Tuesday, October 30, 2012

'English Vinglish', Gauri Shinde's movie avoids troublesome depths and remains in safe shallows



It is a film that everyone who has seen it has liked, and one suspects without knowing specifically why they liked it. It is in some ways a feel good movie. There are moments agony and hope, humiliation and triumph for Shashi Godbole played by Sridevi in her comeback film after 15 years. But it is a message-laden film, not an inspirational film, not a protagonist/heroine-based film. Yes. Shashi is the protagonist/heroine and we share her sense of despair and humiliation that she is not able to speak English and participate in the life of her teenage daughter or her business/social savvy. She touches people and even connects with them when she accompanies her daughter to the Parents-Teachers Association (PTA) meeting and connects with the Father from Kottayam who is her daughter's class teacher. There is something very nice about Shashi.
Shinde in her attempt to avoid a tear-jerker, the loud emotional melodrama does not allow Shashi to assert her humanity but places her in a new situation in every scene. The movie moves but the character of Shashi remains a wall-flower sort of person, colourful, impressive but she remains one-dimensional. It leaves one a little dissastisfied.
The basic question that one confronts in the early part of the film is this deep sense of agony as to why a person who does not know English is put through the intense humiliation of cultural deprivation. The teenage daughter is cruel in her own unthinking and unintentional way as many teenagers usually are, and the mother who does not know English is left to feel the whiplash of her impatient intolerance. It raises the question as to why modern Indians are still caught in the colonial hangover where we flagellate ourselves for not keeping up with the Joneses by not being able to speak English. This is really no laughing matter. The point has to be made that not knowing English -- the typical parvenu Indian middle class, nothing very surprising about it because the Westernised Russian upper classes of 19th century immersed themselves in French language and culture and mores to escape their rustic Russianness before literary giants like Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and even Chekhov tried to fight back with their portrayals of  rooted Russianness -- needs to exploded as a silly myth. But Shinde is not in the business of making a culture critique. She wants to make a light-hearted movie. She raises in a very tangential manner a real issue but soon runs away from it.
Shashi moves to New York, joins a four-week English language course set in multi-cultural, pluralist, liberal New York where migrants -- French, Mexican, Chinese, Pakistani and Indian -- want to learn English in a good-hearted fashion to become part of mainstream America.
Shashi too wins her spurs as it were and delivers a nice peroration at the end about the need to respect each other as individuals and emphasising the importance of family as the ultimate bond. But the movie remains so superificial that the speech looks a little out of place.
Sridevi holds herself back as much as Shinde holds herself back. This cannot really be interpreted as marvellously laconic. It is not. It is the inability of Shinde and Sridevi to press on with the real issues that come up.
It seems that when Indians try to hold themselves back from being melodramatic they end clamming up and that is what happens in English Vinglish.
Revathi, the south Indian film actress who directed Mitr -- My Friend handled the issue of non-communication between woman and husband with a little more feeling and it struck a chord.
Sridevi is such a good actress that we do not get to realise that she only portrays roles with a feather touch and that she does not really give the character any depth. And director Shinde seems to be of a similar talent, the woman who does not want to stir the deeper waters.
What we get then is a nice, sweet film which does not touch the depths of our hearts.

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