Respect, And Redemption Too

I’ve tried not to work spoilers into this, but spoiler alert – there may be more than one.

I walked back home down a quiet street tonight, the streetlamps illuminating a light drizzle with their soft, yellow hue. I was thinking back to what the auto driver had said just before I got in, “meter mele dabbal koDi, saar” (“sir, please pay double the meter fare”) – a rather standard utterance after 11 PM, but always, a complete sentence, embellished automatically with an honorific, in this copious language spoken widely in my hometown, Bangalore. As irony would have it, I was returning from a screening of English Vinglish. Earlier today, I read that the movie was Sridevi’s comeback movie, that it was an R Balki movie (well, technically, it was his wife’s, Gauri Shinde’s). Balki brought us that embarrassing movie with a doddering, craggy Amitabh Bachchan, Cheeni Kum, and the much better Paa, which, I thought at the time, should have been called Maa, simply for Vidya Balan’s excellent performance. Amitabh Bachchan gets both a funny cameo and a special mention at the start in English Vinglish, but the movie really is all about gorgeous Sridevi. It is a compelling comeback, in my opinion, even if featuring a bit of reluctance in her character Shashi’s Hindi, of all things. Sridevi doesn’t stretch too far all through and doesn’t make a splash. Shashi comes off as being utterly domesticated and mostly restrained, more compellingly than most others would have managed a comeback, in my opinion. There are some inexplicable bits, but in a role as studied and as central to the movie’s premise, there are bound to be differences of interpretation (like in the scene with the red wine). She can still shake a leg, however, as she shows us a couple of times in the movie.

Most of the movie is set in New York, where Sridevi’s character, Shashi battles her demon – a lack of good English – by sneaking off to take classes with diverse, hilariously motley group from different parts of the world, with expectably different world views. Her motivation to do this is apparently both opportunity and adversity. Back home in India, her reluctance to learn English has estranged her from her family somewhat, earning her rebukes and condescension from her family. Being unable to communicate as they wish, she doesn’t enjoy the respect she expects from her family despite her talents – and this is indeed the central theme of the movie – Respect – with a capital R. There is another side to opportunity – escapism, a chance to falter differently, if you will, a chance to be the same person in a different place. The movie and its lead character gracefully address this also, as the movie unfolds.

