Sridevi, the soft-spoken one-named Indian superstar who is returning to the big screen after a 14-year hiatus, admits she has experienced awkward moments with language barriers before, but nothing as dramatic as the café scene.
“As a mother and as a human being, I could really relate to the character. I’ve done several languages [in film] without knowing the language: Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi,” says Sridevi, who spoke mostly Tamil and Telugu early in her career. “Everyone used to call me a parrot because all of these languages … I would just speak my lines.”
In English Vinglish, Shashi is a reserved and insecure Indian housewife who travels to New York and struggles to learn English. The story was inspired by the language troubles of writer-director Gauri Shinde’s mother. “Because she couldn’t speak English well and she thought that was an impediment for her, she made sure that her children attended English school and didn’t have to face any of this,” Shinde says.
Many of the moments in the film are mined from Shinde’s life, including a scene where the family laughs at Shashi’s pronunciation of “jazz.” “That kind of stuff has happened in my home,” Shinde says with a chuckle.
Shinde studied at the New York Film Academy and dreamed of shooting her first movie in the city. English Vinglish, which is produced in part by her Indian filmmaker husband R. Balki, is shot in her hometown of Pune, plus Mumbai and New York. She says she felt no pressure working with Sridevi, who took time away to raise her two daughters before being lured back to the industry by Shinde’s endearing script. The two formed an easy friendship on set.
“[The film is] about a woman coming into her own and overcoming her insecurities,” Shinde says. “I believe we’re always a step away from gaining the confidence but we don’t do it until a life changing thing happens.”
The film premieres in Toronto Sept. 14 to a sold out crowd at Roy Thomson Hall, making Sridevi’s first time at TIFF (she was last in Toronto for the glitzy International Indian Film Academy Awards in 2011).
Meanwhile, TIFF’s City to City spotlight on Mumbai aims to showcase a new wave of Indian cinema beyond the song and dance.
“These non-Bollywood types of films are on the cusp of breaking out,” says Chris Patton, president of Fortissimo Films, which is the sales agent for such Indian TIFF films asMiss Lovely, Gangs of Wasseypur and Ship of Theseus. “I believe you have a lot of exciting filmmakers and new producers — a new generation of film talent who are rejecting the studio structure and big Bollywood films that India is known for.”
Shinde says she wasn’t trying to appeal to a global audience or be different with her debut feature. “I just wanted to make an authentic film. We’re all the same. We may talk different, look different, live in different places but human emotion is the same. Our insecurities and fears are all similar.”
She is now looking forward to her film premiering in a city where more than 50% of the population are visible minorities and where the story of being a newcomer will resonate with many.
“Even in the U.S. a lot of people are not born or brought up in the U.S.,” she says. “A lot of them are immigrants, Spanish people, they face the same thing. It is a universal issue.”