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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

English Vinglish

Or: Anne Elliot, in a Sari, speaking English and taking names


While watching English Vinglish, in between chewing my knuckles in anxiety and shouting “Preach, Lass!” at the scream it came upon me that I have finally found the film to introduce outsiders to my weird and secret passion, the Hindi film industry. Here there are no big production numbers, nor half-hour’s wasted on pointless jokes and soft-core blue material, that both define and degrade the Bollywood film in the western mind. Instead (songs and dances intact) we pare down to the zest and life of a good story with good values for everyone.


We follow Sahshi (Sridevi) a middle-class housewife in Dehli, skilled at making and selling Ladoo’s (sweets) and tending to her family. However despite her care of them, and patience with their foibles, her husband and daughter treat her largely as staff, ignorant and meddlesome. Her particular failing, picked on over and over again by her family, is her lack of English, a serious handicap in a country where most higher forms of education and business are conducted in that language. When called to New York to spend five weeks preparing for her nieces wedding, Sahshi embarks upon an adventure away from hearth and home, armed with her stuttering phrases and a desire to please. In desperation she sneaks off to an English Language class, where she falls in with numerous multinational characters, amongst who is the sweet tempered French Chef Laurant (Mehdi Nebbou), who takes a particular interest in her.


Directed and written by Gauri Shinde, the film is meant to be an apology to/celebration of Shinde’s mother, who went through a similar transformation (though, we assume, minus the flirtatious frenchman). The resulting story, while small in its scope, should resound with anyone who’s ever tried to maneuver a gridlocked family, or deal with a frightening and cumbersome language, or left what is familiar and, by their travels, gain a bolder outlook and a more open heart.


The films clarity and universality can be laid in part at Shinde’s feet for a masterful script, new inventive and making full use of the gaps and divergences in the many languages spoken in the film (not to mention its advocacy of women's rights and Immigrant voices) and also in part to Sridevi herself. Her first role after a 15 year hiatus, Sridevi’s Sahshi drips with pathos, both for her Anne Eliotesque situation, and her gradual build towards confidence and self emancipation, with plenty excellently carved dips of doubt and anxiety along the way. Her conflicts, expertly contained or allowed to spill out in shaking sobs, are only overshadowed by her absolutely heartfelt joy at a friend made or a word mastered.

My enjoyment of Sahshi’s journey was marred only by the experimentalness of the cinematographer and the immaturity of the lyricist. This is not the good kind of experiment,but rather the unfortunate kind that involves jumpy hand held camera’s (for the transition scenes only, thank goodness) Lens flairs aplenty, and induced Vertigo. And as the music, a song composed of nothing but designer brand names? You can do better.


I would highly recommend this film, to people in need of a good character driven light drama as well as those in need of a healthy dose of introspection. Then you can move on to Khabi Kushi Khabi Gahm and dance/weep/laugh the night away.

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