Saturday, October 20, 2012

English Vinglish and the fate of movies led by women

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.


sidekick said...

Aspi, great comments. I was also struck by the inherent contradiction in this movie --- Shinde traffics in the broadest of generalizations and stereotypes, in order for Sridevi's character to break free of the one she is trapped in. Once I accepted that framework, the ending --- well, it had to be. This was not a female empowerment story. It was about a somewhat traditional woman stuck in a rut, having a mid life crisis perhaps. The "foreign" trip out of her world, helps her break out of it. When she's made peace with her identity crisis she returns to her cocoon. That her family is duly chastened is a bonus.

I enjoyed the film --- the writing was smart, the pace was brisk, the treatment was gentle... but really I loved it because Sridevi took me on a journey. I laughed, cried and struggled with her, her triumph at the end was mine. When an actor succeeds in engendering that kind of identification --- the flaws- poof, up in smoke! :D

Unknown said...

Sidekick, that is a great observation about how this isn't a female empowerment story but more of a social drama. It's very cleverly disguised though. I did struggle with some of the writing though - I wasn't entirely convinced about why Mr. Frenchie is so attracted to our heroine. And I couldn't come to terms with how easy it is to sneak out of the New Jersey suburbs and hang out in Manhattan and just make it back it time for chai.

sidekick said...

Lol,Aspi... clearly Sridevi didn't work her magic on you as she did with me! This was not a "realistic" film although Shinde did a fine job fooling us all ... plenty of misdirection, Sun Tzu would've been proud. Dramatic license on how Sridevi's character slipped out to attend her classes.

As for Mr Frenchie, he was a stereotype as much as anyone else in the film. He was eye candy for Sridevi's character and for the audience and I applaud Shinde's fine taste in providing that. :P

Jokes apart, he struck me as having his own midlife crisis --- A french chef stuck in New York and perhaps feeling a little alienated. Along comes the exotic doe eyed beauty who is gentle and kindhearted, blossoms with his attention, loves family and seems like a dream. He gave her an ego boost and sense of self worth and she did the same for him. If this was a female empowerment story, I'd have them run away and find themselves in each other. But this is not that kind of story. So in my head he meets the chic sophisticated woman who fits into his world, while she goes back to hers. Her husband is an insensitive clod, who's learnt to appreciate her some but it's their common cultural grammar and kids that unite them.

This movie stuck me as being an ad. for it comes with a caveat - don't take your spouse for granted! Shinde...I think she really did read Sun Tzu!!! ;)

I have a recco for you Aspi... watch Aiyyaa. That was more female empowerment than anything else I've seen recently. I'll confess it was Rani Mukerji's bold,uninhibited act in Aga Bai that drew me to the film. It has plenty of flaws as a film , but it also has the audacity of vision. For all the reviewers who gave Student of The Year 3-5 stars and Aiyya 1-2 star... shame on you. That a bubble gum flick loving audience does that I get, but critics ought to be able to seek and see more .

Unknown said...

While we are on this, its amazing how many people were upset that Sridevi did not eat that crepe! Someone who I spoke with also noted that she appeared to have left it by the side of a bench. When I hear stuff like this I'm thinking half the audience was hoping Sridevi would run off with the French guy.

I will be happy to watch Aiyyaa - I generally don't laugh with songs, but I did chuckle through Sneha's Ijjat Pappad. I haven't seen the video yet although I've heard its horrendous.

Karan Rana said...

Hi Aspi...
Whatever you said about the story being stereotypical was true indeed.
In a film industry where ace director Zoya Akhtar herself says "Its a MAN in the lead role that can get people into the cinema halls", English Vinglish comes as a respite.

1 thing that needed mention was that towards the end of the film, everyone seated in the theatre expected Sridevi to deliver some out-of-the-world speech in english, decorated with fancy words and fluency. BUT....justifying the fact that you cant become a pro in just 3 weeks, she gives a sweet-n-simple speech, hesitating and pausing here and there.

I think that scene somewhat was out of the otherwise cliche story.
What do you think?

Unknown said...

I did like that scene - it was a neat little piece of writing because it was also expository i.e. it explained why Sridevi made the choices she did through the movie and in the end. Because it was blended into the situation nicely, it didn't feel like the director was explaining too much to us in a heavy handed way.

Mind Rush said...

Nice review, and good points, Aspi.
I enjoyed EV for the reasons discussed in the review and in the comments here. But one lament...why did they make the family characters sooo bad to create a contrast for Sridevi's character? BTW, I was glad to see Sri playing a woman her own age.

Mind Rush said...

Oye Drift! Happy birthday to you!

You have survived and thrived over many years. Your fans love you! You are sharp, wise and ROFL, with some of the best artistry on a screen.
Let's have a birthday post today!!

Unknown said...

Jeez, Mind Rush even I don't track the blog's birthday. But thank you for the kind words!

Kanan said...

Happy birthday to the Drift!! Aspi, I demand a CAKE!!!

Unknown said...

I wish I could get you cake Kanan. However I would like everyone to note that Himesh released the music of Khiladi 786 on the Drift's birthday. Now that is the best gift of all. Jai Matadi Lets Rock!