English Vinglish (2012) is an Indian film directed by Gauri Shinde focusing on Shashi, an Indian homemaker who cooks and sells sweets from her home. Shinde’s own relationship with her mother had inspired the film. Shashi’s husband and daughter make fun of her business and lack of the English language. Shashi’s sister, Manu, invites her to New York to plan Manu’s daughter’s wedding.
Despite her limited knowledge of English, Shashi goes to New York and later secretly enrolls in a four-week conversational English learning class. To successfully graduate from the class every student must write and deliver a five-minute speech. After certain events, Shashi leaves the class as the date of the examination clashes with the date of her niece’s wedding and because her family joins her in New York earlier than scheduled. On the day of the wedding, Shashi gives a wonderful and touching speech on marriage and family, surprising everyone.
Shashi clarifies her journey to learn English and the main idea of the film as, “I don’t need love, what I really need is some respect.” Shashi’s dilemma is typical of many Indian women, who are caught between creating an identity, in this case that of an entrepreneur who can speak English, and being a selfless wife, mother, and daughter-in-law. Towards the film’s end, Shashi solves this predicament by quitting the classes, reasoning that, “English has become more important than my children!… I have become so selfish, I have forgotten my responsibilities … I want to finish what I started long ago, being a mother to my children.” Shashi regains her confidence, her husband’s (Satish) love, and her daughter’s admiration. Satish realizes Shashi’s importance and treats her with the respect that she deserves.
The film focuses on how gendered social division of labor is as Shashi mentions that cooking is art if men perform but a duty if women cook. The film also highlights how the importance of knowing English is overemphasized in India through the reactions of Shashi’s daughter and husband and in the USA through the experiences of her students, who are mostly immigrants.
English Vinglish is Shashi’s journey, but her problems in achieving respect seem ubiquitous.
Rashmila Maiti has taught undergraduates for seven years and holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies. Originally from India, she is an independent scholar and volunteers as an editor and social media coordinator for various non-profit organizations.