English Vinglish

In 1982, Amitabh Bachchan in Namak Halal delivered this popular dialogue: ‘English is a very phunny language.’ I guess it is. However, I think it is not English that is funny but the context that makes it so popular in India that makes it tragically funny. I will come to that later.

The premise of English Vinglish, that of a married middle-aged Indian woman wanting to learn English, was something that personally appealed to me. Add Sridevi to the equation and I was hooked! As expected Sridevi was a joy to watch. She was just spot-on as Shashi, the slightly under confident middle aged married woman, who doesn’t know English very well. Besides, I agree with Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou) when he says, her eyes are like two drops of dark chocolate in the sky. What expressive eyes! Sigh! Anyway, I am digressing here. This piece is not my love letter to Sridevi.

Shashi is this quiet, efficient house wife who is also a small entrepreneur. She sells delicious laddoos. However, she constantly faces ridicule from her daughter and her husband, who seem to be ashamed of the fact that that she doesn’t know English. So, in order to earn respect from her family, she goes on to learn the language.

The graph of Shashi’s character in the film stays constant. When she meets the handsome, charming, sensitive (and absolutely drool worthy) Laurent, who shows interest in her, Shashi does not have a relationship with him. I would have been surprised if she would have done that. I could also relate to her need to please her family, a need that comes from low self confidence.  It is not easy to fight with one’s own demons but Shashi was doing just that and I was rooting for her.

The build-up of the plot is such that Shashi had to triumph in the end. And what can be a better showcase of the triumph than a speech in the climax, in a language that she was struggling all along! So Shashi gives a speech to her newly married niece and her husband about marriage, togetherness and family. To her credit, she gives the speech in halting English that had lines like “Sometimes you will feel less and sometimes the other person might feel less in the relationship.” But what followed after that totally stumped me when she said, “Your family will always support you when you are low. Your family will always give you confidence when you need it.”

I suddenly stopped caring for Shashi because it all seemed like one big farce. It seemed so hypocritical to see Shashi giving this speech, when her life was anything but that. Shashi’s family members did not do many things for her. Despite that, here she was selling the new couple, the idea of an ‘always supportive’ family! That was inherently dishonest writing by Gauri Shinde.

Many people I know felt that the character of Sridevi was being sarcastic but I did not feel the sarcasm. Even if I assume she was sarcastic, there is a problem. Sarcasm always conveys dual messages. Her speech was intended for two different sets of recipients— her daughter and husband and her niece and her husband. While she reserved the sarcasm for the former, it was a straight forward speech for the latter and that really put me off!

What does it mean to keep parading and selling this idea of an “ideal” family? There is no ‘ideal’ family. ‘Ideal’ families do not exist. Given the current scheme of things, despite the problems, families are a support system nevertheless. But they are far from ideal! Quite often one’s family will not be there for them when one needs them the most. Sometimes one’s family will not offer support when it is needed the most. Families have problems and it is best if those are accepted and acknowledged. Not acknowledging them is violence in itself because by constantly talking of the ideal, the real problems are quite often brushed under the carpet.

Shashi is shown wanting respect. I wonder how can one demand respect. Does one get it in exchange by acquiescing to the demands made by the people we are seeking it from? Or do we gain respect on our own terms?

If it would have been on her own terms then she would have got it just on the basis of the way she is—Hindi speaking, delicious laddoo-making entrepreneur. Instead love and subsequently respect seem conditional here.

While she is shown as triumphant in the end, not much is questioned about so-called demands put forth by her husband and her daughter. Apart from the feeling of shame that the daughter and the husband experience post her English speech, nothing much is said about the very nature of their expectations at all. It is just accepted as a common norm, which needn’t be questioned, now that success has been achieved.

The point is despite her judgemental family members, she was a successful woman. She wasn’t losing any business because she was not a bad cook. Nor was she less appealing to others because of her lack of knowledge of English, as was evident from her interaction with her daughter’s school principal. She was constantly belittled and made fun of because of her lack of understanding of English, which seems like an end in itself.

Why do we learn English? Of course, many learn English because they love the language. But many of us also learn English to ‘succeed’ in the job market. So that we can earn good money as opposed to many others, who cannot owing to their poor English. So that, we can have that ‘respect’ that comes from being successful in the society. But when one is successful in their own right without knowing English, why do we need English? Whose validation are we seeking? What does the associated prestige that comes from knowing how to converse in “good” English reflect about us? Why is nothing being said about the underlying assumptions so many of us have about lack of knowledge of English being equal to lack of sophistication or lack of class? Would we feel the same way if we did not know another Indian language, say Tamil?

The director has shown Shashi’s triumph but through that she has ended up reinforcing our collective low self worth. No, those populist dialogues— ‘Ab Angrezon ka nahin, hamara waqt hain’, and ‘Just as you survive in our country without knowing Hindi’— don’t help. They further reinforce the notion. Shashi’s success seems to be emerging from this need to please others for approval. The success also adheres to a standard that is based on low self esteem steeped in insecurity and lack of confidence.

English Vinglish unintentionally brings to the fore our collective low self worth regarding our need to know English in order to be considered successful and sophisticated. Shashi might have had her little triumph but I think her victory represents our collective failure of accepting ourselves the way we are.

First published here.