English Vinglish (2012)

If The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is from the outside looking in, then English Vinglish is the reverse shot, bringing us a point of view from the inside looking out.

Writer-director Gauri Shinde gleaned from her real life experiences to craft this delightful dramedy that is rooted in human miscommunication, but speaks much more. The film is one of the Gala Presentations at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

The legendary Bollywood star Sridevi comes back to the big screen after a 15 years hiatus to play Shashi, a devoted wife and mother in a modern, middle-class family in Pune, India. She is a lively, capable woman, a good cook who runs her own catering business, her specialty the ladoos, sweet golden balls of dainty delights. But she has to struggle with one major insecurity: she knows little English. Well, you may think, what’s the big deal. But with English recognized as the lingua franca by those living in a former British colony, and a patriarchal society, Shashi as a woman with no English sorely feels disadvantaged, even within her own family.

Her daughter teases her for her pronunciation, even her preschooler. She shies away from parent-teacher interviews, for her daughter goes to an English-speaking school. No matter how devoted a wife she tries to be, she feels the gap between herself and her husband (Adil Hussain, Life of Pi, 2012; The Reluctant Fundamentalist, 2012), who is proficient in English and thus becomes her spokesman in social situations.

“She’s born to make ladoos,” her husband’s intended praise of her cooking skills only reflects the confining social reality in which she finds herself. Not knowing English makes her feel subservient, without a voice.

The tipping point comes when Shashi’s niece is getting married in New York City. She has to go on her own to help her prepare for the wedding. Her family will travel later. An Indian woman in a sari on her first international flight alone, Shashi is understandably timid and insecure. But a friendly and helpful gentleman who sits beside her eases her anxiety. That role is aptly played by the veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan (Watch for him in The Great Gatsby, 2013)

A funny and quite original scene comes when this helpful gentleman suggests they watch the same in-flight movie, and he be her interpreter. Only he wears the headphone, and translates the dialogues out loud from English to Hindi for Shashi to hear, in a voice that’s animated and true-to-life, sound effects included. Here’s the rub… the movie is an action thriller of terrorists committing violence with guns and bombs. Other passengers trying to sleep have to shush him, short of subduing him for uttering bomb and death threats.

New York City, the place where one can transform oneself in a surprising way. Shashi has her first major language mishap in a coffee shop. Turning insult into courage, she enrolls in an English language class. The camaraderie of fellow learners lowers her guard and builds up her confidence. In a few short weeks, she has not only gained some mastery of the language but supportive friendship, with one being more intimately intended.

Shashi’s vindication comes at the wedding of her niece. Her husband and children have arrived for the occasion, not knowing her secret English lessons. In front of all the guests, Shashi is asked to make a speech to the newlyweds. While her husband tries to deflect the embarrassment and excuses her for lack of English, Shashi stands up and uses her new found voice to urge the bride and groom to value equality and treat each other with respect, a heartfelt speech well intended for her husband, and a lesson that brings tears of remorse to her daughter. This is one of the most moving wedding speeches in films I’ve seen. In case you’re interested, another memorable one is Dustin Hoffman’s at his daughter’s wedding in Last Chance Harvey (2008).

The 130 minute movie could benefit from keener editing, but the charming Sridevi carries it through with style and grace. It is a joy to watch her even amidst her insecurities, for she has won my heart with her quiet determination to overcome the odds, her strength of character shines through beautifully.

The movie offers a variety of entertainment, albeit not without some contrived moments. It is a full pack of heartwarming comedy, melodrama, cultural mishaps, the ESL classroom, Bollywood style music and dance numbers, but above all, reality. The film has brought to the forefront children showing disrespect for a parent with no English. This could be an issue particularly among immigrant families. Such a portrayal could well be indicative of society at large. Shashi has demonstrated that language does not define who she is, nor should it be the condition of respect and meaningful relationships.

The fact that we in North America can thoroughly enjoy a Hindi film, no doubt by reading English subtitles, could only mean that we can cross the language barrier to understand each other and appreciate different points of view. English may be the lingua franca in certain parts of the world, but it is compassion that joins us. What better way than to be entertained as we go about learning other perspectives?

~ ~ ~ Ripples


Other posts you might like:

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Midnight’s Children Film Adaptation

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

34 thoughts on “English Vinglish (2012)”

  1. Wonderful review! I rarely ever see a film in a theater anymore, as we use Netflix on a regular basis. However, I did see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with a friend a few months ago, and thought it was marvelous. Now I’m anxious to find English Vinglish in a theater, but I’m having no luck. I’ve got it saved in my Netflix queue, but will try to see it on a big screen if it ever comes here. Thanks for putting it on my radar!


    1. Les in NE,

      I hope this film will go to your area. You’ll see it’s like the flip side of Marigold Hotel. You’re welcome to click on the link to read my review of that movie, or any other ones on the list at the end of the post. Thanks for visiting Ripple Effects and leaving your comment.


      1. I read and enjoyed your review for Marigold Hotel. I love Judy Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy, so I went knowing absolutely nothing about the film other than what I saw in the trailer (thanks to Nan, who brought it to my attention).

        I don’t know why it’s taken me until now to visit your blog. I’ve seen your name on Bellezza’s blog for quite some time now, so I thought it was high time to pay you a visit. I see you live in Alberta. I was born in Ottawa and lived in Alberta for a couple of years (Valley View) as a young child. I’d love to return for a visit some day.

        It’s so nice to meet a friend of Bellezza’s and I’m looking forward to perusing your archives. 🙂


    2. Les in NE,

      Glad we finally connect. And thanks for taking the step to come over. You’re welcome to explore all the past posts… all five years of them. But if it’s movies or books, just click on the heading at the very top of the blog.

