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The Empress returns

Published Oct 15, 2012 10:33am


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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


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Comments (10) Closed

Shubranshu Oct 15, 2012 11:37am
Although I am going to be biased with this because it is about my all-time favourite female actor but it was an absolute treat to watch Sridevi on the big screen after fifteen years. I don't care whether she's compared to Merryl Streep or being referred as the female Amitabh Bachchan but no one (and I mean it) knows and understands this craft better than she does. Not only she is absolutely pretty, she is completely unaware of it while acting. And man, those EYES! Why don't we get actors as complete as she is any longer? Regarding the film, this is such a coming of age film (typical of La Devi- remember the cult classics Sadma, Lamhe; her regional cinema), doing away with the stereotypes to a large extent (despite of great potential) and dealing with an ordinary subject with an exceptional story-telling ability. It's heart-breaking yet heart-warming. Cheerful, yet melancholy. Tackles superficial anxieties but goes very deep in bringing them to light without being melodramatic. It is very surreal yet so genuine,very life-like. How many times have we enjoyed predictability in a movie so much that we are left completely mesmerized? The film moves at a universal pace with the background score and songs as integral parts of the film. There is no revelation in the climax to make the plot more attention-grabbing, like I said, no melodrama. One problem that I have with the film is eventually one tends to get entrapped in the same social milieu that one resolves to question. Perhaps, that is the reality of ordinary life or shall we say mainstream cinema. But, seems like Gauri was aware of that predicament and therefore the film is not about liberation or deliverance but emergence! The protagonist isn't yearning for love but respect. The classroom scenes may remind you of 'Mind Your Language' but this reminisce would come to mind had it been a French language course or any other tuition with characters of different nationalities as students. This is because the iconic status that TV show has achieved but no one who has seen the film will say, 'Oh this scene is a copy from MYL'. This episode of the film is not the stronghold of the film either. Perhaps Gauri was conscious of this comparison and therefore kept it to the minimal. Learning English or not knowing the language is a metaphor. Not knowing and persistence to learn is the foundation of the script. The only high point coming out of this part of the film is the bonding between Sridevi and French actor Mehdi Nebbou. It is a lesson for all those filmmakers, particularly Anurag Basu who directed Kites (2010), how to use a foreign language in a film without making it boring. The strength of the film is that there are no subtitles for the French dialogues and yet you would enjoy the conversations between Sridevi and Mehdi. This is also a film which does not privilege learning English for respect over the protagonist's culinary passion or for that matter non-remunerative work. One sees that she never belittled herself for what she knew and didn't know. For her, it's her passion which she wants to prioritize. Even when she thinks that being with her children is more important for her than going for her class is a statement that raising children, cooking in the kitchen, being a homemaker are as economic productive tasks as going out to work in an office. The director's ability to give some powerful messages in such a subtle way makes the film a winner. One of the best films I have seen in recent years with a novel plot, a crisp screenplay and a perfect characterisation. If not because I am saying this but trust me international audience doesn't give a standing ovation to a film just like that! The Hindu never recommends a film before its release. Amitabh Bachchan or RajniKanth do not write/speak about a film at such great length. Shekhar Kapoor doesn't tweet everyday on a mainstream film appreciating it. How many times do we have critics/reviewers all over the world on same page effectively calling this the best film of the year n India thus far? Most of all, it's a comeback of an actor who shouldn't have retired in the first place (cruel industry!). As they say, a true Pan Indian Megastar! And, as someone wrote, 'Sri has brought back the act in acting!' I agree. Welcome back and please stay!
Shiv Oct 15, 2012 05:59pm
The BEST movie of the year - much better than any of the 100 crore grossers. You leave the movie hall with a lump in your throat. A must watch.
asmi Oct 15, 2012 11:33am
The film is only 10 days old so it is TOO EARLY to say that it is not a blockbuster. Film is already a HIT and has made 30cr in India so far. Looking good enough to cross 50cr, it has every chance of becoming a blockbuster.
Alesandro (@DaveDane12) Oct 15, 2012 12:34pm
The thing is the movie revolved around sridevi and she carried the movie on her shoulders, the others made a good support and ofcourse in every film there can't be 1 actor. there was no recognizable actors and she was fantastic. The Movie is superhit in overseas as it collected over 15 cr already and biggest for a female orientated film, it should be a hit in india when crosses the 30 cr mark since it released in only 800 screens, and the movie already making close to 25 to 30 cr distributor share worldwide,, also adding south collection also.
Cyrus Howell Oct 15, 2012 04:26pm
A truly gorgeous woman, even today.
Raul Oct 16, 2012 10:46pm
He managed to escape! what else do you expect?
Ali Oct 15, 2012 03:43pm
i cant wait to watch it... i love Sri Devi and i'm so glad she;s back!
Vikram Oct 15, 2012 08:22pm
She truly is "The Empress" !! Kudos to the author of this lovely article!
raul Oct 17, 2012 06:36am
Let us not forget Sridevi ruled Bollywood during its worst days along with her beau "jumping jack" Jeetendar, with music by the equally untalented Bappi Lahiri. Most of the movies made were formulaistic, overacted and forgettable. Most of the indian middle class had abandoned going to the cinema with movies being made for the working class and rickshawallas. It was only when that generation of Directors, Actors and Musicians were pushed out that Bollywood started to expand within India and abroad.
chakraborty Oct 16, 2012 06:45am
and yes, first time in Bollywood, a pakistani was shown as a normal, cool & happy man.