(Published in The New Sunday Express on 7 October, 2012, retrieved from http://newindianexpress.com/entertainment/reviews/article1288774.ece)
Cast: Sridevi, Mehdi Nebbou, Adil Hussain, Priya Anand, Cory Hibbs, Sumeet Vyas, Ruth Aguilar
Director: Gauri Shinde
Rating: 4 stars
When English Vinglish opens to Sridevi getting out of bed, knotting her hair and making coffee and tea, we believe she’s a certain kind of housewife – the sort of woman who would abandon her coffee when her husband calls for his bed tea and newspaper, the sort of woman who would carefully tack a raisin back on to the laddoo it broke off from. We find out she’s also the woman who makes the laddoos. If she knew the word, she’d call herself an “entrepreneur”. If she learnt the word, she would run, repeating the word to herself lest she forget, and tell her husband with barely-suppressed excitement as soon as she got home.
Shashi Godbole is married to Satish (Adil Hussain), an indulgently patronising husband. He doesn’t realise when his teasing hurts his wife. He finds it funny when she baulks at the idea of “friendly hugs”. I like that Shashi doesn’t strike us as narrow-minded, just as Satish doesn’t strike us as repulsive. They’re just a couple, resigned seemingly comfortably to their gender-driven roles.
The movie takes a while to establish Shashi’s routine, and show us what affects her – delights her, frightens her, rattles her, upsets her. That also gives the makers opportunity to throw in relatively subtle in-film branding. While the film doesn’t harp on the idea that English is equated with sophistication, it does bring out that not knowing English carries with it a certain sense of embarrassment.
The story really takes off when a turn of events gives Shashi the chance to venture into a Mind Your Language-ish scenario. Sridevi’s stellar moment precedes this – I’ve rarely seen someone make people who can’t identify with her character empathise with her situation as well as she does at an American café.
The best thing about the film is its treatment of the English class. Cory Hibbs excels as the English teacher David, a Grammar Nazi whom one can easily imagine standing up after a wedding toast to point out where the person who made it erred. The others in the class are people whose dignity has been whittled away because they don’t have the means to express it in a language they struggle with. The exceptions are Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou) and Udumbke (Damian Thomson), who end up teaching two other people to value, respect and love themselves.
Amitabh Bachchan’s guest appearance gives us a few good laughs, and rather too overtly makes a statement on race relations. What I liked far more was the way in which the film brings out that the students in Shashi’s class are not above stereotyping people themselves. The smaller roles are mostly well-executed, but the film belongs to Sridevi and Mehdi Nebbou. The movie has some lovely moments, but it does have a touch of melodrama and cliché.
The Verdict: A feel-good film that is nicely paced, English Vinglish is a pleasant watch.