Direction: Gauri Shinde
Actors: Sridevi, Adil Hussain
Rating: *** and 1/2
English Vinglish is that rare thing – a Hindi film that creates a heroine out of a homemaker. Shashi, played by Sridevi, is a beautiful, accomplished woman who efficiently manages her home, husband, mother-in-law and two children. She also runs a small business making ladoos.
In a nicely done opening sequence, debutant director Gauri Shinde establishes that Shashi is the glue that binds this family together. As their morning rituals play out, she serves tea, breakfast and biscuits, but doesn't find a minute to enjoy her own coffee with a newspaper.
Yet Shashi's entire existence is undermined because she doesn't speak English. Her teenage daughter and husband treat her with an affectionate disdain. It's almost as if they consider her to be less intelligent because her language of communication is Hindi. At one point, Shashi ruefully asks her husband: Important batein sirf English mein hi hoti hain?
Shinde, who has also written the film, tells Shashi's story with insight and understanding. There is no overwhelming tragedy here; to outsiders this seems like a perfectly happy home. But it's the small humiliations and casual slights that scar Shashi.
Her daughter, who borders on obnoxious, is embarrassed to have her at a parent-teacher meeting. Her loving but insensitive husband dismisses her business. Like so many homemakers around the world, Shashi is taken for granted. She is there to serve.
All of which changes when Shashi goes to New York to help with her niece's wedding and defiantly, secretly, takes a crash course in English.
English Vinglish falters in the second half. The pace drops and Shashi's English class seems like an outtake of Mind Your Language, the successful television series about a motley group of people learning English. There's also a clumsy sub-track about Shashi's English teacher being gay, complete with a sermon on equality.
But even when the film feels shaky and stretched, Sridevi doesn't miss a beat. Her performance is a triumph.
She's vulnerable and sad, yet selfless and strong, in the way we all know our mothers to be. She imbues Shashi's quest for respect with genuine emotion. It's hard to imagine that this is an actor who hasn't worked in fifteen years.