Saturday, January 26, 2013

English Vinglish

Last week, during a night flight from one side of Asia to the other, I was beginning to get annoyed by all the announcements preventing me from sleeping. I realise that certain things have to be announced, such as reminders about seat belts when the air gets bumpy, but I don’t feel the pilot needs to give us all those details about the model of the plane, our altitude and average speed, all the countries we will fly over etc. And I’m sure the flight attendants don’t have to announce the opening and closing of duty-free sales and how to join the airline’s loyalty programme so many times. Since most flights use three languages – those of the departure and arrival points plus English – all these announcements seem to take ages. At such times I even find myself thinking ‘Maybe they should just do them once, briefly - and in English only!’ Unable to sleep, I looked through the films that were being shown. And I found one that reminded me that ‘English only’ is really no solution.

English Vinglish is the first film directed by Gauri Shinde, wife of well-known Indian movie director R. Balki. She also wrote the screenplay and has said the story represents an apology to her mother, who sent her children to English-medium schools so as to give them social and economic advantages but was sometimes laughed at by those very children because of her own poor English. A comedy with a serious message, the film centres on Shashi, a beautiful housewife (played by superstar Sridevi Kapoor) living in India and her middle class family. Her husband conducts business in English. Her daughter, Sapna, attends a posh English-medium school. Even her small son speaks English. But Shashi hardly understands it. She speaks to them in Hindi and they reply in Hindi or in Hinglish, while speaking English among themselves. Her husband is kind but patronising, viewing the catering that she does outside the house as a hobby rather than a serious business.

Sapna makes fun of her mother’s mistakes in English and uses the language to keep her teenage life secret. When her mother is visiting her school, Sapna intervenes in a conversation with a friend’s mother so that she won’t notice Shashi's lack of English. But we can see the anxiety on Shashi’s face when the woman invites her to visit her home.

Then there is a phone call from Shashi’s sister, who has lived in New York for many years. Her daughter is marrying an American boy and the whole family are invited. Shashi is to come to America first to help with the wedding arrangements. While happy for her niece, she is terrified of travelling alone to a foreign country. All her worst fears come true when she goes into the centre of New York for the first time, tries to buy something to eat and drink at a busy cafĂ©, and is mocked by the rude and impatient waitress.

The turning point in the story is when Shashi sees an advert promising to teach English in only three weeks – which is how long she has before her family arrives for the wedding. She starts secretly attending the classes, learning how to ride the subway and get around the city on her own. The class includes a Pakistani taxi driver who says he needs English to get a better job and find a wife; an Indian software engineer who is made fun of at his workplace; and a French cook who falls madly in love with Shashi. She turns out to be the hardest-working student and is very sad when she discovers she won’t be able to take her final exam because it clashes with the wedding – one of many conflicts in the story between her need to educate herself and her desire to look after her family. But in the end the students and the teacher all come to the wedding. To her family’s amazement, Shashi gives a touching speech for her niece in slow but competent English and her teacher announces that she has passed the course with distinction. Her daughter and husband feel ashamed about how they have undervalued her and the film ends with a grand song and dance number – this is Bollywood, after all.

This could easily have been just the story of a woman’s efforts to ‘improve’ herself. Instead, the director makes it clear that we should never assume that being successful is the same thing as knowing English. From the start it is clear that Shashi is very talented. As well as her famous cooking she entertains her son with dance impressions. In English she is shy and hesitant, but given the chance to cook, or to dance, she shines. At school, Sapna’s friend’s mother finds her charming, and when she meets Sapna’s teacher, he is the one who feels ashamed: Shashi apologetically asks if they can talk in Hindi. After all, it is the national language in a country where fluent English speakers are a small, if influential, minority.) But he is from the non-Hindi south and speaks it poorly, and Shashi has to help him with his grammar. When she is being interviewed for her visa at the US consulate, an American official asks her how she will manage in America with such poor English - but his colleague points out that the American manages well enough in India without speaking Hindi.

In New York too we see that English is not everything. The teacher of the English class does not appear to be a very knowledgeable character. In a conversation after class, the students conclude that they are probably smarter than the people they work for – except for their poor English. We also see the Hindi speakers getting a chance to turn the tables on the English speakers when they gently tease the niece’s American boyfriend. Finally, when the family is flying back to India, Shashi asks the flight attendant, in confident English, if she can have a newspaper. A Hindi newspaper. I find it rather interesting that one of India's biggest stars was chosen for this relatively small movie, but perhaps Sridevi herself could see its importance. A native Tamil speaker, she has acted in Tamil, Hindi and Malayalam. And now English too - which, it turns out, she speaks much more fluently in real life than the character she plays in English Vinglish.