Mayank Shekhar | Last Modified - Oct 05, 2012, 11:44 AM IST
Shashi is her first name. If I’m not mistaken, the filmmakers don’t quite give out her last name, or at least don't stress much on it, side-stepping the bit about the part of India she could be from, which isn't so important. She speaks Hindi at home, with her husband (Adil Hussain, a rather weak character), and two kids. Her husband’s Hindi doesn’t seem to be very good – this is obviously not much of a problem. The fact that Shashi is not comfortable with English is. In urban India, it isn’t enough to know English, you also have to speak it like the Queen of Britain. A grammatical error or an incorrect pronunciation can immediately mark you out for ridicule. Shashi says “jhaas” for “jazz”: her 13-year-old daughter, who’s ashamed of her, laughs. She is hardly going to make great friends with English in such a scenario.
Shashi remains a fairly under-confident woman hence. From a distance, this beautiful, gentle, well-kept lady in a traditional saree, seemingly in her 40s, could pass off for any other middle-class housewife. But as the film patiently reveals, there is nothing ordinary about being a mother and wife, who carefully nurtures a nest over years we call a family: the basic building block of all societies. It is a thankless job but. Shashi gets taken for granted so much that she may have begun to take her own self for granted by now. Everybody has a special talent. Hers lie in making some of the finest laddoos!
Doe-eyed, spunky, mystically catty Sridevi (Lamhe, Chandni, Chalbaaz) of course plays Shashi in this film. Sridevi? No. Given the number of bhakts I have encountered of this actor over the past decade that she’s been away from the screen, I suspect the double honorific “Sri Sri” truly belongs to her. Sri Sri Devi’s rightly considered India’s first female super-star. It’s impossible to explain why. Stardom is a cosmic relationship between an audience and the actor – it has little to do with films whatsoever. Sri Sri Devi’s last hit, I presume, was Laadla in 1994. This is supposed to be a “comeback” vehicle for the actor, which is a false expression often used for several faded, once-popular stars making “comebacks”. Well, the actor was always there. It’s the audience that has to come back. Would they? That entirely depends on why they had moved on in the first place.
Taking a super-star, who had a set image in their prime, and getting them to play older versions of their own younger selves (Amitabh Bachchan’s Mrityudaata, Madhuri Dixit’s Aaja Nach Le) is pointless. That stardom is already safe where it belongs, in history. In that sense, Sridevi, 49, is in the safest possible hands here. The film doesn’t seem overwhelmed by her presence. Balki, the producer of this film, gave Amitabh Bachchan a charming character exuding contemporary cool in Cheeni Kum, something his audiences weren’t yet used to; he also helped show how brilliant an actor Bachchan really is, in Paa. He made the great Rajesh Khanna laugh at himself in an ad (for ceiling fans) before the ‘70s super-star passed away recently. This film’s director Gauri Shinde is Balki’s wife. Shinde is genuinely interested in telling a simple, heart-warming story first. Sridevi’s popularity merely helps her convey her point to much larger numbers. This is how it should be.
During her own career, Sridevi was widely criticised for her poor Hindi. It could explain her choice for this role. Restrained, distant yet effortlessly adorable, she certainly understands her character well. Sridevi’s Shashi lands up in New York to help out with her niece’s wedding. The city is truly a multi-cultural pot. She decides to enrol in an English speaking class. Without telling anyone about it, she takes a train from Hoboken to Manhattan, to sharpens her language skills, and ends up making new friends along the way. You know her life is likely to change. Thankfully the movie doesn’t over-play this transformation. It’s subtle. Things can only change that much in four weeks.
A white man falls for this beautiful middle-aged woman, who’s also already forgotten how attractive she still is. The person is French, therefore not very conversant with English – like Shashi, who is Indian and therefore probably at least good with two other Indian languages. The difference is that the French – like the Germans or the Japanese or the Spanish – don’t suffer from the same colonial insecurities over English. In India, it's a marker for status and class. It could be the separating line between snobs and simple folks; convent and government school students; a posh restaurant and a low-end dive; a worldly wise father and a mom who knows nothing. Shashi could be any other middle-class mother in India. She was the mom in Wake Up Sid, needlessly struggling under a complicated language over her head, which was also the premise of Zabaan Samhaal Ke, a popular TV show based on the British series Mind Your Language.
English is a strong, silly Indian urban divide. No Indian film has captured this aspect as wonderfully as this. Shinde nails it with a screenplay that's both profound and funny. Yes, you must watch this film then, and not just because of the actor in it!