Posted by Meenakshi Puri
I haven’t watched too many films in the last few years, thus the belated response to English Vinglish.
I confess to having loved the film and having watched it on two consecutive days, despite some patriarchal and nationalist ideas. I have listened to the songs, interviews and promos with relish.
What made me watch the film, on YouTube, was an article called ‘Gaslighting is a sneaky kind of Domestic Violence, as English Vinglish shows us’ on Women’s Web.
The director Gauri Shinde, in an interview, denied the film being feminist. She said she felt scared of the word. Sridevi reinforced that point of view. Both claimed that because the film was universal, it couldn’t be feminist.
I will elaborate on the examples of domestic violence in the film, and begin with suggesting that if, in the two scenes described below, the husband and wife were shown as having sex, that would have amounted to marital rape.
In the ninth minute of the film, Sridevi asks her husband if he comes home only for her food, why he doesn’t talk to her, and if important conversations take place only in English. She is upset enough and would not be in a mood for sex after this non-conversation. The scene shifts from the dining room to the bedroom. The husband, however, does initiates sex by placing his arm on her shoulder, while both of them are sitting on the bed, and her back is turned to him. He asks why waste time in talking. The scene ends here.
In the bedroom scene in New York, in response to his sarcasm on how she managed alone in New York without knowing English, she tells him that he managed well too, in India, for four weeks, without her. He is not pointing to just her inability to speak in English, but to her lack of exposure in managing day to day affairs, in unfamiliar surroundings. When he says this, he is on a bed, and she is standing. His reply is that he hasn’t managed. He is hinting at sex. By this time, she has lain on the bed and is still in her sari. The husband moves closer to her side of the bed, and touches her arm. She is reluctant to have sex with him, and gently releases herself. At that moment, her son comes into the room, wanting to sleep with her. Sridevi mollycoddles him and permits him to do so. This is her way of saying no to sex with her husband. The husband turns his back, disgruntled. She is progressive on many fronts, and this is one of them.
The husband is violent is various emotional and psychological ways.
The wife does not initiate sex in the two scenes described. In one scene, she does not say yes. In the other scene, she indicates a no. She is emphatic in her own way.
It’s just as well that I watched the movie 5 years after its release, because the definition of rape has changed in the intervening years, and active consent is acquiring meaning.
There are other ways in which the husband is violent. Financial inequality is one of them. Another is lack of active support in setting up her business. A third is belittling her work. The fourth is making fun of her language.
When she asks for the car to deliver laddoos, he declines, saying he has to go for a meeting, and suggesting the help can deliver them. She takes an auto rickshaw instead. On one occasion, he tells her to stop her business of laddoos. On another occasion, he tells his son that if he does not go to school, he will end up making laddoos. When she is excited about being called an entrepreneur by people in America, he asks if she has been feeding them her laddoos. He then sneers at her by pronouncing the word entrepreneur with a foreign accent. In one scene, he tells her that she was born to make laddoos.
There are more examples of emotional and psychological violence. He sniggers when their daughter makes fun of the way Sridevi mispronounces Jazz. He does not hug his wife. When he sees her off at the airport, he gets exasperated that she can’t remember the meaning of the word duration. When she is asked to raise a toast to her niece and her husband at their wedding, he apologizes at her inability to speak English. It is to the credit of the wife that she takes cognizance of all these instances and does not accept the jibes.
Women need to know what constitutes domestic violence, and her film is one way by which they could be educated.
The director shows all these examples of domestic violence, yet is scared of using the word feminist to describe her film. Women need to know what constitutes domestic violence, and her film is one way by which they could be educated.
There are moments when Sridevi is guilty if she makes a good mother, but nowhere in the story does she feel that she is not doing her duty as a wife.