Monday, November 12, 2012

The Charm and Humanity of "English Vinglish"

“English Vinglish” is an Indian movie that is as good as, if not better than, Mira Nair’s 2001 hit “Monsoon Wedding.” But while Monsoon enthralled Americans, English Vinglish has not created much of a ripple among moviegoers. That’s a pity because this is an unforgettable story conveyed through convincing performances.
Shashi is the ideal homemaker. She loves her husband (Adil Hussain) and adores her daughter and son. Her home in the Western city of Pune is an ode to taste. By the side, she runs a catering business selling golden, sweet snack balls called “Laddoos” that her clients are willing to die for. It brings her a nice income of her own. She seems to have everything, everything but respect from her husband and daughter. Her fault? She is pathetically deficient in English.
When she mispronounces a word (“Jaaz” becomes “Jhazz”), she faces the withering scorn of her husband and contemptuous daughter. No matter how hard she tries to shower her family with  love, she cannot save herself from her fatal flaw. “My wife was born to make Laddoos,” the husband tells anyone within earshot, barely hiding his contempt.
She begins to hate herself.
One day, her sister in New York invites the family to attend her niece’s wedding. Shashi has to travel alone because her husband is in the middle of a business deal and the kids are in school. They will join her later.
At the U.S. embassy, the immigration officer senses her difficulty with the language and mocks her. “How can you go to my country when you don’t even know English?” An Indian worker at the embassy supplies the perfect retort on her behalf: “You have been in India for years and still you don’t know how to speak Hindi!”
After suffering more insults and humilations, she finally lands in New York. The custom officer asks the inevitable question: “What is the purpose of your visit?” She flubs her line and says “I am here to attend my wedding.” The disgusted interlocutor waves her through.
Shashi (played with sublime pathos by Sridevi who has returned to the screen after a fifteen-year hiatus) tries to get used to the hectic New York life. One day, she notices an ad on a bus that promises to teach English to novices in a 4-week crash course. She has had enough of contempt and disrespect. Somehow, she manages to enroll herself in the language school.
The real story unfolds in the English class. There is a Mexican, a Pakistani, two Indians, a Korean, a Frenchman, a mysterious African and an irrepressible teacher. The Frenchman (Mehdi Nabbou) falls for Shashi ("her coffee-bean eyes float in a cloud of milk") as she stumbles her way through the minefield of basic English.
Shashi is the quintessential Indian wife. Adultery is not in her vocabulary. But the Frenchman awakens a certain feeling in her. In a cruel and mocking world, he extols her beauty and her rapid progress with the language. When Shashi’s younger niece, who had seen the duo walking animatedly down Manhattan Avenue, encourages her to respond to new love, Shashi replies: “I am not looking for love, only respect.”
The husband and the children arrive in New York. It’s the fourth and final week of her class. There is to be a final test before a certificate of course completion can be issued. But it interferes with her niece’s wedding. What to do? What to do? She cannot be in two places at once. On one side is the reason why she had traveled to New York; on the other, an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to infuse her life with meaning.
The loose ends get tied but not after some heartbreaking scenes of loss, longing and love. “Thank you for making me love myself,” she tells the Frenchman, the ultimate expression of her gratitude. For in loving herself, she realized that she had found the self-respect she had been craving all her married life.

She is now the confident citizen of a world whose redeeming values are diversity and acceptance.
Written and directed by the gifted Gauri Shinde, “English Vinglish” should be seen by Americans of all hues and backgrounds. It is a touching story that lifts you up and enlarges your humanity. Can anyone ask more from a movie?

1 comment:

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