My late mother, a school dropout who read Tolstoy in English, spoke the language brokenly. She would carry on smartly at a stretch, knowing her grammar was all wrong, and ignoring the meaningful glances we’d throw in her direction. No one laughed because no one dared to.

When once, I nervously asked her why she did not brush up on her English when all her children were there to teach her how, her immediate retort was – “Do Englishmen know our language? I am not supposed to know English at all so you should be thankful I learnt it all by myself and am carrying on without help.” That was the first and last time I tried to correct her grammar. No one in the family, including my erudite father, dared make any negative comments about her English. This was way back in the Sixties.

Flash forward to 2012. Sridevi, one of the most successful stars of Bollywood cinema, makes a startling comeback with English-Vinglish, more than a decade after her marriage. It is the first film in her career to have been directed by a woman, Gauri Shinde. Throughout her career Sridevi made her mark as a strong woman, dominating the scene even when the script gave ample cinematic and narrative space to the hero.

Even in so thoroughly negative a role as in Judaai (1997), playing a wife prepared to “sell” her husband to any woman willing to pay the price, Sridevi outsmarted her co-actors, brilliant performers themselves. She faced the camera, with some trepidation perhaps, as she had never done before – playing the housewife, with a corporate honcho of a husband and two kids.

Sridevi, on or off the screen, never betrayed the fact that she had never been to school. Her first birth anniversary on August 13, coming after her death earlier this year, makes it pertinent to go back to the film that marked a glorious comeback for the multi-talented actress.

English-Vinglish is a very powerful film, enhanced by the strong performances of the main cast – Sridevi as Shashi Godbole, Adil Hussain as her husband, Sulabha Deshpande as her very friendly mother-in-law and two child actors as her kids. The film shows how an ordinary housewife in an upwardly mobile Pune family is the subject of endless barbs and ridicule because she cannot speak English.

The tragedy is that she herself is convinced that this is a great lacking in her. She doesn’t feel angry when her growing daughter openly mocks her inability to speak English. She feels guilty. The same extends to her husband’s treatment of her, who acts as though as if not knowing English in a once-Marathi dominated city like Pune is a crime.

Is it, really? It would seem so when one sets off on a journey with Shashi Godbole as she decides to absolve herself of this crime.

Shashi Godbole is a very efficient housewife. She runs the household extremely well with the solid support of her mother-in-law, and also runs a ‘side business’ in making and selling laddus across the city. The corporate honcho husband makes fun of her business. On three different occasions he takes potshots at her laddu-making talent which is bringing in money. Once, he tells her to stop making laddus and her response is a very quiet “Why?” Another time, he warns his son that if he doesn’t concentrate on his studies, he will end up making laddus. Yet another time, he tells the young Englishman who has just entered the Indian family as son-in-law that “She was born to make laddus.”

Does the ideal wife’s indigenous way of earning some money make him feel insecure, or less of a man? One wonders because the laddu is a bone he cannot seem to get rid of. He avoids giving his wife the car to deliver her laddus to her clients with some flimsy excuse. Does she complain or grumble? Not in the least. Burdened with the boxes, she climbs into an auto. If the husband needs the car, how can there be any question of her getting it?

Shashi’s efficiency is repeatedly dismissed by her daughter and husband on that summary ground – that she does not speak English fluently. The daughter feels embarrassed to have her meet the school principal. She studies at an elite English-medium school, you see, where mothers are expected to converse in impeccable English.

Then, suddenly, Shashi has to rush off to New York. Her older sister summons her to arrive well before her elder daughter’s wedding to help with the arrangements; the husband and kids will follow. At the Indian end of the airport, her husband derides her for not being able to understand simple words. She remains quiet. When she has reached safely she hesitantly makes her way through the airport there. Her widowed sister, long settled in the US, and her two daughters are thrilled with her visit and surprisingly, her inability to speak English doesn’t affect them at all.

Later she chances upon an advertisement inviting would-be students to a spoken English class. She decides to take the short course, paying the fees from the money she has made from her laddu business. The course will end around the time of her niece’s marriage, when her husband and kids will have arrived.

Why does she decide to learn English? Is it because she wishes to do away with that one lacuna in her roles as wife and mother? Or is it to raise her self-esteem? Or, perhaps, to learn a new language well? The script takes great care to establish that she is a housewife and mother first, and only then is she the saree-wearing, diffident Shashi Godbhole. Perhaps learning English will improve her status in the eyes of her sarcastic husband and rude daughter, whose schooling at an elite institution has not taught her to behave properly with her mother.

Shashi joins the classes clandestinely and does her ‘homework’ by listening to the news at night on TV. One of her nieces whom she has taken into confidence helps her understand what ‘judgmental’ means. The secrecy is in order to surprise her family when it arrives. So, she may never have joined the class at all if her husband and daughter hadn’t ridiculed her back in India.

This English class turns Shashi’s life around in various ways. She learns that her very friendly and young male teacher is gay, and copes her way through this knowledge till she has accepted him. He invests her with self-esteem when he tells her that since she runs a business in laddus which she makes herself, she is an entrepreneur. This is a new word in her limited lexicon but it gives her life new meaning. But does she come to live up to this understanding of her self-worth? Not really.

The class also opens up a small window for Shashi to the globalised world, filled with adult students from different parts of the world who speak English with different degrees of fluency, or not at all. This ought to have taught her to understand that not knowing conversational English is not a rarity or defect. But it doesn’t.

She makes friends with her peers in the class who come from diverse countries and professions. Laurent the French chef is attracted to her, but though Shashi knows this she resists his subtle confession, saying she is married and a mother. In other words, the patriarchal ideology is so deeply ingrained in her that even if she does feel some attraction towards Laurent, it will put a dent in the Sati-Savitri image she has been carefully and diabolically poured into and with which she is complicit, or folded together.

The feminist scholar Meenakshi Puri has called English-Vinglish an illustration of domestic violence. This would be true if Shashi had at least recognised the extremely derogatory treatment she gets from her husband and daughter as such, much less taken a stand or questioned it at some juncture. But she does not.

Shashi’s sole moment of triumph is in delivering the vote of thanks at the wedding dinner, just after her husband has apologised on her behalf for his wife’s poor English. She uses words like ‘judgmental’ in her halting speech, but all it does is surprise her husband and make her daughter look guilty. It does nothing to change the status quo of the wife and mother who is treated in a very demeaning way, and wonder of wonders, she still feels neither anger, nor hurt, nor humiliation and insult for being walked over at every step of her life. The only difference is that she can now converse in English.

Gauri Shinde has insisted that English-Vinglish is not a feminist film at all because she is afraid of the word ‘feminist’. She cannot call it a feminist film ever, because it turns the table on every concept of feminism in all its variations in every way – through the characters and their interactions, through the narrative and through the two worlds of India and the USA cleverly juxtaposed to demonstrate Indian ‘backwardness’ against the ‘progressiveness’ of New York.

English-Vinglish is a diabolically clever way of playing to the patriarchal gallery, where the protagonist Shashi not only surrenders to every humiliation but is complicit in it. This may perhaps be dismissed as ‘passive’ surrender to her so-called destiny. But she actively participates in it too, in deciding to learn English not for her self-esteem or her independence, but because she wants to ‘fit in’ with the expectations of her daughter and her husband. Shashi can now interact with the Malayalee teacher at her daughter’s school.

English-Vinglish is a cunning strategy to uphold and reinforce patriarchy while pretending to condemn it.