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The Empress returns

October 15, 2012

Fifteen years after Judaai (how’s that for irony?) a 49-year-old Sridevi makes a comeback with English Vinglish. And what a comeback it is.

Granted, it’s not a commercial blockbuster (even though according to the Hindustan Times the film has been declared a hit), but it’s the kind of movie that, given the recent spate of loud, raunchy and bawdy films, comes off as extremely refreshing; touching without being cheesy, devoid of ‘item numbers’, violence or villains.

The storyline is simple. It centres on Shashi, a housewife with two children; she, like many women puts her husband and children before her; she is willing to forgo her morning tea in order to serve her husband with a hot cup of coffee; when she is mocked by them continuously for not being able to speak English (she refers to jazz as jahaaz, for instance), she takes it in her stride, displaying just a flicker of hurt.

But Shashi isn’t just a housewife; she is an entrepreneur of sorts too; she has a small home catering business dealing in mouth-watering ladoos in Pune, where the film is set, and delivers them in a rikshaw if she has to.  (Her husband unknowingly hurts her by making comments like “my wife was made for making ladoos”.)

She also manages to charm and connect with many of the people she meets even if she is unable to communicate with them in English, such as her daughter’s principal whom she meets at a PTA meeting, much to her daughter’s embarrassment.

The movie takes a turn when Shashi has to go to New York – all alone – to help prepare for a family wedding. Once there, she is once again insulted for not being able to speak in English, and resolves to learn the language by enrolling in a four-week course. This is where she meets a host of characters from different walks of life – think Mind Your Language – including a French chef who falls in love with her; in one of the scenes she tells him that if a man cooks, it is considered to be art, and when a woman cooks, it’s just work. (What makes for a few memorable scenes is when both characters, in fits of emotion, start speaking to each other in their native tongue, but still manage to convey their feelings.)

Gauri Shinde, the writer and director of the film is a true storyteller, and handles the direction expertly; the film is restrained and nuanced; she doesn’t allow her characters to fall prey to the temptation of being overly dramatic or loud. Neither are the characters depicted as demons or saints; for instance, the husband isn’t a villain, but an insensitive man who just hasn’t taken the time to understand his wife or her needs too well (towards the end, he asks Shashi if he still loves her, and she replies, “yes, you made a “good choice” with me.”

In many ways, the film explores the insensitivities we have all at one time or another displayed to the ones we love without meaning to, without realising that we’ve hurt them in the process. And that’s where the film’s universal appeal lies; you’ll find yourself relating to at least a couple of scenes. And of course, the film highlights the unnecessary importance many of us give to being able to speak English properly (Do we ever chastise the Americans for pronouncing Pakistan as Pack-isss-tan?), and how we tend to judge their intelligence depending on their mastery over the language.

Sridevi shines in a role that is different from the ones she has played in the past; she is able to convey the hurt she feels with a mere look, without needing to give long winded speeches. Her comic timing is as impeccable as always, and her eyes (described by the Frenchman as “pools of coffee”) remain as expressive as ever. Her sense of accomplishment as she take a subway ride alone will make you cheer along with her. It’s hard to believe that she’s been away from films for so long; she’s well able to give the current crop of actresses a run for their money, and with this performance she proves that there is definitely a future for an actress who is nearly 50.

But it would be unfair to say that she carries the film entirely on her slender shoulders (the thunder thighs are a thing of the past). Adil Hussain as her husband, Priya Anand as her niece and partner-in-crime, Mehdi Nebbou as Laurent are worth a mention, as are her classmates; Amitabh Bachchan in a cameo as Sridevi’s fellow passenger is absolutely delightful. On the music front, a couple of songs stand out, namely Navrai Majhi which could well be the ‘it’ song for the forthcoming wedding season, Dhak Dhak and Badla Nazara; better yet, snippets of the songs are used as interludes between scenes in the film rather than the traditional Bollywood standalone songs.

However, one of the things about the film that will disappoint Sridevi fans is there is not one entire song that is dedicated towards displaying her dancing prowess. But hey, there’s always next time.

The writer is a Bollywood – and Sridevi – enthusiast, who occasionally blogs at http://mamunadil.wordpress.com.