have noticed that many Bollywood films have the characters frequently switching between Hindi and English. Knowing little about India, I wondered if this was common. According to this week’s little gem of a movie, English Vinglish, the answer is not so simple. This is a story of one woman’s struggle to deal with a world where proficiency with English is the norm.

 

 

Shashi, nearing fifty, is a devoted wife and mother of two. While her husband is at work at some office, she cooks ladoos by the hundreds and sells them to people around the city. The people love them and making them happy gives her joy.

 

While Shashi tries to be a loyal wife and supportive mother, there are some problems. Her four-year-old son and her mother-in-law are good to her, but her husband almost always acts patronizing towards her and her teenage daughter (who may have been based on the first-time director when she was a child) can be outright contemptuous. Unlike the boy, they treat her as a relic of traditional India and use the excuse of modernity to find ways to walk all over her. A symptom of this attitude manifests when her limited grasp of English comes into play. This is most apparent when her husband is unable to go to their daughter’s PTA appointment and she has to go, to her daughter’s horror. When Shashi sheepishly asks the teacher to hold the discussion in Hindi (he is from Kottayam and his Hindi is actually not that great) her daughter gets extremely embarrassed and goes off on her on the ride home over what had seemed to be a relatively pleasant conversation.

 

That night, Shashi’s older sister calls from New York City; her elder daughter is getting married soon and she wants Shashi to come over around a month earlier to help organize the wedding. Since the children are still in school, the will not be able to go until closer to the wedding date and their father decides to stay with them. That means that Shashi will have to travel to a foreign land all by herself. Not only is she worried about going alone, she is unsure about leaving her children behind.

 

After a somewhat amusing plane ride, where the person sitting next to her gives an amusing dub over of the movie Source Code (it would be annoying if he were doing that in a cinema, but now there is no way that I could watch that movie without thinking of this scene), Shashi makes it to New York City, where she meets her sister and younger niece, Radha. They take her on a tour of Manhattan as some not Lady Gaga song praises (slightly teasingly) the borough’s high fashion and diverse inhabitants. She has fun, but feels strange being so far from home.

 

The next day, Radha takes Shashi with her on her way to college. Shashi is basically left to wander around on her own for two hours and has a fairly interesting time until she gets hungry and goes into a café. Now, this scene is kind of important in terms of a narrative catalyst, but I had problems with it. First, here is what happens. When she comes in, she overhears some guy telling someone else that the woman behind the counter is acting rude. Whether Shashi understands that or not, it is supposed to set up what happens next. Anyways, while Shashi is casually observing some of the weird things around her, including a little makeout session at one of the tables, the woman at the counter pretty much yells at her. Now, apparently, Shashi had not taken the time to figure out what she wanted to eat or to drink, so she struggles to make an order. In contrast to the scene in the plane where the nice (White) lady gave her a few options and she took the vegetarian, here the mean (Black) woman scolds her for taking so much time to order something, while making simultaneously slowing down the process herself by dragging out the options. Shashi could have admitted that he is bad at English; sure the last time she did that, her daughter threw a fit, but she isn’t here. At the same time, it should have been obvious to the café worker that Shashi’s English was not up to snuff, but she just treats Shashi like she is stupid. Personally, I feel like a more direct approach of having the woman insult her English skills and go on a rant about foreign languages (like that one scene with the Uncle Sam poster ordering people to speak English) would have had the same effect without all of the weird dual stupidity of both characters, but whatever. The fact that most of the Americans in the rest of the film are nice, or at least somewhat accommodating, makes this scene stick out badly.

 

In any case, Shashi tries to leave the counter as soon as she is done with her order, knocking over someone else’s food. Horrified and humiliated, she runs out. Eventually, one of the customers from the café finds her and gives her the coffee. Shortly after that, Radha returns and notes the advertisement on a bus for a four-week English course. Ironically enough, Shashi seemed more aware of the bus than Radha did, but not take note of the ad on it. Radha dismisses it as a con but, Shashi, utterly devastated by her recent experience, memorizes the telephone number.

