‘Comeback film’ – a term used to define a movie starring an actor who has not been seen on screen for some time. One usually finds such films for female actors who after sacrificing their careers at the altar of domesticity suddenly feel the desire to return to celluloid. The length of their hiatus varies. Jaya Bachchan returned to screen with  Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa 17 years after Silsila. Karisma Kapoor was away 9 years before Dangerous Ishhq (no worries if you have not watched this one, since it sunk without a trace). And then we have actors who have ‘so called’ comeback films when nobody really cares that they had gone in the first place. But those are not up for discussion today!

English Vinglish (EV) – Sridevi’s comeback film is the topic and I have to admit it is a great vehicle for her to return. She was undisputedly one of the most expressive actors of her time. Having started her career in Tamil films at the tender age of 5, she went on to become one of Hindi filmdom’s favourite ladies, even cited as ‘The First Female Superstar of the Indian Cinema’. She could depict hundreds emotions on through her face and body language without needing spoken words. A lot of people sat up and took notice when she announced her return to acting after 15 years, under the direction of debutante Gauri Shinde. So EV was clearly a film to watch out for. 

EV is peppered with every ingredient required to make a successful film – a family based plot; simple but honest script; capable cast; Indian and foreign locales and a liberal dose of desi values. The film opens with a glimpse into Shashi Godbole’s (Sridevi) daily life, the routine chores of a homemaker’s day that do not seem to change, starting from the time she wakes up till day end. In the middle of this she takes out time to make and deliver mouthwatering laddoos to various families in Pune. Her husband Satish (Adil Hussain) and young teen daughter (Navika Kotia) make fun of her lack of knowledge of the English language. The daughter is extremely embarassed by her mother and cringes when she has to go to school for a PTA meeting, an honour reserved for the English speaking father. Her husband trivializes her small business as nothing more than a hobby and does not realize that is what gets her maximum appreciation. The saving grace in Shashi’s life are her supportive mother in law (Sulabha Deshpande) and her little son Sagar (Shivansh kotia). A sudden phone call from her sister Manu (Sujata Kumar) in New York, announcing the impending wedding of her elder daughter Meera and asking for her help to organize things throws Shashi into a panic. She does not want to travel to the US because she cannot speak English, a fact driven home by some family members regularly. She also does not want to stay away from her kids and husband for weeks. However, after a lot of reassurance from her MIL she agrees to travel. Her spoken English faux pas at the visa interview and through the first half of the film elicit a lot of laughs. She meets a very helpful stranger on the flight (Amitabh Bachchan in a cameo) who helps her get over her inital fright of flying. After landing in New York, Shashi finds unconditional love and support from her sister and nieces, specially Radha (Priya Anand). While a particular encounter at a New York cafe leaves her in tears, it also results in her meeting an unexpectedly sympathic man. Shashi decides to enrol in an English class that claims to teach students the language in 4 weeks – exactly the time she has before her family come in for the wedding. She meets a lot of people from different nations in class including Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou) the man from the cafe who becomes an admirer and a huge support for her in days to come. The class is a straight lift from ‘Mind Your Language’ – the extremely popular BBC comedy television series of the seventies, and has all possible stereotypes like a Pakistani cab driver, a Chinese hairstylist, a Mexican nanny, a Tamilian techie, a strong and silent black guy and of course Laurent the French chef. The film explores Shashi’s discovery of herself in a foreign land and ends, like all feel good films, on a positive note. 

I had read some glowing reviews of the film and heard pretty good things from friends and have to admit it was a wonderful attempt by Gauri Shinde, the debutante director. The things I liked……the film is warm and fuzzy; has some lovely hummable tracks; believable performances all around and a happy ending. The importance placed on spoken English in modern India is presented well as is the insensitivity that close family sometimes displays while jesting. The director’s efforts to work on Sridevi’s body language is commendable; so are the scenes where Shashi and Laurent communicate without speaking each others languages. Little nuances like the growing familiarity between Shashi and the guard at the Underground is beautifully and silently portrayed. Last but not least it was a positive delight to witness a wedding that was not Punjabi!

I would be lying if I ended this note with only positives because that is not what I took away from the film. Quite a few things jarred and while I may not be able to list all, here go some….

…..Shashi’s English is so poor that she says ‘jhaaz’ instead of jazz, sending her daughter and husband into paroxysms of laughter, but pronounces other English words in a pristine, urbane manner. Her pronunciation of ‘omelette’ and many other words are  as refined as that of a thoroughbred Englishwoman.

……Shashi sounds anything but Maharastrian. In fact her native Tamil accent comes out very strongly during her conversation with Satish in the scene outside the airport. Some effort on her speech would have made a big difference.

…..The average urban Indian woman has discovered the art of changing into comfortable nightwear before bedtime some decades ago. But Shashi clings to her sari with gusto through the days and nights changing from one into another. And she is not a lower middle class housewife, but someone who lives in a house that speaks of relative affluence.

……Shashi’s monologue at the end of the film about loving yourself somehow fails to give credit to all the people based on whose unconditional support and encouragement she actually started loving herself.

……The biggest jarring factor for me in the film was Sridevi. Scroll back up to my description of her as the actress who could emote through every gesture. For me, she did not exist in the film. In her place was this anorexic, awkward woman who could not smile naturally. I do not know if this because her once perfectly normal nose now looks exactly like Michael Jackson’s or some invasive procedures that has rendered her once extremely mobile face into a half mask. But what I do know is that I missed the spontaneous Sridevi of yore – the one we saw essaying 2 extreme roles in Chalbaaz with laughable ease. In EV she is a shadow of her former self. While this was great for a major part of the film where she plays Shashi the woman with almost zero self esteem, it does not go well with the new Shashi – the one who starts loving herself. The body language improves to the extent of a confident walk but not much more.

Once again, a great effort and a must watch………but I cannot help but say I so wanted more!


Copyright © Taraa Vermaa Senguptaa November 2012

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