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‘English, Vinglish’: The UKAsian Review

I have long been partial to Sridevi.  No other actress could have pulled off that fearsome routine in ‘Main Teri Dushman’; the venom in her pallid eyes, and of course, her innumerable curves, each with its own post-code and weather pattern, bringing the usually unflappable Amrish Puri to the edge of catastrophic coronary failure.

Her screen comeback after 15 years of domesticity, in ‘English Vinglish’, has been eagerly anticipated and it must be said that she has aged revoltingly well.  

Tennis, yoga, an obsessive aversion to cooking oil and – rumoured – regular visits to the world’s finest plastic surgeons has resulted in a stunning figure and quite perfect complexion.  

The saucer-sized, Doe’s eyes are still untainted, and it would be difficult to find anyone who would look so elegant and sexy in a sari.  

A shame then, that the movie is such a disappointment.

Sridevi plays Shashi; a dutiful, dedicated, simple housewife with scant little to call her own.  Her executive husband (Adil Hussain) belittles her and refuses to engage with her other than to praise her cooking and occasionally indulge in her body.  Her teenage daughter is embarrassed by her mother’s inability to speak English.  Even the youngest son seems wiser and more secure than the mother.  

In the midst of her silent suffering, Shashi is summoned to New York by her widowed sister who enlists Shashi’s help to organize the perfect wedding for her daughter.  On the way to the Big Apple, she faces a series of language-related indignities at the hands of airline staff, immigration officials and a particularly nasty coffee shop worker. 

Wounded, she resolves to suffer no more and enrols in an English tuition class where she makes friends and discovers herself as well as words like ‘entrepreneur’, ‘judgmental’, not to mention phrases like ‘Self-Esteem’ and ‘Self-Respect’.

She also makes a handsome Frenchman called Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou) go wobbly at the knees.

The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month and reportedly received a 10-minute standing ovation, which is baffling because ‘English Vinglish’ fails to engage on any level.  

Barring a delightful little cameo by Amitabh Bachchan and some very tender moments between Sridevi and Laurent, the film is a terrifically unappealing snooze-fest with an unending stream of cliché-ridden clichés.  

Director Gauri Shinde was apparently inspired by the struggles with English faced by her own entrepreneur mother and millions of her fellow Indians. 

For her directorial debut however, Shinde is more intent on perpetuating Bollywood’s alternate universe, complete with its Dulux-inspired tints and tones, whitewashed parapet walls, perfectly starched school uniforms, colourful saris and even Tuk Tuk’s with interiors seemingly hand-built at the Rolls Royce factory. It’s essentially a shortened version of one of those annoying day-time Indian soaps.

Shinde is also awestruck by her leading lady, with extended shots of Sridevi’s face in soft-focus.

The hackneyed story is overly simplistic and the characters are alarmingly one-dimensional.  In fact, Shashi’s daughter is so outrageously petulant you feel like locking her up and throwing away the key.

Sridevi herself is average, with none of the feistiness that was a hallmark of her roles in her previous life.  Her total inability to lift herself up leaves you wishing that she’d just give up altogether.

Following the TIFF screening, some Indian media outlets even compared Sridevi to Meryl Streep but the former displays none of the latter’s pluck.  

Having firmly established her legacy, Sridevi could have been bolder with her comeback.  

Instead, she’s played safe and frustratingly predictable.  

– Viji Alles

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