Family Vamily: The Nefarious Emotional Abuser

So, I watched Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish. I loved it. I hated it. Yes, I loved it, and I hated it. In fact, this film forced me to re-evaluate my relationship with the phrase “conflicting emotions”.

Quick synopsis:

English Vinglish is an Indian film in Hindi and English, about a younger-than-middle-aged housewife and mother of two, Shashi, who can’t speak English fluently and is constantly mocked and picked on by her husband Satish and tween daughter Sapna. In the middle of all this, Shashi’s niece in New York is getting married (because no Indian movie is complete without a wedding), and Shashi travels to NYC ahead of her family, where she is forced to confront her now shattered self-esteem and her fear of feeling (being?) inferior because she can’t speak English. She enrols in a 4-week English class for adults, where she works super hard to improve her English and regains her self-worth. Her family comes to NYC, finds out that she can speak English (it’s still not fluent, but she is able to give a speech at her niece’s wedding), the wedding happens and everyone goes home happy. Yay… only… no.

Look, English Vinglish is a lovely movie, with a touching, original storyline and characters (and actors) that draw its audience in. If I were asked to rate it (something I rarely do with art), I’d give it a 9 out of 10. So, why did I hate it? Well, let’s go back and take a closer look at the story. I said that Shashi’s husband and daughter make fun of her for not being able to speak English. Well, that’s the glossed-over version of what goes on in their home. What I observed was very subtle, but very real emotional abuse. To explain it fully, I need to give a bit more background.

In the movie, Shashi’s family lives in the suburbs of New Delhi. Satish is the bread winner of the family – he works for some generic, presumably capitalist company, where everyone wears suits and ties and speaks English. He leaves early to work, and comes home late at night. His wife Shashi does all the housework, and I mean ALL of it. She cooks for her husband, her daughter, her son, her mother-in-law, and sometimes it’s different meals if certain people have specific preferences. She does everyone’s laundry, she gets her children ready for school and she cleans the house. After she fulfils all her “wifely” duties, she then makes time to pursue something for herself: laddoos.

Laddoos are a kind of sweet (which I am currently itching to taste after watching the movie) which Shashi makes at her home and delivers to people. She doesn’t actually need the money she gets from selling laddoos, but she enjoys it thoroughly, and her customers simply love her sweets. It’s the one thing she does for herself and gets complete fulfilment from. Which makes it positively frustrating when her husband comes back from work one day and says she should stop selling laddoos because only he should be able to enjoy her cooking. Already, earlier, he’d refused to send her the car and driver to make her deliveries so she had to do it by tuk-tuk  (which she really didn’t mind; it would simply have been more convenient by car), so clearly he wasn’t 100% joking about her giving up her one harmless hobby just to please him. But for Shashi, laddoos represent more than just a time-filler. Through her sweet sales, she gets to interact and socialize with people outside of her little family, and she gets to leave the house and be more than just a housewife. And I think that is the real reason that Satish doesn’t want her selling her laddoos: abusers like to isolate their victims.

If Shashi is completely dependent on her husband, financially and emotionally, then Satish becomes her whole world and is free to do absolutely anything he feels like to his wife, with the assurance that she won’t complain or leave. Sure, Satish never hit Shashi, but he didn’t need to. Abusive relationships are about control, and if the perpetrator realizes that he can achieve that control without causing a scene/scandal/exerting too much physical effort, then great for him (or her). In this case, Satish’s hold over his wife was threefold: first, she adored her children and would put up with absolute crap (as seen from her tolerating her daughter’s outright disrespect) as long her role of motherhood was never challenged. Number two: money. We don’t know too much about Shashi’s background except that she has an older sister, and they went to a Hindi-speaking secondary school. It doesn’t seem like either of them had much going for them money-wise before they each got married, so we can assume that Shashi was financially dependent on her husband. This dependence was threatened by her laddoo sales, which he realized were gathering momentum, and so he tried to discourage them. Third and most significant, is the aforementioned Hindi education that did not prepare Shashi for a milieu where English is the privileged language. Shashi knows some English words but doesn’t have a command of the language, a fact that makes her the subject of derisive and regular mocking by her husband in front of their children. Satish makes Shashi feel inferior because she can’t speak English, and Shashi internalizes this to such a degree that when their twelve-year-old daughter Sapna, implicitly supported by her father, jeers at her mother, defies her authority, or downright insults her, Shashi doesn’t feel like she can do anything about it.

When we meet Shashi, her self-confidence is very low, which is understandable considering that her husband has spent many years undercutting it. And with this less than solid confidence in herself, she has to travel to New York by herself, a daunting prospect even if she had a supporting family behind her. Each time she has to speak English to someone, she is petrified, so much so that she panics in a café while trying to order a sandwich (although in that case the grouchy woman taking orders did not help the situation). This is why Shashi enrols herself in English classes (using her laddoo money).

The thing about emotional abuse is that it is difficult to observe, especially if you’re not looking for it. Unlike physical abuse that leaves obvious signs (most times), emotional abuse by-passes the body and goes straight to the mind, the psyche, the soul, and these are parts of us that are invisible. The victim alone feels the weight of the abuse and tends to internalize its consequences – low or damaged self-esteem in the best scenarios and in the worst cases depression and suicide. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist; I am simply writing from experience. Maybe someday when I feel ready, I will write separately about these experiences; for now I’d rather stick to the film.

Sure, English Vinglish could be viewed through the lens of its official synopsis – a woman who boldly decides to learn English so that her family will stop making her the butt of their jokes. However, what I saw was a woman struggling not to drown in the mistreatment constantly dealt to her by her husband, the person who is supposed to be her partner and confidante. How often it is that the people who have the power to build us up and help us along in life use that power to tear us down. Maybe Satish saw his father treat his mother that way. Maybe one of his parents or an older sibling undermined him in a similar way, and he was perpetuating this abuse in a vicious cycle. I don’t know. I’m simply glad that Shashi found her English class, which was a ledge that she could grab unto and use to pull herself out of the mire of contempt she’d been coping with. Some people aren’t so fortunate (in fiction and real life).

I don’t know what Gauri Shinde’s intentions were when she made this film. Her coverage of emotional abuse was very subtle (subtle enough to miss unfortunately – hence my ire against the film), but frankly, so was the rest of the film, and so are a good number of Indian films, especially those made by women. Still, it is unlikely that she covered such a significant issue by accident. So to clarify earlier statements about my ambivalence toward the film, I loved the film, I hated the emotional abuse. If I watch a good movie about rape or racism, I’d feel just as conflicted. Something about hating the sin but not the sinner comes to mind…



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