Sunday, October 07, 2012
ENGLISH VINGLISH (Hindi; 2012)
[Image courtesy koimoi.com.]
If you'd told me I'd end up thoroughly enjoying a film dominated by stereotypes almost out of Mind Your Language -- the warm and friendly gay teacher; the nerdy South Indian; the horny, brash Punjabi; and the brooding Frenchman are but four of the ones we'll be spending a lot of time with -- I'd have demurred. And I'd have been wrong: English Vinglish is a slight, breezy film that is quite consistent with the contemporary Bollywood trend of films that don't attempt very much -- but this tale of a "traditional" housewife (Shashi Godbole, in the only Sridevi role I've cared for) who doesn't speak any English, and her struggle for respect from those closest to her, is also well-made, seamless, and sensitive, and easily one of the best Hindi films of the year; that it is directed by a first-timer, and one of the industry's very few women directors, is surely an added plus. It is also -- when it turns to Shashi's US-based relatives -- one of the best Bollywood representations of the NRI experience (indeed, director Gauri Shinde and her husband Balki (of Cheeni Kum fame) seem determined to correct decades of imbecility in this area).
The highlight of the film for me is Shinde's deft-but-firm touch in underscoring the many ways in which women are impinged upon, without ever falling back on the film-killing truncheons of Maudlin and Preachiness. Women with spouses and children will have no trouble recognizing Shashi's inability to enjoy her morning paper; or the way her husband Satish (Adil Hussain) casually dismisses her business making and selling laddoos as just something she does. But Shinde doesn't stop there: it isn't just Satish, but even Shashi's New Jersey-based sister, an independent career woman, is not above condescending to her and taking her for granted. That is, Shinde has the good sense to appreciate that the problem here isn't about "bad husbands," but about an entire social system that tends to devalue women's work, and devalue it precisely by recasting it as a duty, obligation, or a "given" for which no great appreciation is due. Conversely, Shinde's world is also a sunny one, enabling her to explore its ideas while eschewing grimness: the result is a nimble film, where many more experienced directors might have simply made a pedantic one. To be fair, Shinde doesn't spend much time exploring other cultural issues -- the privileging of English over "the vernacular" in India is wryly noted, but our post-colonial self loathing is not analyzed (even Shashi doesn't question it) -- and after a point her film definitively commits itself to the terrain of gender rather than India's post-colonial baggage, but perhaps none of that is a weakness: a more substantial script would have been required for it, and a different kind of film, perhaps more of a laddoo than the souffle we have here.
Adil Hussain's Satish Godbole is more type than man, so much so that by the end, when Shashi says she doesn't need love but respect, I found myself wondering where she'd found the former: over the course of the film, we've seen Satish's pre-occupation, casual selfishness, and insecurity, but not really any affection for his wife. Nevertheless, it is to Hussain's credit that we never end up hating him (although, I wonder how many women are included in my "we"); I definitely want to see more of this actor. The same cannot be said for Shashi's obnoxious daughter, a one-dimensional portrayal that, I confess, led me several times to muse that she might have turned out better had Shashi given her a few tight slaps. On a serious note, interviews like this one suggest that more than a little guilt has gone into that portrayal.
Guilt certainly should be Amit Trivedi's lot, for giving us an album that is so generic I was hard-pressed to recall anything about it by the time I got home. Trivedi's recent work has been very far indeed from the subversive oddness of Dev D, and while he does need to be able to play it "straight" to thrive in Bollywood, he is hardly able to match the likes of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Vishal-Shekhar at their best -- and surely, those standards aren't unattainable.
As a New Yorker (and, a very long time ago, a NYU alum) lately transplanted to Mumbai, it was a relief to find the geography and commutes of Manhattan and the area around Union Square plausibly rendered (admittedly the fulfillment of a wish, not a critical virtue in the film), but even more so to find it populated by relatively normal Westerners and Americans of Indian origin -- how many times does a traditional Indian woman walk through a subway station by herself and not get attacked?! -- far removed from the sort of xenophobic pandering we routinely see in the films of Karan Johar or the Akshay Kumar comedies. Shinde's instinctive cosmopolitanism elsewhere made Amitabh's dialog to the U.S. immigration official all more jarring: the line that Bachchan's character was visiting to "spend some dollars, you know, help your economy" was just stupid. [As an instance of pandering, though, it was clearly successful: my Lokhandwala theater audience erupted in cheers and claps. But then there's Salman Khan, a cab driver from Lahore played by Sumeet Vyas -- Shinde's slyest move might have been to make this character a stand-in for many in the audience. His "education" on difference/different sexual orientations might have been trite, but it is hard not to read into it Shinde's implicit rebuke of our penchant for easy stereotyping.] Finally -- and this is essential to understanding this film's appeal -- English Vinglish is just so darn likable: it's a light, fun film that isn't trivial, and is fundamentally optimistic about life. Throw in the most amazing collection of saris you'll ever see in a film, and what possible excuse could there be to stay away from the theater?