It’s hard to believe that anyone would take for granted the glittering presence of Sridevi, the Indian movie star now making a professional comeback after a 14-year-absence during which she raised her two daughters.
At 49, she can still convincingly play fresh sweetness on screen; off-screen she emits a don’t-mess-with-me maturity. But in Bollywood as in Hollywood, your downtrodden heroine can’t look too downtrodden.
So the bilingual crossover flick English Vinglish has us believe that Sridevi is Shashi, a conservative Indian mother and housewife whose self-satisfied husband (Adil Hussain) can simply call out “chai, Shashi!” every morning and find his tea at his elbow. He runs some important enterprise that requires him to speak perfect English and allows him to dismiss as a hobby his wife’s successful small business selling the Indian pastries called ladoo. Shashi’s daughter is no less ungrateful and her mother’s non-existent English, the butt of many family jokes, is a particular humiliation to a tween who attends an English-language private school.
So, when Shashi travels to New York ahead of her family to help her sister organize a wedding, she sneaks off to some English classes. There she meets a convenient Frenchman named Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou), whose romantic attentions do as much to reawaken her confidence as her new mastery of English grammar does. There follows a winsome if utterly conventional ugly-duckling story about a sympathetic character’s much deserved progress toward a richer self.
The trouble with this scheme is that Shashi is building self-esteem by buying other people’s values: Neophyte director Gauri Shinde, who also wrote the script, does include a few boorishly unilingual Americans alongside the helpful ones and lots of rich Indian culture, but in the end, Shashi earns her family’s respect by mastering the master’s language, knuckling down to the realities of a global culture in which English is the lingua franca.
Similarly, Shashi is not going to teach her husband Satish a lesson by running off with Laurent. The film ends with a wedding – but it is the long-planned nuptials of Shashi’s niece, reaffirming the family values that have done Shashi no favours thus far. One wonders how long the neglectful Satish will remember the message of equality and gratitude if it is delivered as gently as this movie does.