Happy Mother’s Day! I could post something about Mother India or Aradhana or English Babu Desi Mem, one of those where the mother-son relationship is super important. But it’s not a day for mothers and sons, it’s a day for mothers! So instead I am posting about a movie in which a Mother gets the spotlight all to herself.
Sridevi is a mother in English/Vinglish, and that is her primary identity. Mother, then wife, then daughter-in-law, then sister, then aunt, then after all of that, herself. And that is the same, start to finish. The only change that happens for her through out the film is that she gets to know herself a little better, and feels able to show a little more of herself to her family.
Gauri Shinde, the director, said this movie was for her own mother, and that’s kind of what it feels like, a daughter seeing a mother as a person for the first time. Instead of just a mother. Sridevi is the same background mother character we have seen in so many other movies, except suddenly now she is highlighted. And when the kids go to school and the husband goes to the office, we stay with her, instead of following them off on their adventures.
There aren’t many movies in India which follow a woman on her journey, let alone a mother. The obvious companion to this film is Queen, which came out just a year later, and in which, again, we follow one of those characters you usually forget about in Indian film, the jilted fiancee. The boring traditional one who our hot-shot NRI hero is just too cool to go along with. Only, in Queen, she goes home with her priorities forever changed. Still the same person, still loves her parents and the rest of her family, still doesn’t swear or kiss or anything else. But different now. She may not even want to get married any more, she will probably get a job outside her father’s shop, she will go out alone, and wear western clothing, and keep her hair straightened.
But in English/Vinglish, Sridevi is a mother, and she can’t change that much. It would kind of ruin the movie if she did. Because really, what is her end game here? She stays in New York and opens a restaurant? Her daughter grows up in India without her? She is cut off from her son? Even if she wanted to go home and continue to study English, or to grow her business, she can’t. We saw at the beginning, the whole household relies on her. It all falls apart without her.
And what she is already doing is worthwhile. The whole reason she is in New York is because her niece is getting married and her working businesswoman sister needs help organizing the wedding. Because putting a function like this together is so complicated and requires such a high level of skill, that only a full time Indian housewife can handle it. And not only do we see, in the background of the scenes in the rest of the film, that Sridevi is handling it with aplomb, she is able to handle it so well that she can easily fit in a full schedule of English classes and practice on top of all the wedding planning.
The film is about how being a mother is important and difficult. And it is also a sacrifice, because a mother could choose to stay in America with Hot French Guy, but instead she goes back to India with her family without a second thought. Which is only a surprise, because the audience sees her so differently than she sees herself.
Let me back up and look at how she is in the eyes of the audience. First, she’s Sridevi! It’s brilliant casting, bringing in a woman who not only has the oodles of charisma and star-power to immediately make us fall in love with her, but who the audience will also immediately see as the stunning and powerful and vibrant Sridevi that we know so well. Even if her family onscreen can’t see it, the audience knows from the beginning that she is so much more than “just a housewife.”
The early scenes with her family are so well done, coming right up to the line of unacceptable insults, and then backing off. Yes, her daughter is a brat who is embarrassed that her mother can’t speak English, but her daughter is also 13, and all 13 year olds are brats who are embarrassed by their mothers (I certainly was!). Her husband teases her a little about not knowing what to do at the airport and how to get through customs, but he also encourages her to go to New York on her own early. Her mother-in-law is a straight up delight, and so is her son. So, while her family could treat her better, it’s pretty good already.
And then we see that her sister’s family does treat her better. But needs her a little less. They are thrilled to see her, they are impressed by her abilities, but then they leave for the day and she is alone in the house. In India, she may have less respect, but she has more of a life. She has people who need her, from her mother-in-law home all day with her, to her children running in and out, to the customers of her sweets business.
Not being needed, having a moment to face herself and be selfish, lets her see the things that she doesn’t like, that she wants to change. And being unwatched and unnoticed lets her feel free to risk change. And the audience is right there with her!
Her moments of realization are internal, but they are in reaction to external forces that we, the audience, get to see. First, we see her traveling through the city, feeling excited and confident.
And then we see her horrible interaction with a rude counter person at a cafe, and suddenly the city appears dangerous and unfriendly. Which is what brings her to the point of being willing to risk more challenges and changes in order to regain that feeling of being on top of the world. Which she does!
Now, we don’t get a song like that in the beginning Bombay part of the film, but we could have. She already had this top of the world feeling back home, with her sweet business and her worshipful little son and doting mother-in-law, but it was harder to remember it because she had been doing the same thing for so long. Finding it again in New York is just a confirmation that she carries her confidence with her, it isn’t limited to her life in Bombay.
And when it is shattered again, it isn’t because she suddenly feels out of place in New York, it’s because she feels like New York doesn’t know who is in Bombay. It took me a couple of watches to realize this, which was stupid of me, but part of the reason she is so shocked by the romantic approach of Hot French Guy is that she had forgotten she isn’t in Bombay any more, and it isn’t clear at a glance to everyone how very married she is. Why would a French-American know that a middle-aged woman with her hair up, a sari, and a mangalsutra is a married woman? And why would a woman from Bombay think there could be anything romantic in an interaction when she is so clearly, in every way, very very married?
This is what shakes her confidence, because the heart of her identity, far beyond all the excitement and confidence of conquering New York, is being a wife and a mother. And when she regains that, for the first time, there is a song in her real life, not just in the soundtrack in her head. She can bring a little bit of herself into New York, but it is only when she is surrounded by her family that everyone is dancing to the same tune.
The audience has been all caught up in her journey of self-discovery. Seeing herself as a vibrant growing person with a world of possibilities in front of her. But Sridevi herself has never lost track of who she is at heart. She chooses the family wedding over her class with some regrets but no hesitation. And she goes back to India at the end, content with having had some new experiences and gaining a little respect in the eyes of her family, but no regrets over the lost opportunity for a different life.
This is what makes it such a wonderful mothers movie. That being a mother means all of these things are inside of her, but she can give them up with only a small pang in return for continuing to wait hand and foot on her bratty little kids. (Really, such horrible children!)