In recent times, Bollywood, one of the biggest film industries in India has produced several women-centric movies portraying the everyday struggle of women in a contemporary patriarchal Indian society. English Vinglish (2012) is one such movies that depicts the life of an ordinary housewife and her outstanding journey to discover her self-worth in a city far away from her comfort zone. This movie teaches us that respect and cooperation should begin at home. No matter how complex things become, we should not laugh at the weaknesses of our loved ones. The lead role of this transformational journey was played by popular Indian actress Sridevi, an epitome of grace and beauty of Hindi cinema who did complete justice to her role.
The main protagonist of the film Shashi Godbole is a typical housewife who belongs to a middle-class Indian family. She has a happy family that includes her husband, mother-in-law, and her two children. Shashi runs a small business of homemade laddoos. She has mastered the art of making delicious laddoos so well. In her husband’s words, “My wife, she was born to make laddoos!” Her husband is a loving husband and a loving father to her children. At first glance, there’s nothing wrong with him. But when we dig into the relationship between Shashi and her husband, we see that Shashi’s self-worth is never acknowledged. She is insulted in the name of sarcastic remarks by him, silently and sometimes unintentionally. He fails to value the work she was doing. Whenever she tries to share her business-related issues with her husband, her excitement is silenced by his constant ignorance. He comes home late and hardly makes time to have a little chat with his wife. He has no interest in exploring the inner qualities of Shashi, neither in appreciating her for the woman she is. Moreover, he finds cracking silly jokes on Shashi in public more enjoyable. On the other hand, Shashi continues to fulfill everyone’s wish- as a mother, wife, or daughter-in-law. Her inability to speak in English makes her teenage daughter embarrassed. English is just not a colonial language, but sadly the definition of social status in societies like this. Those who speak fluent English are considered modern and those who don’t are treated as backdated. Such rejection from her own family members turns Shashi into a taken-for-granted wife and an insecure mother in front of other smart, modern, and fluent English speaking parents. Her identity is questioned just because she doesn’t know how to speak and communicate in English properly.
Things become more challenging for Shashi when she arrives in New York to attend her niece’s wedding. She was already afraid of the fact that her skill in the English language is not enough. The continuous humiliations from her daughter and husband made her even more nervous about the trip. From this point, the beauty of the character Shashi starts flourishing. She stays at her sister’s house. Her sister is totally a different person who is independent and raised her two daughters all by herself in a foreign land. Shashi starts facing several difficult moments in New York while commuting, communicating, and even ordering food from a roadside restaurant. This movie perfectly portrays the struggle of any visitor in a foreign land. Whether he/she knows the foreign language or not, managing in an unknown place is never an easy task for anyone. But thankfully Shashi is not someone who will give up easily. She is brave and determines to change the situation. She secretly gets herself admitted into a four week English speaking course with the money she earned from her cooking business. Eventually, she learns how to speak and communicate in English. Her fellow course mates are also weak in English like her with whom she can easily relate to. Here English is just not a language or parameter of smartness. Knowing English changes nothing like magic. It shows what a person, more specifically a neglected woman can do when she is provided with proper opportunities and respect. Beside self-belief, Shashi needed someone to believe in her, to appreciate or to properly recognize her abilities. She finds that supportive role in her niece Radha, her course mates, and her course instructor. They continuously assist her in overcoming all the fear and insecurity. Most importantly, Shashi starts believing in herself. Initially, she used to hesitate going out and in the latter half, we can see how confidently she walks on the busy Manhattan streets wearing a traditional saree or how perfectly she orders food at a restaurant without fumbling. Surely learning English did not do that, but the self-belief and confidence that grew out of the English speaking course did.
In the meantime, Laurent, a French cook who is Shashi’s course mate, develops a special bond with her. Around him, Shashi feels free to open up and speak her heart out about everything although Laurent does not understand Hindi, nor does she understand French. Still, they were able to connect and discuss things. In one conversation Laurent tells Shashi that food is an art. In reply, Shashi says, “heh! When a man cooks, food is an art. When a woman cooks, it’s her duty.” This illustrates the lack of recognition she always received from her husband as a cook and for the first time we see her expressing the inner disappointment to someone. Shashi gets a new identity when she learns about the term ‘entrepreneur’ for the very first time. Here, Shashi represents all those housewives whose daily labor is never acknowledged in a prejudicial patriarchal society. Doing household chores and cooking is their only lifetime duty! Laurent admires Shashi for the person who she is. He helps her, appreciates her beauty and talent, and most importantly listens to her with sheer eagerness. This is something that Shashi’s husband lacks. Sometimes love is not enough, one needs respect and appreciation from her life partner as well.
The most powerful moment of the movie is the speech Shashi delivers at her niece’s wedding in front of her family and guests. Her English is still not ‘perfect’ or very fluent. Still, she points out some facts so deliberately which amazes all the people present there. She talks about believing in self when no one else does. She tells that marriage is like a friendship between two people where husband and wife should always help each other to feel equal. She tells, “Family will never be judgmental. Family will never put you down. Family will never make you feel small. Family is the only one who will not laugh at your weaknesses. Family is the only place where you will get love and respect.” Her speech in English and the core of the message astonishes her husband and daughter. They finally realize their mistake.
This movie sends a powerful message to all in a patriarchal society. A society where women’s roles are fixed. Shashi symbolizes all those traditional housewives, mothers, and daughters who do not get enough respect as a person. The character is very inspirational too. The silent fight back by Shashi is sure to inspire thousands of such ladies whose existence is hardly recognized. Her struggle suggests that when the whole world turns it’s back on you, it is you who can help yourself to achieve what you deserve and can do. Every person is special. One just needs to be confident and courageous enough to held one’s head up in the chaos and find her worth.
About the writer:
Nujhat Jahan likes to write on contemporary criminal and feminist issues with great passion. Her educational background in Criminology has given her a broad base from which to explore and evaluate several issues. She believes in bringing a positive change in the minds of the readers through her writings.