Just back from English Vinglish.
…and I haven’t been so completely charmed by a film in a long long time.
Why do I like it so much? Let me think.
Let me take some of my favourite writers and film makers like Chekhov or Ozu. What do they do? They take up an ordinary man or a woman , place their artistic microscope on their seemingly ordinary lives and reveal contours rich in intricate details , possessing as powerful a drama as you will find in the life of anyone much more exalted ,or degraded for that matter.
At some level, all lives are same. And what are the big questions in anyone’s life boil down to? It is about making choices. You are the choices you make in life.
“ Should I meet my family waiting for me at Empire State Building, or sit here with you on the footpath eating French fries?’ Shashi, the character played by Sridevi asks her French admirer from their English learning class. “Should I make it to the final exam of the English learning course , or make the laddoos again for the wedding guests after the first lot have gone waste?”
The choices you make reveal character.
The other thing about simple stories or simple films is they hint at so much more than what they say. Ail great works of art are about great metaphors. Like the postman Mario in Il Postino says to the poet Neruda, ‘ Maybe the whole world is a metaphor for something else.’ English Vinglish is a metaphor . Making laddoos is a metaphor. And anyone can figure out what else they can stand for. The story itself is of course a story about a woman finding her self-worth , and in the process regaining her love that was slipping away from her life.
Long back I saw a film by Jabbar Patel called ‘ Musafir’, where Rekha is supposed to be an ugly woman, and Naseeruddin Shah makes her feel she is beautiful and she becomes beautiful. The French admirer of Shashi does the same here for Shashi and she thanks him for it. But it was not just him. It was really about going out into the world , finding that you had abilities, that you had charm, that you could engage with people and develop friendships. As I said before the English bit could be anything else…getting a job, reducing weight, having a baby.. a little something that opens the door to self-discovery.
Where Gauri Shinde scores is her surefooted script and lightness of touch. She never belabours a point. The husband is insensitive to his wife – you can see it from a mile. It is obvious from the way he treats her, his desperation to get physical with her without showing any affection and his taking her for granted . But Shinde never makes it a feminist tirade. The relationship arc between Shashi and her French admire too is drawn with a gossamer thin line. And there are nice little balancing touches. The children are cute, but the daughter is inexcusably cruel to her mother. The students of the English class are individualistic and interesting without being grotesque caricature.
( just a sidelight here. People often question a film like this , “ can it happen in real life? Can anyone learn this much in 4 weeks. Etc Etc. Since I have mentioned Chekhiv and Ozu in the same page as English Vinglish, I think I owe an explanation. The thing to remember is the language this film is talking in is Bollywood. And It IS a language. Some people use it well, some use it badly ( mostly it is the later). But there is no denying the distinctive idiom. There is an element of exaggeration, and the narrative is not constrained by conventional logic. But in the n=best works if the genre, be it 3 Idiots, Lagaan, Barfi, Gangs of Wasseypur ( all of different sub-genres within the Bollywod school) , there is a core of reality and consistent internal logic.)
The reason I have not mentioned Sridevi is because what can I say about her? I have be such a fan of her. Seen almost all her films – from Nagin, Justice Chaudhury and Mawali to Lamhe, Sadma and Mr India – just to see her light up the screen with her luminous presence. And here she owns the screen with her sheer acting talent. ( What a feast of feminine acting feats we have been served this year! Vidya in Kahaani, Deepika in Cocktail, Rich Chadda and Huma Qurshi in Gangs of Wasseypur, Priyank and Ileana in Barfi , and now this tour de force. I surely don’t envy the judges of Bollywood awards this year.) She is remarkable in the manner she makes transparent her inner world to us, letting us peep into her every little hurt, every whiff of confusion, every small triumph. Of course she is ably supported by the entire supporting cast, led by Adil Hussain as the everyman husband and the two adorable kids.
These days I judge the language literacy of a director by the quality of lyrics used in the film . Here there are many little tasty bites floating about in the melodic soup of Amit Trivedi. If the Amit Trivedi- Amitabha Bhattacharyu combo offers one kind of delight in films like Dev D , Udaan and Ishaqjaade, the Amit Trivedi-Swanand Kirkire combo here serves up another kind of flavour . ( Eg Kabhi dil dhadke, baayin aankh phadke. Or Badla nazar yun yun yun, Saara ka saara new, new, new. Or Gustakh dil, Dil main mushkil, Mushkil main dil. Or To your left Prada, To your right Zara.) Of course Sri was born to dance to the Navrai Majhi song.
Suddenly remembered a random quote from Spielberg. He said , “ My films like ET bring tears to people’s eyes. What makes them roll over is John William’s music.” Every scene in English Vinglish has the audience rooting for Sri and the film, but what makes them break into spontaneous clapping is her final speech. We know it’s coming. But can she make it special? Well she does and some more. I was shaking within trying to hold back tears. She was that good. The speech was that good. ‘ Sometimes you will be a little less. Sometimes he will be a little less. ‘ ( Sometimes ina marriage one does not notice what the other needs. What do you do then? You go out. Feel good about yourself. And return back”. “ In this big world, our family is our small world. A family is never ‘ judgmental”.” I wish I could remember the whole speech. You know there has been closing monologues in Hindi films…Amitabh in Main Azad Hoon, Nana in Karntiveer, Shahrukh doing ‘ Mai Qaidi No 786; in Veer Zaara and so on. This one trumps them all.
Think of the rare climatic finales in Hindi films that don’t involve a fight between hero and the villain or two lovers getting / dying together : the cricket match in Lagaan, the painting competition in Taare Zameen Par – and now you can add this speech to the list.
As I was coming out of the theater I saw a little girl of ten or so was holding her grandfather’s hand and muttering to herself ‘judgmental’ … and I knew the film had hit home.