When Sridevi started making movies, she spoke no Hindi. The actress, who grew up speaking the South Indian language Telugu, simply repeated lines she did not understand.
"They used to call me 'parrot.' I used to mug lines, knowing the meaning and giving the expression, without knowing the language," the star of more than 250 Bollywood movies recalled last month during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, adding that she also regularly performed in Kannada and Malayalam, two other Indian languages she did not speak.
And now? "I can communicate with my servants, I can fight with my husband in Hindi."
So Sridevi can identify with the character she plays in English Vinglish, an Indian housewife who wins some cred with her disrespectful family when she sneaks off to English classes during a visit to New York – and re-emerges fluent.
Indeed, the 49-year-old actress found the story of the diffident Shashi's transformative language classes so compelling that it brought her out of a 14-year retirement during which she had raised two daughters with her husband, movie producer Boney Kapoor, and painted as a hobby. Reading the script from Gauri Shinde, an advertising director making her feature-film directorial debut, Sridevi decided she wanted to play Shashi.
"I was happy with what I was doing. I didn't plan [it.] I just loved the character," she said.
Her own English, as she speaks these works, sounds wonderfully fluent, but features a limited vocabulary, suggesting she has perfected the same technique for learning any number of languages. Speaking English and studying abroad, she points out, are viewed as necessary to success in India. (Although Hindi is the country's official language, India boasts hundreds of regional languages, of which 22 are recognized by the constitution; English is still used in government, and remains most people's first choice of second language.)
Sridevi's multilingualism may also explain why, when asked what has changed in Bollywood during her absence since 1997, the first thing she mentions is the improved technology, especially the use of synchronized sound. Traditionally, Bollywood producers added the soundtrack in postproduction; voice tracks recorded on set using sync sound have come into use only in the last decade.
"After the film, you would go to the theatre and dub. When the performance is emotional, or in comedy where there are [issues of] timing, it's very difficult to get the same effect," she said. "… The sync sound: That really helps an actor to retain the spontaneity of the performance."
She also sees narrative change coming to a commercial industry that has long depended on formulaic melodramas performed by beloved megastars who appear in several films a year.
"I enjoy doing the commercial films; I am grateful to those films. Whatever I am today, it is thanks to those films," she said, but added, "They are looking for different stories, something interesting, not the same usual stuff. That is very welcome. The story is the hero of the film."
In that regard, English Vinglish is a film designed not only to please South Asian moviegoers but to attract global audiences not steeped in Bollywood traditions – beyond expecting every Indian movie to feature a lavish wedding, which English Vinglish does. Will its crossover appeal push Sridevi in new directions?
"I am hoping. It all depends on how much more the audience wants to see me."