3.5 Stars (out of 4)
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One of my favorite feelings is when I watch a new film that makes me think, “Now this is a movie. I wish more movies were like this.” Films that provoke that sensation for me aren’t necessarily perfect, but they are always well executed examples of the form that feel both familiar and fresh. Watching English Vinglish gave me that feeling.
This is writer-director Gauri Shinde’s first film, but you’d never know it. She gets how movies are supposed to be made. The pacing is excellent, and the characters are complex and grow throughout the story. English Vinglish is an impressive debut.
Shashi (Sridevi) is an Indian housewife unappreciated by her husband, Satish (Adil Hussain), and preteen daughter, Sapna. Her young son, Sagar (Shivansh Kotia), is still in the cuddly phase of childhood, and her live-in mother-in-law is sympathetic, but both require Shashi’s frequent attention, reducing her existence to that of a short-order cook. Satish even resents Shashi’s modest catering business selling her homemade sweets, insisting that cooking for her own family should give her satisfaction enough.
The real point of contention in the family is that Shashi doesn’t speak English. Her husband speaks it at his office and her children study it at school, so Satish and Sapna are able to make jokes at Shashi’s expense without her understanding. When Shashi’s sister asks her to fly to New York for a few weeks to help with preparations for her daughter’s wedding, Shashi is forced to confront her feelings of inadequacy regarding English. She enrolls in a language course that changes her perspective on everything.
Of course, Shashi’s linguistic problems are just part of a larger identity crisis. Is she more than just a cooking- and cleaning-machine? Should she even aspire to be more than that? Why does she need to know English if she never leaves the house without her husband or kids to act as translators?
Shashi’s search for self-worth is universal, but there are distinct feminine aspects to her problem. It’s expected that men define themselves by their jobs, but what metric should a homemaker and mother use to define herself? As Shashi tells one of her classmates, “When a man cooks, it’s art. When a woman cooks, it’s duty.” Defining a life by the execution of rote tasks seems insufficient.
The classmate Shashi discusses cooking with is a handsome French chef named Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou). They form a friendship based on their love of food as well as their sense of isolation as foreigners who don’t speak the dominant language. The relationship is also fueled by Laurent’s obvious crush on Shashi.
Laurent’s affection puts Shashi in a precarious situation. She doesn’t lead him on, but she’s pleased to finally have someone — let alone a good-looking younger man — make her feel like she’s beautiful, funny, clever, and talented. Laurent’s compliments are hard to resist when the alternative is being treated like a glorified servant by her husband.
The French chef’s crush is understandable because, at age 49, Sridevi still looks perfect. Her performance as Shashi is likewise flawless. She channels every mother throughout history when Shashi puts on a brave face in response to her daughter’s insults, determined to hide her emotions until she’s alone.
Sridevi’s subtlety gives Shashi an air of realism: her quick, birdlike movements as she tries to comprehend the ticket machine in the subway; her slight smile as she silently mouths one of her newly acquired English words; even her dance moves are small and slightly embarrassed, rather than the broad gestures of a seasoned performer.
Nebbou’s performance as Laurent is also perfectly restrained. Since he can’t say the words, Laurent shows his fondness for Shashi through glances that linger longer than is considered socially appropriate. He’s not pushy, but he is persistent. He’s charming, but not in a cartoonish way.
The members of Shashi’s family are well-drawn. Her niece, Radha (Priya Anand), is an enthusiastic co-conspirator who encourages Shashi’s personal growth. Satish and Sapna aren’t villains, but they seem to enjoy sharing knowledge that Shashi lacks. Little Sagar is adorable, and never annoying or distracting.
Shashi’s English class is populated with characters who all have their own motivations, though not all are successfully portrayed. Jennifer (Maria Pendolino), the language school receptionist, is so believable that, for all I know, they cast an actual language school receptionist to play the part. However, the class’s lone East Asian of unspecified national origin, Yu Son (Maria Romano), distracts with her indeterminate accent.
Also suffering from accent-related problems is David (Cory Hibbs), the teacher of the class who initially speaks with a quasi-British accent that fades as the movie progresses. What does not fade is David’s flamboyant gayness. His over-the-top affectations make him into a caricature who can’t even be humanized by Shashi’s “gays are people, too” speech late in the film.
If the only real problems in a movie relate to a couple of minor characters, it’s safe to declare the film a success. English Vinglish is a refined, adult coming-of-age story with a fantastic heroine at its heart. This is definitely a must-see.