My review of English-Vinglish:
What Gauri Shinde’s debut film insists on showing us is so deliberately unspectacular, so quiet and dull and taken-for-granted, that when we see it in real life (and we see it all the time), we merely avert our eyes. It is the predicament of the person whose personhood is summarily dismissed by a refusal to value the work they do—casually, perhaps without malice—but resulting in no less cruelty than if it were intentional.
Because English-Vinglish, despite its name, is not just about English. English here is a placeholder. Being fluent in English, in the sadly skewed universe of contemporary India, automatically codes you as modern, fashionable, worthy of respect. Not being fluent in it relegates you to the back room: a second-class citizen unworthy of display.
Shashi is, first and foremost, a wife and mother, and Shinde’s masterstroke is to create a character whose fears and conflicts and insecurities are almost never a consequence of direct assaults made by the wider social world. Her experience of the world comes to her filtered through her husband and children.
So it makes complete sense when Shashi, at the film’s end, describes her view of family as a little world within the wider world, a space in which you ought to be held safe from the judgements and cruelties of the wider world. It is as close to a statement of worldview as a Hindi film heroine has ever been allowed to come, and whether you think of it as beautifully hopeful, or sadly, simplistically delusional, it is unlikely that you will come away unmoved.
Because in the deliberate simplicity of its canvas—and its protagonist—lies the strength of Gauri Shinde’s film. By refusing to situate the vexed question of English in a larger socio-political context, by focusing its attention on the home, it does simplify the issue—but it also holds up a mirror to what must be the most mundane, most neglected aspects of our social lives: how we treat our mothers.
The New York segment is necessarily shot with the eyes of the dazzled outsider—all skyscrapers and downtown views— but Shinde also manages to fill it with nicely-observed moments that anyone who has ever negotiated the terrifying newness of any (Western) city will immediately identify with: the minor but life-altering trials—and triumphs—of making Metrocards work, finding your way to an interview, placing an order in a café without holding up the queue.