I watched English-Vinglish in its first week itself. It is not just a well-made movie. I felt it is awesome on the technical front. Sridevi, French artist Mehdi Nebbou and Adil Hussain do their job to perfection. The younger actors match up with their seniors if not outperform them -- especially Shivansh Kotia who plays Sridevi's son. The music and visual departments also gel well with the film. To its credit, the film also has an emotional premise that most Indians, men and women alike, could relate to. The family and the problems within.
And at the end, it is a feel-good film more than anything else. Like all feel-good films, it makes you go back home happy. With tears in your eyes if you are the soft kind.
Alas, it was a feel-good that requires you to erase from your memory almost everything that you saw till then in the film. It is a feel-good that deceives the viewer in me, just like how it deceives all the central characters in the film. Cheating, I wanted to shout.
Nobody has been complaining that they felt cheated, probably because people are happy feeling happy. Critics also gave their thumbs up for this movie, most of them giving it four stars or more out of five. Taran Adarsh of BollywoodHungama.com even called it an inspiring film with an overwhelming message.
So what is the message? That one should stick with one's family, no matter how humiliating it is? It is this 'inspiring message' that is packed in a feel-good speech from the protagonist Shashi (played by Sridevi) towards the climax, which masquerades as an address or an advice to a newly-wed couple.
Shashi, a very much married Indian woman who is confronting her attraction to a french guy during her short stay at New York, goes into a denial of herself and tries to defend her lack of choice with this speech. The essence of the speech is that family is the most important thing in one's life because (i) it is only in a family that two people can feel equal, (ii) your family would never let you down, and (iii) that your family members cannot be judgmental about you.
She appears to be telling that to herself and to the audience who are watching the film, than to the newly-wed couple. Because she knows that is not the case, and so do we.
Earlier in the film we have seen her family letting her down often, being judgmental about her and we know that she and her husband have never been in an equal relationship. As is the case with most of the families. But that is not what we have been telling ourselves. That is not what we want to believe.
Marriage and family are sacred institutions that we do not want to hurt. We want to make ourselves believe that our family is all that we have to fall back upon. That the family would stay with us even in the worst of times. That the family members would not let us down. So what if most of the time our family members let us down, what if they always take you for granted, what if it is never an equal relationship, what if they are almost always judgmental -- we will try to consider it all as an aberration rather than the rule. We want to force ourselves into forgetting that family is often the source of our unhappiness, and we want to feel good that we are with our family. Because there is no escape from it. (And those who are not married are considered a threat to the society.)
Through this speech, we can feel Shashi's desire for social security and familial acceptance surpass her guilt of having to reject her French lover who respects her as an individual. Her niece, who supported her 'free life' till then is also happy that she ditched that outsider (he's outside the family, outside the caste, outside the religion and outside the nationality) and chose to stay with her husband.
No wonder that it makes us all happy.
The husband who watches the film is assured that the wife would not leave him and run away, no matter how bad he treats her. He naturally feels good about it.
Children feel good that their mother will put up with all the crap they mete out to her and she would stand by them in any case. Yes, there is a chance that they are reminded how insensitive they are. (“When I was young, I used to be embarrassed by my mom's English too. The movie reminded me of how narrow-minded I used to be”, says a quote featured on English Vinglish facebook page). But that does not matter, because they can afford to be narrow-minded and can take their mom for granted. You could make it up all by taking her to this film. (“For all the times you have been rude to your mother, make up to her by taking her for English Vinglish”, goes another quote on the page).
Wives/mothers feel good that it is not only them, even a Sridevi cannot be honest to her own feelings, despite being in a city like New York. They make themselves believe that by sticking to their family despite all the humiliations, they are essentially standing for themselves. (“We all go through some or the other sort of humiliation in life. When our weaknesses become a source of mockery for everyone. A few of us succumb to such situations and others like Shashi fight and stand for themselves. Kudos to Gauri for giving us such a wonderful film”, says Roshni in another featured quote.)
I think that is where the film fails. It fails to capitalize on the potential to develop into a real path-breaking film, and it settles for a laddoo-for-all success formula instead. Yes, that is also where the film succeeds, and Gauri Shinde deserves credits for the same.