Most people who grew up in the 80s or 90s will fondly remember the British TV show, “Mind Your Language“. The show hasn’t aged too well unfortunately, what with all the racist stereotyping and today, its worth is only nostalgic. I often wondered how a remake of the TV show might fare in the thicket of PC rules we have today. Thanks to English Vinglish, we have an answer: very well indeed! In addition to the predictable array of misspoken English jokes, this film beautifully portrayed how wide that gulf of language can be. English isn’t just a spoken language with rules of grammar and punctuation, we were reminded, but is also a culture.
Sridevi plays a typical Marathi housewife who finds herself increasingly alienated from her children and husband who all speak fluent English. They “lovingly” mock her for her mispronunciations and are visibly embarrassed by her. During a lengthy visit to the US to help her sister prepare for her niece’s wedding, she can no longer bear the alienation caused by the language and signs up for an English crash course. There she meets a motley crew of foreigners who want to learn English for their own personal quests. Her quest is for a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t from the loved ones. On the surface, the English class is composed of stereotypes: the Mexican nanny, the Pakistani taxi driver, the Tamil software engineer, the middle-class housewife etc. But as we get to know Sridevi better and realize that there is no such thing as a “typical housewife”, we understand that these characters also want to escape from the pigeonholes they have been put in. And they share such a great camaraderie that one does not even notice the “I like Rajnikanth and idli” cliches.
Much has been said about Sridevi’s comeback so I wont say much more except to add my adulation. The movie rested entirely on her shoulders and she pulled it off with such grace that it is not surprising that men still have her poster up on their walls. And her sarees! Appropriately dressed-down enough to be credible as a housewife’s daily wardrobe, but so colourful and elegant. Britney Spears, THIS is what a comeback looks like.
Anybody who has ever been to a foreign country will know how terrifying it can be to do as the locals do. Even a visit to the supermarket or a restaurant is fraught with fears: am I doing it correctly? Have I committed a faux pas? And if something goes even slightly wrong, mouth goes dry, everything in front of your eyes start swimming, sound is muted and all you can hear is your pounding heart. If you don’t speak the language, so much the worse for you. English Vinglish portrayed this feeling so well in a scene where Sridevi tries to order a sandwich and it was so taut with humour, confusion and mortification that it has to have been based on a real life experience.
But strangers aside, this film beautifully handled that generation gap issue: parents whose children not only speak English at home but whose tastes have grown so alien to their parents. I remember the first time my family ordered pizza from the newly-opened Pizza Hut (at my sibling’s and my insistence). We’d heard so much about this dish from the sitcoms we were addicted to, that it HAD to taste amazing, surely? We picked one that didn’t have any mushrooms (because mushrooms are a gateway meat according to my parents). Apart from complaining about the cost, my parents’ view on pizza was, “too much garlic“. Since then, pizza became one of those mysterious things that the children liked for no apparent reason but something they lovingly tolerated. So too does Sridevi lovingly tolerate trips to the cafe with boys and jazz dance classes, but what she won’t tolerate is her daughter’s assumption that these interests are somehow better than Hindi and laddoos.
I had two problems with the film though. First, those absurd, jingoistic, we-are-better-than-USA jokes had no place in a film with such a strong script. Second, I took issue with the total effacement of Sridevi’s needs. All she wanted from her family was some respect and recognition of what she does for them and completely puts their needs before her’s. Children, I can understand, but even the needs of her uncaring, somewhat douchy husband? I don’t get that. I understand that this is supposed to represent the reality of housewives, but her utter lack of any sexual desire or temptation to cheat did her character a disservice and bought into that ‘Indian women are so selfless and awesome that they would never so much as look at a man other than their husband, even if a caring, gorgeous Frenchman threw himself at them’ cliche. But these are tiny, overlook-able defects in an otherwise wonderful film.
(My mother’s verdict on the film, “Yes, you were an insufferable brat too. Sridevi’s ability to emote has diminished considerably. Must be botox.”)