Sridevi always seemed like a great candidate for a second innings. India’s biggest female star in the ’80s and early ’90s, she was also – script- and director-willing – a terrific actor, with standout performances in films like Sadma and Lamhe. On hiatus for the past 15 years, she’s back as the lead in Gauri Shinde’s directorial debut English Vinglish. Happily, she still has that unforced charm that made her one of the least narcissistic Bollywood stars of her generation. Pity, then, that this diverting but uneven comeback film spends its latter half struggling to keep it real.
Sridevi plays Shashi Godbole, a Pune homemaker with a tenuous grasp on the English language. Her bratty daughter and supercilious husband (Adil Hussain) keep pointing out her mistakes – something she’s embarrassed about, but has come to accept and live with. But when she has to travel by herself to New York for her niece’s wedding, the problem is compounded. Enter an impossibly diverse English tutorial class (pro-gay, even) and English Vinglish becomes an American version of the British TV series Mind Your Language. Shashi and her classmates (including the fine French actor Mehdi Nebbou) stumble towards fluency, even as Shinde throws in a bunch of touristy montages that tell us little about the city they’re flattering. Still, the classroom scenes are funny, with everyone gamely playing up their racial stereotypes. (Rajeev Ravindranathan’s broad Tamilian accent must have tickled Sridevi, who belongs to that state.)
As Shashi began to find herself, we started to find ourselves dreading a melodramatic backlash. It arrived on cue. Her family joins her early, and turns out to be as insufferable on holiday as they were back home. Her final examination is scheduled for the same day as the wedding (of course it is). Most disappointingly, instead of taking her emancipation to its logical end, Shashi goes ahead and does what Hindi film mothers have been doing for the past century – sacrifice her dreams for her family. “I don’t need love, I just need a little respect,” Shashi tells her niece at one point. For that to happen, she’ll probably have to start respecting herself a little.