Let me start out by saying that English Vinglish is a must-watch film for anyone remotely interested in feminism, Bollywood, India, immigrant culture, or NYC. It marks the return of “India’s first female superstar”, Sridevi, to the screen after a 20 year hiatus, and in doing so is probably the most female-centric film in Bollywood since Mirch Masala in the late 1980s. English Vinglish not only has a female lead, but has a female lead who is in her late 40’s. The plot is centered around the problems women face, and the lead overcomes these problems on her own, without the help of a man. And if that wasn’t enough, almost everyone important involved in its production is a woman. It is Gauri Shinde’s debut film as a director, but you wouldn’t know that because it’s more well-made than most films put out by her more experienced male colleagues. Despite whatever criticism follows, English Vinglish is revolutionary and I wholeheartedly believe that everyone in the world should watch it.
I first saw English Vinglish with my 3 roommates in Mumbai, soon after it came out, about a week before I was to return to America. This was the perfect setting. Even though my English is way better than my Hindi, English Vinglish pretty well encapsulated my own fears of returning to America – peoples’ general ignorance and lack of understanding of my experiences, having to form sentences in American English again (I was on an immersive Hindi program; English was intimidating), the rudeness with which people can be treated sometimes in this country. I also was watching this film in a theater full of Indians who had never been to America yet enthusiastically cheered any time there was a [normally inaccurate] negative comment made about my country – which reminded me that people could be ignorant, rude, and have a lack of understanding in India, too. I was glad that my own companions were sweet enough – another American girl who could share in my discomfort, and 2 Indian girls who couldn’t take their eyes off the firangi eye candy for long enough to join in on the cheering. This is how English Vinglish was meant to be viewed – without subtitles, without full understanding of the many cultures it tries to incapsulate, with a huge crowd of people who can all appreciate the Amitabh Bachchan cameo and what it means that Sridevi has returned to film after a 20 year hiatus. In this setting, I loved it.
After actually moving to New York City, I couldn’t get it out of my head. When riding in my shared cab into Manhattan, all I could see was Sridevi’s niece translating the word “Manhattan” for her; the subways were full of advertisements for English classes (my landlord for the first 2 months was even an overweight opera singer who taught ESL over Skype). I finally got around to watching it for a second and third time, in this new setting, and realized that even though it is revolutionary in many ways that American films still haven’t reached, it still isn’t quite perfect (spoilers ahead).
In terms of women in film, English Vinglish is perfect; in it’s treatment of minorities*, however, I think it tries harder than it succeeds. The first ‘minority’ we see is the NRI (Non-Resident Indian: anyone of Indian origin living outside of India) family, who seem to have all but completely rejected their Indian culture, to an extent that most Indian families living in America haven’t actually reached. They are holding a fairly traditional wedding, but they also speak primarily in English, eat almost solely American (well, Mexican) foods, and are overjoyed to marry their daughter off to a white American man who is openly ignorant about their culture and not making the slightest effort to understand it (“wait you guys are gonna give me a dowry right?”). There are families like this in America, sure, but there are also many immigrant families who are still very tied to India, and who already have a difficult enough time dealing with being trapped somewhere between two cultures. The NRI family is portrayed positively, but it is also misleading in that it doesn’t even begin to approach the cultural and identity issues many Indians living abroad actually face.
The other stereotypes exist in Sridevi’s English class – a gay man, an East Asian girl, an African man, a charming white guy, a Hispanic woman, a South Indian, and a Pakistani. The Pakistani fulfills the tharki role, thinking of nothing but sex while crudely hitting on the Asian girl, who fulfills the Indian stereotype of East Asian women as being ‘loose’ by putting up with his advances. The South Indian guy is incredibly nerdy and works somewhere in IT, only concerned with his job and his idli. The Hispanic woman doesn’t have much of a character beyond her laziness. The number of jokes told about the very flamboyant English teacher’s sexuality is borderline offensive, and once the African man in his class has acknowledged that he is “also gay” they suddenly start to be seen standing next to each other in every scene (please also note the line “straight and gay they all sway” in the song “Manhattan” [above]; this movie really does take special care to make sure we all recognize how insanely accepting of homosexuality America is compared to the rest of the world). Aside from being gay, the African man is basically a token: an angry, quiet man who sits in the corner of class and intimidates everyone by not speaking. The problems with the stereotypes of the firang embodied by the French character are summarized well enough by how my mid-twenties Indian roommates fawned over an objectively average-looking 50 year old guy whose attractiveness in their eyes was significantly enhanced by the fairness of his skin, foreign citizenship, and interest in an Indian woman.
The way the French classmate of Sridevi’s follows her around in pursuit is borderline sexual harassment, but we as an audience are meant to think of it as charming, reminiscent of Raj’s pusuit of Simran in DDLJ. This is acknowledged by the two desi men in the class when he finally makes explicit his love for Sridevi, through an ironic dialogue that goes something like: “maybe this is how you treat white women, but you can’t treat Indian women this way, they are more deserving of respect.” Oh, so the explicit disrespect you have been showing to the Chinese girl this entire movie is okay, but the French man who at least has intentions beyond your purely sexual ones is doing something wrong with Sridevi? Wow, I thought all women should be treated with respect but I guess I was wrong; it’s only desis. I can only hope that all of this irony was intentional.
All of the above complaints are really minimal, because as a whole, this is the most progressive film I have seen in a while, not just out of India but out of any film industry. The entire idea of a married woman having any sort of feelings for anyone outside of her family is a very liberal one for India, and is a central conflict addressed in English Vinglish. Sridevi wasn’t getting the respect she deserved from her husband, so to an extent sought to get it elsewhere. This slight stray from her family doesn’t mean she was ever going to leave them, and in the end, her entire reason for learning English was for the benefit of her already established family, who she ended up going back to with more love and respect than ever before. Even a good marriage can have problems, but that doesn’t mean it has to end. Sometimes families can take you for granted, but they’re still family, and no one can compete with that.
In a way, this was a more romantic love story than the typical Bollywood romances. There were a lot of complaints about the ending of this movie, when Sridevi is back with her husband and doesn’t take the English newspaper on the airplane. I, however, think it was perfect. Sridevi had never wanted to become fluent in English, she wanted to prove to herself and to her family that she was good for more than just making ladoos. This scene perfectly encapsulates how successfully she achieved her goals.
*I use the word ‘minority’ to mean ‘a group that is underrepresented in the country in which the film originates’. Bollywood does have a wide NRI audience, and stereotypes of NRIs are generally positive ones, but NRIs are still hard to find in India and are still being stereotyped. There are probably more South Asians than Americans watching Hollywood movies, but that doesn’t mean we should keep making every desi character in Hollywood into an awkward scientist/gas station owner with a terrible accent.