 

While her sister is at work and her nieces elsewhere, Shashi secretly calls the number and learns that the class starts that day. After almost getting lost a couple of times, she makes it to the New York Language Center and gets to the class, right as it is about to begin. Here she meets the teacher David, a semi-flamboyantly gay English man. She also meets the class. There is Eva, a nanny from Mexico who is sent to this class so that her employer’s child stops speaking Spanish. There is Salman Khan (get it? No…nevermind) from Pakistan, who drives a cab and is hilariously blunt; he wants to learn English because he believes that Pakistani girls dig that. There is Ramamurthy, an awkward Indian software expert who wants to stop getting pushed around by his coworkers. There is Yu Son, a hairdresser from…East Asia, and her basic characteristic is fending off Salman’s advances with threats of violence. There is Udumbke from…Africa?…and he basically does not talk. And…there is Laurent from France, a hotel cook. He was the nice guy from the café and develops a not-so-subtle crush on Shashi. When it is time for Shashi to say what she does, David teaches the class their first word: entrepreneur. Okay, so Laurent does not speak up about the French origin of the word, but that is fine. We do not see what else they learn in the class (the movie is wisely a bit vague about what they learn in each class), but by the end of that first session, Shashi leaves repeating that word and failing to suppress a grin. She might not yet understand why, but attending the first class has made her happy, if only for a brief moment. And…intermission…really? Intermission? This movie is not even 135 minutes long…okay, well it is as good a place as any to stop the summary.

 

I was a little apprehensive going into this movie. My experience watching White people and supposedly native English-speakers in Asian films have rarely been positive, and having a movie where three quarters of it is set in the United States could have very well been disastrous. This is one of those occasions where it was far from that. Sure, some of the side characters did not fare well, particularly this one White girl whom Shashi’s daughter talks to towards the end of the film. But the character of David, like the character of Cathy from Please Teach Me English, is the one who could break the film and I think that the actor did a good job. I am not going to say that he deserves any sort of award, and I am not sure why he was supposed to be English if the actor is originally from California, but he did quite well and that is really all that I can ask for. His flamboyance is sometimes played for humor, but rarely as a joke.

 

The other main characters are good too. The actor playing Laurent did a very natural job. I don’t know the character is supposed to be half-Algerian like the actor, but whatever. I am guessing that Shashi’s nieces were supposed to be American-born, but the character of Radha sounded more like someone who lived in America for a long time; she almost got the accent down, but not quite. That doesn’t really matter, though, especially since I don’t expect Indian audiences to really get that subtle difference or care. And, really, that is a small thing.

 

The first time that I watched this movie, the ending threw me for a loop. Sure, I predicted half of the ending, as I found it to be telegraphed, but the other half really surprised me. It was not until I watched the movie again that I realized that I had missed an entirely different aspect of the movie that was just as equally telegraphed. This movie is about respect and dignity. Shashi’s husband and daughter had little respect for her and she had displayed little dignity in dealing with them. After the disaster at the café, she saw learning English as a means to never have to feel that way again. She keeps it a secret from her family, maybe out of shame or fear of them belittling her efforts, but also probably because she wants to have something that is her own. To her, though, it is rarely more than a tool. A tool for understanding and a means for gaining respect from others and within herself, not a goal on its own. The possibilities that manifest themselves as a result of her being able to communicate in English are, ultimately, not as important to her as is her feelings about her own capabilities.

 

Of course, it is not just about her, but of those around her. It is appreciation for the good people she sees everyday, even if she does not know them and acknowledgement of a job well done. It is finding dignity in what one does and allowing others dignity as well. This is something that I did not realize the first time around, but saw most clearly the second time. And, while that part of the ending may not necessarily have worked out in an Americanized version of the story, it definitely worked here.

 

It is not just the English lessons where the issue of respect comes in. There are small repeated scenes that show Shashi getting more comfortable with her life in New York City. She is learning to understand things more and accepting that which she does not understand. This is also an important part of the story. At a couple points in the film, an emotional Shashi speaks Hindi to Laurent and he responds in French. She is revealing part of herself that she could not in halting English so, even if Laurent cannot technically understand her, he does hear what she is saying. There is an idea that gaining understanding of those who are different is ideal, but a lack of understanding is no excuse for a lack of respect. This may seem like a small thing, but maybe it is not so small in a time when so many people tend to believe that things that they personally do not enjoy, along with those who do enjoy those things, are worthy only of disdain and hostility,

 

Honestly, I am not sure if my description here does it justice. Now, I am not sure if it is a perfect movie, surely there are plot silliness and some iffy acting here and there. But it is just too to get hung up on those things. I highly recommend it.

 

 

 

 

Next Time: Kabuli Kid (Afghanistan: 2008, approx. 95 minutes)

 

Time After Next: Outrage (Japan: 2010, approx. 110 minutes)

By Some Jerk From Boston

I make words fall from my brain into your eye holes. I also make swear words with my mouth that attack your ears. I like me. Twitter: @SomeJerkFB

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