Popular Indian thesp Sridevi returns to the screen after a 15-year hiatus with “English Vinglish,” a sprightly star vehicle that finds her perfectly cast as an attractive yet old-fashioned homebody who elevates her sense of worth by becoming bilingual. Set for an Oct. 5 international launch, the pic could reach beyond the usual aud for Bollywood fare, especially in sophisticated North American markets, with a promotional campaign aimed at over-30 femme viewers receptive to writer-director Gauri Shinde’s seriocomic theme of self-empowerment.
Disarmingly charming in a manner that recalls Audrey Hepburn, Sridevi plays Shashi, a thirtysomething Pune wife and mom whose culinary expertise and other homemaking skills are routinely taken for granted by her husband and two children. Worse, her spouse and kids repeatedly tease her about her inability (or unwillingness) to master English, which they see as yet another sign of her tradition-bound mindset.
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But Shashi herself doesn’t seem unbearably frustrated by her lack of bilingual ability until she travels from Pune to New York — her first international trip on her own — to help with preparations for her very Americanized niece’s wedding. When she finds it difficult to simply order water in a Manhattan sandwich shop, she impulsively enrolls at a language school that offers accelerated English lessons for students of any nationality.
Pic occasionally resembles a broadly played U.S. sitcom, as Shashi amusingly interacts with a multiethnic cross-section of fellow students, including a French chef (Mehdi Nebbou) who’s instantly attracted to her, and their flamboyantly gay teacher (Cory Hibbs, who nimbly prevents the character from devolving into an offensive caricature). Indeed, if this were an American-produced film, it would be easy to imagine a weekly TV series spinoff.
Far more often, though, “English Vinglish” is traditional Bollywood escapism, a lightly enjoyable trifle featuring exuberant musical interludes, an extremely chaste approach to conjugal relations and extramarital temptation, and a crowdpleasing wrap-up that allows the lead character to be all she can be while still respecting family values.
The Hindi-language version features a lightly comical cameo by Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan as Shashi’s fellow passenger aboard a New York-bound airliner, who inadvertently unsettles others on the plane while explaining the in-flight movie to her. Ajith Kumar reportedly plays the part in the pic’s Tamil-language version.
Lenser Laxman Utekar does a fine job of enabling the audience to view Manhattan, where most of the pic was shot, entirely from Shashi’s p.o.v. It appears exotic and inviting all at once, and seems an altogether terrific place to jumpstart one’s self-esteem.