If you want to introduce any acquaintances, or yourself, to the effervescence that is Bollywood cinema, you would do well to begin the initiation with English Vinglish (at the AMC Studio 30), first-time feature writer-director Gauri Shinde’s disarmingly charming comedy about an under-appreciated housewife and mom who elevates her self-esteem by becoming bilingual.
It’s a good deal more restrained than many other recent Bollywood offerings, so you can rest assured that you’ll experience no mood swings as vertiginous as those in Homi Adajania's intoxicating Cocktail, or maneuver through genre mash-ups as extreme as A.R. Murugadoss’ jaw-dropping, mind-frying Ghajini.
You’ll find more than a half-dozen musical numbers tossed into the mix, along with an immensely appealing leading lady – a doe-eyed charmer named Sridevi, who’ll put you in mind of a ‘60s-era Audrey Hepburn.
But if you compare it to your typical American-made rom-com – well, you’ll find almost everything here has been dialed up to 11. Better still, you’ll also find more than a half-dozen musical numbers tossed into the mix, along with an instantly and immensely appealing leading lady – a doe-eyed charmer named Sridevi, making her welcome return to the screen after a 15-year hiatus – who’ll put you in mind of a ‘60s-era Audrey Hepburn.
Sridevi plays Shashi, a thirtysomething Pune beauty who, despite her sporadic propensity to dance like Michael Jackson, is a demurely old-fashioned homebody. So old-fashioned, in fact, that she has never quite managed to master English, a failing that triggers teasing by her loving but clueless husband and their two spoiled children. Worse, no one in her family appears to fully appreciate her culinary skills – even though, kinda-sorta like Mildred Pierce, she earns a tidy sum by selling home-made sweets to friends and neighbors.
Shashi’s sense of self-worth sinks perilously close to zero when she flies to New York – her very first overseas journey – to help with preparations for her niece’s wedding, only to find she can’t even clearly communicate her request for water in a Manhattan sandwich shop. So she’s immediately receptive to an ad for a crash course at a language school that offers accelerated English lessons for students of any nationality.
The many amusing scenes at that language school often resemble snippets from an American sitcom, as Shashi interacts with ethnically diverse fellow students – including a hunky French cook (Mehdi Nebbou) who’d like to cook up a romance with her – and benefits from animated instruction by her flamboyantly gay teacher (Cory Hibbs, who’s far too ingratiating for his character to ever devolve into an offensive caricature).
More often, though, English Vinglish has the kicky flair and sprightly spirit of a typical Bollywood confection, a pleasant entertainment complete with exuberant musical interludes, an extremely chaste approach to depicting conjugal relations and extramarital temptation, and a crowd-pleasing wrap-up that allows the lead character to be all she can be while still respecting family values.
Better still, there’s a subtle but satisfying feminist flavor to the movie’s underlying theme of self-empowerment. Any woman who’s ever felt taken for granted by friends, family and/or significant others likely will find that English Vinglish speaks in universal language.
English Vinglish actually is just one of four made-in-India imports now on view at the AMC Studio 30. Other titles include: Anurag Basu’s Barfi, a comedy about a charming rascal whose inability to speak or hear fails to hinder his success as a ladies’ man; Madhur Bhandarkar’s Heroine, a behind-the-scenes drama about a Bollywood superstar; and Umesh Shukla’s OMG: Oh My God, the seriocomic tale of a man who files a lawsuit against the Almighty after his shop is destroyed by an “act of God.”
But wait, there’s more: The 4th annual Indian Film Festival of Houston wraps up this weekend with H-town premieres at the Studio Movie Grill in CityCenter. Arguably the most intriguing offering: Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai, a contemporary drama about a hit-and-run “accident” that may really be a politically motivated murder that will be shown Friday at 7 p.m. The movie — a critical and commercial hit in India —was inspired by the classic Costa-Gavras film Z, which in turn was inspired by the Vassilis Vassilikos novel of the same title.