In her Bollywood debut English Vinglish, writer-director Gauri Shinde puts her lead character, played by Sridevi, through a series of crises. Pretty much every crisis can be described thus: Mildly Caustic Words Give Sridevi Pause, Result in Furrowed Brow. This is drama so agreeable its like watching crises unfold on cruise control on a Texas Freeway - no harsh bumps or sharp turns.
Thematically Gauri Shinde is on to something here because she has women watching, nodding and going "True that!". But the way Shinde sets up her premise is so ironic, that it gave me pause, resulting in a furrowed brow. English Vinglish has a ghar ki murgi daal barabar premise. Sridevi is a hardworking and talented housewife. But she feels under-appreciated as a mother and wife because her family takes her for granted. In order to depict this, Shinde surrounds Sridevi with uni-dimensional characters: a husband wrapped up in work, a shrill brat of a daughter, a son too young to know better (he's primarily there to hand Sridevi scenes as a doting mother) and an understanding Saas (she's primarily there to highlight Sridevi's plight).
Shinde shows us how Sridevi is taken for granted by taking her characters for granted. With this half-hearted setup, she then takes her audience for granted. In order to make a movie about not being judgmental, she judges everyone. Does anyone else see the layers of irony here?
There was one thing about the movie that I really liked and it was the way in which Shinde decides to wind down her film. In the movie Sridevi learns English to gain self-respect and by implication, respect from her family. Once this is done, she goes back to her environment - she spurns the affection of someone who appreciates her and returns to someone who doesn't in the hope that life will get better. She returns back home from New York (where she literally, metaphorically and emotionally strays from her well-carved out life). Proficient in English, she even retreats to reading the Hindi newspaper. Her self-respect is gained to serve her family. And she pins her hopes that everyone will come around magically once she's shown everyone she can do more than what everyone expects from her.
If you've grown up on a steady diet of Feminist and post-Feminist literature generated by cultures that emphasize self-actualization (basically, if you've read a lot of French and American books), you'll find this ending confounding. But I loved the way in which Shinde remaps female identity and ultimately reclaims it for a post-boom India. Whether you agree with it or not (and I had problems with it), Shinde's choice is one to be admired for its self-assured conservatism.
I'm very happy to note that English Vinglish performed like a champ at the box office, primarily through word of mouth (thanks for nothing, Marketing!). Let's take a quick look at how movies perform at the box office with a female character in the lead. Over the last few years, women have led hits that can be counted on your fingers.
Fashion (Priyanka Chopra)
No One Killed Jessica (Rani Mukerjee, Vidya Balan)
The Dirty Picture (Vidya Balan)
Kahaani (Vidya Balan)
English Vinglish (Sridevi)
Everything else with females in the lead has gone belly up at the box office. Recall this year's high profile disasters with women in the lead: Heroine (Kareena Kapoor) and Aiyya (Rani Mukherjee).
To be fair, movies with females in the lead struggle worldwide. Analysts will tell you that its tough to get women out to the theaters to watch a movie of their choice. They are likely to go with what their boyfriends or husbands suggest over something they want to watch. When just women get together, they prefer to do a variety of things that allows them to interact with each other - something you can't do very well in a movie theater. And the men won't go to watch a movie with a woman dominating the poster unless the woman is looking hot and holding a weapon. Every now and then, some movie will break through this barrier - but there hasn't been any kind of solid trend that you can hang a hat on.
There seem to be few actresses with enough star power to open a movie on their own. You'd think Kareena would be one and given a vehicle better than Heroine, might yet come good on that premise. Priyanka Chopra is another as she showed us with Fashion. But her later movies as a lead (Whats Your Raashee? and Pyaar Impossible) took nose dives at the box office setting her back to square one.
The only actress who has consistently performed at the box office as a lead has been Vidya Balan. Her three hits are more than any actress in recent memory. More importantly, Vidya's movies have been liked and watched by men AND women (The Dirty Picture, Kahaani). If Vidya can continue to pick her movies carefully - thus associating her presence with quality, story-driven flicks - she can hope to get in pole position to open movies successfully.