You can teach a person anything except to be sensitive to other people’s feelings.
This one line, spoken in Hindi to a Frenchman who didn’t understand a word but still understood everything, is the central idea of English Vinglish. Debutante director Gauri Shinde uses a light, gently humorous touch to deliver a feel-good tearjerker that also happens to mark Sridevi’s return to films after 15 years. And what a classy return. As Pune-based Shashi Godbole - sheltered wife, mother of two, and maker/caterer of fantastic laddoos - Sridevi is graceful, dignified, and so, so endearing. It is impossible not to feel for Shashi when her husband and children repeatedly make fun of her for not knowing English. When her daughter says she doesn’t want Shashi to come to her school to pick up her report card because it would be embarrassing. When, on her first visit abroad (she travels alone to New York for her niece’s wedding; the husband and kids join her later), she needs to show the immigration officer a letter stating the purpose of her visit because she can’t remember the answer her husband taught her. When she breaks down after being yelled at by the Starbucks staff because she has trouble placing her order and is completely flustered by the unknown choices flung at her: still or sparkling water? Americano, cappuccino, latte? Bagel, wrap, sandwich?
Every time her husband belittles her and her work, every time her daughter snorts derisively at something she says, even when it makes perfect sense, it raises the question – why this obsession with English? Why is it necessary for everyone to speak English in order to be respected? Sure, if Shashi had the kind of job that required her to speak English, it would be a different story. But she doesn’t. And she is clearly an intelligent woman with the ability to make a go of things, she has her own thriving business - however little it may earn compared to her husband’s job - and she is a good, kind person who showers everyone around her with love. I’d call that pretty damn successful, wouldn’t you?
But years of ridicule from her husband and kids have chipped away at her sense of self-worth, and, bruised by the Starbucks incident, she decides to secretly sign up for English language classes in NY (her younger niece does find out, but keeps the secret and helps Shashi however she can). And here, special mention must be made of the script and direction - there is such good humour in the classroom scenes that one can’t help but smile even though her classmates are exactly the stereotypes expected in an American English language class – including a Paki cabbie (named Salman Khan, no less) who’s all about the bhai-bhai spirit and hitting on the pretty, single Chinese hairstylist; a Tam techie who misses idlis and his mother in that order and thinks the AIEOU written on the blackboard is Aiyyo; and a soulful French chef, Laurent. Through these classes, with the help of her new and very supportive friends and the romantic attentions of Laurent, Shashi learns to feel good about herself, to love herself again. Because the problem is not just the dismissive belittling of her job and her lack of English skills, it’s her feeling unloved, unappreciated, and unequal in her marriage. And again, the direction is so deft that one doesn’t even hate the husband. He is insensitive to how his barbs hurt her, but it somehow never feels intentional. He’s too busy to chat when she excitedly calls him at work to tell him about her massive number of laddoo orders for the day, but he will proudly tell everyone that she makes the best laddoos in India. When she tells him that people in the US call her an entrepreneur (a word she has proudly practised all the way home from class), his gentle teasing may not be what's called for right then, but it is clearly without malice.
For me, then, English Vinglish is not about Shashi learning English at all. The language part is just the backdrop to a larger, more universal story about how we treat people, even those we love; how we don’t realize that everyone has something to offer; and how we see ourselves through the eyes of those we love and whose love we crave, instead of just being comfortable with who we are. Shashi’s emotional speech at her niece’s wedding had me in tears because even though I’m not married and I've never had her language problems, I could still relate to how she did not feel loved, respected, or equal in her marriage.
Yes, the plot is a tad thin and stretches towards the end, moving along a predictable path. Yes, there are some amusingly jingoistic one-liners that seem solely meant to generate audience applause (which they did successfully) - especially at the visa interview and the airport (Amitabh Bachchan's hilarious special appearance is an absolute treat). Even the camerawork is a bit shaky at times, taking away from key moments that set up the conflict. And yes, the conclusion is a tad too warm and fuzzy to feel realistic. But ultimately, English Vinglish is a quietly strong statement about love, respect, and self-respect. And one that'll stay with you.