Restraint can be a truly magical thing. In Gauri Shinde's directorial debut English Vinglish, every time Sridevi's shy housewife protagonist Shashi is taunted by her family for her poor English, there's no melodramatic music, no eye-popped glare of shock, no storming off or slamming of doors. Instead, she merely displays a deep, saddened look of disappointment. And then moves on. English Vinglish is a simple, heartwarming, and wonderfully acted film that marks the comeback of Sridevi after a 14-year sabbatical. Thankfully, it delivers on its tremendous hype.
Sridevi plays Shashi Godbole, the sari-clad dedicated Marathi wife and mother, with skilled precision. She deftly runs her household, manages a successful home business of catering laddoos, and has a downright adorable relationship with her young son Sagar (a very cute and confident Shivansh Kotia). Repeatedly teased by her businessman husband (a remarkably balanced Adil Hussain) and teenage daughter for not knowing English, Shashi secretly enrolls in an English language class while on a trip to New York for a family wedding. It's in this class that she discovers a newfound freedom along with greater confidence in herself.
Shinde, often displaying the influence of husband Balki's style, unravels seemingly mundane moments in a particularly sensitive way. An unforgettable sequence is when Shashi has to tackle the public transportation journey from her sister's suburban home in New Jersey to the English class in the middle of Manhattan. Directed and acted so naturally, you actually share the sense of accomplishment Shashi feels when she finally arrives at the front door of her class. It's such a simple challenge but shown so sensitively here, it becomes one of the key dramatic highlights of the film.
At this English class, Shashi befriends a motley crew of immigrants from around the world who have one thing in common - their desire to learn English. Shashi's scenes with her classmates are some of the best moments of the film. Yes, the film plays on certain stereotypes - the perky gay tutor, the outspoken Mexican woman, the nerdy Tamil purist, and the suspiciously quiet man who is described vaguely as the "African". However, it stays well clear of turning these people into caricatures, and instead gives them real heart and charisma.
While sneaking out of her sister's house in New Jersey to go to her class in Manhattan every day, Shashi develops a special bond with one specific classmate, the French hotel chef Laurent (a charming Mehdi Nebbou), who in turn falls for her. Their moments of untranslated conversation, when Shashi speaks in Hindi and he responds in French, are delicately handled and beautifully performed. They find a connection through simply understanding and respecting one another as people, beyond the barriers of language.
English Vinglish holds on tight to the belief that everyone is good at heart but with some flaws. There are no villains in this tale. Even Shashi's husband is portrayed carefully - his taunts are encased in a genuine love for his wife. By saying she's born to make laddoos, he thinks he's actually complimenting her. Little does he realize, those words sting his wife.
She does love her husband, and knows he loves her too, but what she wants from him is respect. It's this search for respect and confidence that defines the film.
One of the film's greatest strengths lies in the entire supporting cast. Not a single actor is out of place. The entire class (Cory Hibbs, Rajeev Ravindranathan, Sumeet Vyas, Ruth Aguilar, Damian Thomson, Maria Romano) gels playfully with one another. Mehdi Nebbou, as the lonely French romantic, is spot on, especially when he describes a chocolate crepe as a "French laddoo" to make it easier for Shashi. Adil Hussain carries off the role of the husband with finesse, never coming off as negative. Neelu Sodhi and Ross Nathan, as the interracial bride and groom-to-be fit right into the flow of the genuinely nice characters that fill this film. Special mention goes to Priya Anand, who plays Shashi's supportive teenage niece Radha. Finally, a NRI character played realistically in a mainstream Hindi film!
Music and background score by Amit Trivedi give the film that gentle lift. The songs are fun and hummable. I have a feeling the title track will be on loop for many people for a while.
English Vinglish is an incredibly sincere, feel-good film about what wonders respect and confidence can do for someone. It's an ode to mothers and wives, making a case for self-worth without ever getting preachy. Sridevi makes a comeback with a bang, delivering a brilliant performance as Shashi - a woman deeply in love with her family but also feeling incomplete inside. Her trademark quivering voice aside, Sridevi proves yet again why she is one of the everlasting stars of Indian cinema. She breathes such life and passion into Shashi that you fall in love with her character and root for her in every scene.
It's a beautiful comeback for Sridevi, an accomplished debut for director Gauri Shinde, and yet another feather in the cap for producer R. Balki who has built a strong brand of filmmaking that tells simple stories with finesse. English Vinglish is one of the best films of the year and must not be missed.