The premise of English Vinglish, as one may guess, is the stigma we associate with perfectly good people, nay, smart ones, whose only fault may be that they are poor English speakers. Despite the chest-beating we do about being a diverse nation, most conversations of importance in India, on business especially, happen in English. We have not acquired the pragmatism of the Japanese or the Russians who have valued and develop their respective languages into languages of commerce and scholarship, and yet, it would be unwise to thrust the language and ideas of a few on many. Curiously, the movie leads to this conclusion too, in its own way. English, for many in India, is something of an occupational hazard. It is a minefield that they may have to navigate to land a better job than the one they have, or get into a better school, or make more money. English, for Shashi, is a more personal thing. It is a means to earn her respect back from her kids and her place back with her husband, a way of finding redemption in a world that has, apparently, changed too quickly. For her, it is a way to connect with people in an English speaking country. Shashi’s apparent gaucherie at the start of the movie stands altered towards the end, as if to indicate that what we know alone puts us at or keeps us away from risk. The risk, of course, comes from stigma – the stigma to see languages other than English as less than useful, less than relevant, less than powerful. I too am guilty of such stigma (as I am sure many of us are), for last year and this year, on several occasions, I have been grammarian at the Toastmasters’ club at the workplace. I am no less than a Grammar Nazi on these occasions, as friendly colleagues have observed. I have met diverse individuals in no professional context on all these occasions, some of them more than once. Each time, I find myself interested in what they have to say in their speeches, but have mostly come away unimpressed on many occasions – perhaps because of this expectation that it should be expressed as I will it. Their claims that these sessions have helped are true, however, because I’ve seen several individuals improve their English because of constructive feedback. I once felt that the vernacular breeds the conventional, and that English continues to represent the novel, where I was egregiously wrong sometimes, and somewhat off on several occasions. This may indeed be partially true, but one cannot discount the potential of our copious vernacular languages. English Vinglish probably puts this to the test at some level. Twitter, which I frequent, is haven for Grammar Nazis (including myself), and let’s face it – we all like making fun of our differences to a point. There is a market for humour driven by cultural differences – be it Jay Leno’s retorts on Indian toilets, or Russell Peters’ many hilarious admissions (?) on his or his family’s or his friends’ Indian-ness. There is, however, a point beyond which the humour and awkwardness should probably lead to genuine curiosity, a willingness to learn, and an acceptance of differences, perhaps – or at least I would prefer it this way. Were my colleagues expected to express themselves in their native tongues – Kannada, Tamil or Telugu – and if that was done adequately well and even artfully, I may have found myself identifying with them better and even appreciating what they had to say, and would indeed have been like them. The many classes in high school in Kannada and Sanskrit are proof enough that this is possible. For many, however, this luxury of multilingualism doesn’t exist. They’re locked into one language, perhaps an intolerant version of what people are capable of thinking, which perhaps results in a less than comfortable world-view about people and cultures outside of their full understanding in some cases. Some of us get into this comfort zone more often than not, and find one reason or other to rationalize these inadequacies. What’s worse about this linguistic and cultural insularity is the fact that we allow the whimsical and the crude in a dominant language to persist in the face of something that’s more relevant, refined, elegant and pragmatic in another. English Vinglish features a scene at a New York coffee shop where, as far as Shashi’s English is concerned, the rubber has met the road and has resulted in a fatal accident. Her gaucherie and befuddlement, portrayed accurately by Sridevi, earns her the friendship of a Frenchman, also poor in English and also none the socially better off for it. When we consider our own home grown convent-educated Indian kids who put on American accents, or staunchly aver that their English-based version of something is the best – we’re talking about the same kind of person who derailed these less fortunate ones. There are other such moments where English Vinglish seems to appeal to our sanity and, for the occasional moviegoer who is not too critical (like me), pulls it off by getting the point across.

Perhaps being a gamer and often negotiating situations with other gamers in non-verbal environments makes one more attuned to non-verbal expression. Perhaps the interactions with people on non-verbal levels on subjects like music also do. It is probably also so, with verbal expression in a different language, where we, as participants and observers alike, see another speak a foreign language in full fluency. The effect is unique – we’re exposed to the full effect of another language, while not understanding a smidgen of it, but for passing phrases. We then realize the value of non-verbal expression. We read the eyes and the cadence of the phrases and the intonation and the lips. We read the hands and the shoulders and derive meanings from facial expressions with a wide range of universal meanings. We then understand people implicitly, not wishing upon ourselves that we ought to learn their tongue, but that we have to understand what they communicate. English Vinglish manages to do this on many occasions – convey even subtle ideas and quirks in dialogue which is amusing, quirky, funny in situations alien and close to home.

No Indian potboiler is complete without romance and English Vinglish has its share of it, but it doesn’t overdo it and get all schmaltzy like most Bollywood movies do. It has the occasional song-and-dance scene (which Bollywood movie doesn’t indeed?). It also has its share of clichés, not in the very least Ramakrishnan (or Ramachandran?), a clumsy and unsatisfyingly inauthentic mix of natives from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The movie could have done without him or at the very least, could have put in a more inspired pastiche. It features a Malayali clergyman with imprecise Hindi and even a conversation about banana chips from Kerala, which could also have been done away with, or improved. It dresses gorgeous Sridevi up in resplendent saris, probably fostering a stereotype for some (although I was too busy watching her to complain), even as there it throws in a scene and relevant dialogue about the meaning of the word “judgmental”. English Vinglish prefers the quirky and solemn over the extravagant, the imaginative over the indulgent and as the lead character imples, it prefers the respect that comes with redemption, over love or appeasement that may come out of desperation. Shashi’s toast at her niece’s wedding is a small victory for this little lady hiding behind those bright expressive eyes. Not a victory for someone merely poor in English, but someone in search of the respect that comes with being appreciated.