      Also glad that you’re a Canuck, albeit an expat in the U.S., and a former Albertan too. We do have something more to connect. I’m in Calgary. Hope one day you do have a chance to return to your childhood home. 😉


      1. Banff and Jasper are on my list of places to visit, so maybe we’ll meet in person one day. Looks like you’re less than 8 hours southeast of Valley View. And only 23+ hours northwest of Lincoln, Nebraska. 🙂


    1. Christine,

      I’m not sure this will show in many theatres. But I’m sure it will go on DVD, maybe sooner than you’ll see it in theatres. Thanks for stopping by.


  2. I think it’s great that there are so many Hindi or Indian films on American or western setting. Gives you a great feeling that East and West could blend and bring out the best of both.


    1. JoV,

      Yes, looks like we’re getting quite a few in recent years… I mean, not just in theatres. There are DVD’s as well. And I’m looking forward to seeing Life of Pi soon. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment.


    1. Grad,

      Thanks so much for your kind words. It comes to our city this week in limited release, not sure if it will show in your area. I’m not familiar with The Red Box.


  3. I love the title…at first, since I hadn’t heard of this film, I thought you were kidding. How intriguing for many reasons, this one. (I still have to see Best Marigold…way behind…but “Anna” comes first!
    Still, we’re listing those films to see perhaps without having to leave the house once we wade into winter here…!


    1. oh,

      Yes, Anna comes first, with over 800+ pages. But I’m sure you’re enjoying it too. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it come Nov. 15 And, if you’ve time, and if this movie goes to your area, check it out. I think you’ll like it.


  4. I also wasn’t aware of this one – so glad you brought it to my attention! And since you reference to of my favourite recent films (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Last Chance Harvey) in the review, it’s a given I will see this at some point. Thanks for the heads-up!


    1. Janet,

      You’ll see it’s very different from the two you mentioned. It’s good that we’re exposed to films from other cultures. They can be eye openers for us. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment.


  5. Can you believe this? I’ve seen both Best Exotic Marigold Hotel AND Last Chance Harvey. In fact, I found the DVD of Harvey at the grocery store checkout line, and picked it up there. I completely agree about Dustin Hoffman’s wedding speech. It left me with a few tears. 😉

    I’ve heard of this one, too – who knows how that happened. But I’d love to see it. What surprises me is that no one’s mentioned The King’s Speech. The issue is different, but impediment is impediment, and overcoming is a wonderful thing to see. I hope this one arrives on the big screen!


    1. Linda,

      Way to go… you’ve seen the films I mentioned on a review! I’m glad we share those reference points. But one thing though, I can’t say I totally agree with you about comparing this to The King’s Speech because, not knowing English is not an ‘impediment’. If anything, I think it’s a socially constructed disadvantage, definitely should not be regarded as a ‘handicap’ in the conventional sense. And I think Shashi has demonstrated that she would not be defined by what language she is or isn’t proficient in … but rather, it’s her inner strength and character that help her rise up above social inequality and prejudice, which unfortunately are so ubiquitous that they are so real even within her own family.

      If this film comes by your area, do check it out. Be prepared for something very different from Last Chance Harvey… 😉


  6. Well, you gave a much more meaningful review than the (awful) trailer indicates for this film. One line which particularly strikes me in your post is this: “She’s born to make ladoos.” Funny how a compliment can often come across as the opposite; funny how our best skills often confine us, or somehow trap us, while what we long to achieve lies dormant. One of the lessons of course is to appreciate what we can do well. But also to not let that skill limit us from all we can achieve.

    I’d like to see this film, Arti. I have so many Indian children in my class, and they constantly enrich my life. As do their parents. I even carry a carved wooden elephant on my key chain which someone brought back for me a few years ago.


    1. Bellezza,

      You’re spot on. I can’t put it better. Isn’t it ironic that our best skills could limit us from reaching our full potentials. Do see this film. It’s certainly quite different from the Western movies we see in that there are Bollywood dance and songs in there mixed together. And I’m afraid the ESL classroom can’t avoid the pitfall of portraying caricatures. But all in all, it’s worthwhile entertainment. And I must say, I’m totally won over by Shashi.


    1. Nicola,

      I haven’t read the book on which The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is based either. With so many books to read, I’ve to skip that one. I’m now preparing for some highly anticipated upcoming book to film adaptations later this year, Anna Karenina is a big one.


  7. This sounds like one of those movies that leaves one with a good feeling afterwards an all too rare thing with many movies it seems. Will definitely be putting this one on my watch list!


    1. Stefanie,

      Yes, I think it speaks to some relevant issues. You probably would find it quite different from what we are used to watching in N. America.


  8. This sounds exactly like something I would like — and will probably have to wait until it is on video to see. The challenges of living in a small city in the midwest that prefers Ironman to smaller, more thoughtful movies. But I will remember this one — with a terrific title like that, how could you forget?


    1. Jeanie,

      I know what you mean. Someone I know in OH has to drive an hour to see this one. Anyway, it sure is different from your everyday Hollywood flick but as they say, there’s Bollywood in it. 😉


  9. This sounds charming! And I know it’s a situation that crops up a lot in first generation immigrant families. Sounds like the kind of film I’d like to watch (and you know how you manage to keep that tiny category quite full!).


    1. This is the kind of films that may have only very limited release. So you just may not have the chance to see it. But, yes, if you’ve a chance, check it out. I think you’ll like it.


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