Nearly a decade since its inception, ‘English Vinglish’ remains a flawed but fairly progressive commentary on the entrenched identity politics inherent to English in a post-colonial country. Are linguistic aspirations for upward mobility merely a colonial hangover?
When we first meet Shashi she is a demure slave to her domestic routine and ungrateful progeny alike. Having charred her individuality on the gas stove of reality, she has spent her life stifled, subordinated, and taken granted for. Over the next two hours, she emerges from the chrysalis of insecurity that her family has wound around her so callously, has a feminist reawakening, and returns shortly to prescribed circumstances of domesticity; a screenplay that transpires via the instrument of linguistic allegory.
Allegory refers to the human personification of a nation, its values, and its history. I would like to argue that Shashi is no less than an early feminist allegory of the subjugation inherent to English even 70 years after independence. She learns English in a bid to earn respect, has her moment in the sun, and then returns, head lowered, to domestic bowels of humiliation. The status quo is conveniently never turned around. But ripples resonate rutilant, igniting vicissitude. Shashi walked so protagonists like Amrita (‘Thappad’) could run.
With farouche progressiveness, the movie circles around to its genesis point, and Shashi barely tastes autonomy. Looking up to her spouse for validation for the simplest of tasks as ordering an English magazine, Shashi comes to embody the futility of the ‘Indian dream’ for marginalized sections of the country: ‘If you learn English, your chances at success in a cis-het, casteist, and deeply sexist society, will increase 10-fold!’ At the end of the day, Shashi may be able to converse in English, but she never rises beyond the position affixed for her by society.
There is a monopoly of the privileged over English in India. They have come to replace the British on the pedestal of hubris, in a manner blatantly exemplary of colonial hangover. We need to begin by understanding why Shashi cannot converse in English: a more expensive, and highly elitist brand of education that emphasizes English isn’t widely accessible across the country, a systemic failure starkly reminiscent of colonial segregation. Certain sexes, certain castes and classes, and now certain generations (as Shashi’s kids), own it.
Have we essentially achieved freedom if English is considered a marker of status, and sections with little access to literacy are considered second-class citizens solely on the basis of their inability to speak English? Shashi reflects these questions at the level of a household unit, but only implicitly. The movie never questions the validity of English as a tool of dignity, and its superficial commentary leaves much more to be desired. It doesn’t really make a case for regional languages or pits them against English.
Shashi remains an inapt allegory in her lack of intersectional identity. Subjugated by the vice of social expectations attached to her sex, Shashi yet possesses a privilege of caste and class that allows her to at least attempt to breach the status quo. But further down the ladder, impediments become compacted and impervious: English fluency often becomes the sole means for representatives of the DBA community to come forward in largely elitist spaces. The reason why UCs have greater visibility on public platforms is again that they’ve appropriated English and English medium schools, thereby carrying on the circle of entitlement. Shashi being a quintessential protagonist of mainstream Bollywood, is again shielded from these realities.
Its flaws galore notwithstanding, English Vinglish was an unprecedented movie for its time. In the years since stronger protagonists embodying intersectionality have come to grace the screen. The change, however, is too slow to affect itself, and to expect a more authentic brand of autonomy to ‘trickle down’ is too idealistic. While the NEP’s focus on regional languages has sparked much debate, it is hoped that the move would in some ways begin to unshackle the national spirit from bounds of linguistic elitism. Will it dent the parental hubris of class and caste-based on language that is liberally imparted to students (as beautifully portrayed in English Vinglish)? It is certainly hoped so. Perhaps the Indian dream may yet be possible to spell, only in regional scripts.
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