brave struggle she (Shashi) puts up when bullied by the cashier at a New York café to make those ghastly choices about latte/cappuccino/small/medium/whatever/whatever when any sentient being can see that a simple human connection would solve the log-jam?
Well, it was all these things and more. It was a good script and a thoughtful idea. The familiar struggles of a new arrival to the US are rendered in a sympathetic and recognizable manner but the local residents are not flattened into caricatures either. They, as well as all the other secondary characters, behave fairly naturally and with conviction.
The "Indian Culture" in this film is what we see in Indian TV commercials -- smoothly self-confident in its assertions about one-ness, authenticity and modernity. It presents a curious pan-Indian ethos, with a Punjabi-style wedding and the Maharashtrian Godboles speaking the same kind of Hindi as the idli-loving Ramamurthy of the language class. There's a moment when the French chef and love-interest (wholly vegan, not-even-a-cheek-kiss) Laurent from the language class tells Shashi that Italy and France are distinct and separate interpretations of "European" culture. The fact that we're watching a film that makes exactly the same kind of mash-up regarding "Indian" culture suggests to me that the decision to do so was conscious. Ramamurthy is given a mumble-line about (this is not an exact quote) "… we're all Indians after all, so of course we must speak Hindi" is another clue.
So yes, this is not the same India in which khap panchayats behead young lovers, where ever more girl-children are destroyed at birth each decade, where farmers commit suicide unnoticed and unmourned by the Government. It's that Other Country where joyous citizens cavort together under a soaring tricolor, their skins bleached white, their underarms pristine, their vaginas tight-as-virgins*, their kitchens Italian and their cars German but … oh, all right! It's a commercial film. Its aims are uncomplicated and the reason it succeeds is that the editing is crisp, the script is tight and the supporting characters are clearly realized.
I especially liked the Adil Hussain character because he seemed so comfortable in his skin as the insensitive-yet-loving-husband. It certainly helped that he was satisfyingly DARK -- I am so utterly sick of the universally milk-white complexions of TV-Indians that just to see someone who looked as if he had not spent his entire life in pursuit of albinism was a relief. I was impressed by the extreme scorn Sapna displays towards her mother, utterly blind to her parent's goddess-like beauty and other accomplishments. Even the little boy Sagar, a made-for-Amul-ads awwwww-generator, performed with flawless precision. The entire audience at Bombay's venerable Regal Cinema swooned at his every lisped syllable.
And speaking of Regal: it was totally thrilling to actually go up to a regular booking-window and just buy a ticket. You know? Just like that. From a non-cyborg human who smiled when I looked surprised at how easy it all was. I felt I had time-traveled to college days and desperate moments at the Advance Booking counter, hoping against hope that the late-night show would not be sold out. And at the time of the show, the crowd that jammed the pavement was like commuters flooding out of Churchgate at rush-hour -- a calm-faced, slogan-free riot of perfumed and well-coifed Bombay-wallahs storming their way into upper stalls. Amazing.
*If you don't believe me, go to this link.
English Vinglish, directed by Gauri Shinde
English Vinglish, directed by Gauri Shinde
- Sridevi as Shashi Godbole
- Priya Anand as Radha
- Mehdi Nebbou as Laurent
- Adil Hussain as Satish
- Sujata Kumar
- Cory Hibbs as David Fischer
- Rajeev Ravindranathan as P Ramamurthy
- Sumeet Vyas as Salman Khan
- Ruth Aguilar as Eva
- Damian Thomson as Udumbke
- Maria Romano as Yu Son
- Neelu Sodhi as Meera
- Ross Nathan as Kevin
- Maria Pendolino as Jennifer
- Sulabha Deshpande as Mrs. Godbole
- Shivansh Kotia as Sagar
- for some reason, no credentials for Sapna.