Pop Culture / Speaking Out

#7YearsOfEnglishVinglish: Sridevi's Shashi Teaches Us That It's Never Too Late To Reinvent Yourself

. 5 min read . Written by Kritiksha Sharma
#7YearsOfEnglishVinglish: Sridevi's Shashi Teaches Us That It's Never Too Late To Reinvent Yourself

One of my favorite scenes from the film is when after being berated by her family for the incorrect pronunciation of ‘Jazz’ Shashi repeats the correct one over and over again bent over her beloved laddoos until she gets it right. 

This determination to get something as simple as a pronunciation right encapsulates everything that the film stands for –an undertone that screams persistence and is proof to the fact that it is never too late to reinvent oneself. 

The world is undergoing a digital revolution. While the millennials in the workspace today have the advantage of being raised on a heavy appetite of social media, this ever-burgeoning online culture still poses a challenge for many of the senior dilettantes in their respective fields. 

Shashi is a testament to all those facing similar challenges of feeling irrelevant in a world where all that they treasured to be valuable is almost suddenly not. 

The response to this challenge in most cases is something along the lines of accepting this irrelevance as a part of life. But Sridevi’s brilliant portrayal of Shashi, when put in this precarious predicament has no qualms in refusing to feel self-pity and teaches us all the true meaning of ‘rising to the occasion’ in the process. 

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Shashi’s biggest challenge is that she cannot communicate in English.

In a world where this shortcoming easily translates into being condemned as a loser, mispronouncing ‘jazz’ as ‘jhaaz’ and thinking ‘judgmental’ refers to a judge gone mental doesn’t exactly win you brownie points with your class conscious teenage kids.

So her executive husband thinks she is only good enough to make laddoos at home and is fine with his daughter not taking her own mother seriously. 

There is a deeper implication in the heart-wrenching manner in which her family treats her, which is highlighted in Shashi’s pivotal climax speech. Like most Indian homemakers, Shashi is, first and foremost, a wife and a mother. Her culminating speech towards the end shows the value and the importance she places on the home and the family life –“your own world within this big world”. 

It is because of this emphasis on the family and the lack of an external exposure that Shashi’s experience of the world comes filtered through her own family.

Her fears, her conflicts and her insecurities are almost never a consequence of direct assaults made by the wider social world but instead by her own family. 

Her under-confidence and low self-esteem stems not from her own personality -the persona that has forgotten to value herself because of the persistent digs on her shortcomings; but instead from the void of respect that constantly attacks her.  

“Mujhe pyaar ki zaroorat nahi hai, zaroorat hai toh sirf thodi si izzat ki” 

Her entire personality –everything that she defines herself by (her passion for food mainly), is dismissed simply by refusal to value the work that she does. These constant reminders of Shashi’s shortcomings make her believe that overcoming those is the only path to regaining her respect. 

These series of repeated attacks act as a contributing factor in her decision for choosing to reinvent herself –deciding to learn English. And so begins what is perhaps her first proper initiation into the wider social world –her English classes. 

For a woman who had never stepped out of the confines of her neighbourhood and her city, flying to the USA alone was perhaps the first step in her journey of reinvention. Only once out of the bounds of the family that has made her feel so invalidated on several occasions does she have the opportunity to a direct experience with the world outside –which as it turns out is not that bad. 

Back home her circumstances have restricted her to her own shell. This shell that she has accustomed herself to and has perhaps forgotten to challenge herself to the best of her capabilities which ultimately leads to an intrinsic belief that the outside world is almost out of her reach. We see the first instance of breaking out of this tacit acceptance to the imposition she has been subjected to when she first travels alone in a foreign city. 

Making use of the best of her capabilities, despite a language barrier, the fact that she could travel alone amongst people foreign to her was her breaking out point that ultimately led to the realisation that she is not here only to make laddoos

“We have an Entrepreneur in the classs!”

In yet another incredibly striking scene when she has been termed as an ‘entrepreneur’ by her teacher, her instinctive reaction is both heart-warming and sad at the same time. 

When asked about what is it that she does, her first response is to attribute a frivolity to her own work by calling it a “small in-house business” implying that it’s nothing major -which is what she has been made to believe.

She is surprised at the fact that someone would take her work –the same work she has never been valued for, this seriously.

The fact that there was a formalised nomenclature that commands respect and defines her identity in the world was an idea that was completely alien to her -until now.

In regaining this respect that she so needed, there is an innate realisation that this validation stems not from her being able to communicate in a language but rather her own personality. The kind of people that she meets, the nature of interactions that she has and the fact that she can survive on her own, miles away from the place she calls home all contribute to her understanding of the fact that it is not any external quality that can define the respect she commands but her own self.          

It is here where she understands that self-worth cannot be rooted in the ability to master a language.      

While she ties her self-esteem and her confidence in being able to communicate fluently in English for a major part of the film, it is only towards the end that she refuses to root her self-image in the mere act of being able to learn a language. 

In the end on the flight back home when she chooses to ask for a Hindi newspaper rather than an English one, she regains all that she had lost in the eyes of her family. This newfound confidence stemmed not from the act of transforming herself but from simply realising her worth that was there this whole time –and helping this self-reinvention to get her family to respect her true value.