That was the sound of Sridevi crashing through the celluloid ceiling,becoming one of the very few desi divas who have genuinely been able to transit from motherhood back into the movies with her designer saris uncreased and her bindi intact. Not everyone can survive a filmic resurrection look at what happened with the dhak dhak Madhuri Dixit or the sexy-sexy-sexy Karisma Kapoor. The second coming needs more than a few shots of Botox or booty makeovers. It needs a strong script in which older women actors are given breathing space,both in the film and metaphorically. They should be the centres of attention,with interesting characterisation,and if they are objects of desire (not just maternal figures dispensing altruistic love),the film becomes more powerful.
Most importantly,older women actors who play their age (or as close to it as possible) are more credible and acceptable when much of the glamour and gloss surrounding their past avatars is exorcised,leaving behind only the sheer power of their acting. At this stage,with competition from younger,versatile actors like Vidya Balan and Priyanka Chopra increasing,only a cleverly crafted script can help these second-time divas regain some of their past magic.
And English Vinglish manages to achieve quite a bit of this,as it is a charming but well-paced exploration of a neglected Indian housewife who discovers her global identity during a brief holiday in Manhattan. There are enough moments in the film when the audience is alone with Sridevi to sympathise with her needs and compulsions. Fortunately,there is also enough fresh humour and exploration of parallel relationships and personae to prevent it from becoming yet another maudlin,mid-marriage crisis film. Even though Sridevi has to pay the price for aging by being shown as a mother and a housewife unlike male heroes in their forties who still carry on as singleton studs the fact that a dishevelled French Romeo (very much in the Hugh Grant mould) still finds her attractive injects sensuality into her otherwise rather reserved character.
But the moment she shrugs her shoulders and swings her hips and crinkles that snub nose with an impish grin,you know that Sridevi is back to rule the screen once more,upturning the mandate that older women actors cannot deliver at the box office. Though English Vinglish is not a film for the masses and is made for the multiplexes and the NRI audience,it is doing fairly well with both those who remember the superstar and those seeing her for the first time on the big screen.
There was always something a little fey about Sridevi. Even when the pariyon ki rani danced as Miss Hawa Hawaii (Mr India) more than two decades ago,she batted her eyelashes and the audience swooned. On the sex goddess scale,she was no heavyweight. On the contrary,like Audrey Hepburn,her allure always lay in the fact that she unconsciously owned the screen,slipping into a variety of emotions as naturally as she slipped into her clothes. There was no Madhuri Dixit-style choli-ke-peechhe dancing for her but she created a large following playing against most big-ticket male actors.
However,even after she disappeared post marriage to Boney Kapoor,her loyal fans did not forget her and a new audience was introduced to her,thanks to re-runs on television. Of course,as she says now,being married to a producer meant she wasnt completely detached from the world of cinema only that she was enjoying her life on the other side of the screen. But if there was any desire to return to the big screen,it was kept under wraps till Gauri Shinde arrived with the proposal for English Vinglish.
The film itself might not be completely path-breaking,as it has shades of films like Arth and is reminiscent of the immensely popular British TV serial,Mind Your Language. But because it is an unpretentious,down-to-earth production with believable characters and impeccable casting,these minor irritants fade away quite soon. Undoubtedly,Sridevi brings the role alive through her own joy of acting and sensibly,because she is playing a deglamourised role,the hype surrounding the film was also toned down.
One hopes that the success of the film will lead to a re-packaging and return of some other mature women actors who have not been seen on the big screen for a while,and that the roles they play will be more exciting and better directed. The fact that actors like Sridevi already have nostalgic star power,a curiosity factor as well as an older,extremely loyal audience attached to them,should push producers towards these projects.
Even Hollywood has recognised the power of the grey audience and its recent well-received presentation Hope Springs,in which Meryl Streep plays a conservative married housewife who tries to seduce her bored husband,shows that the drama of ordinary lives can make interesting ,mainstream cinema.
While Sridevis successful foray might bring on a barrage of female-friendly films with older women in the lead role,the only difficulty is that this will be a tough act to follow. Even the younger actresses just past their prime (according to Bollywood pundits) better take another look at their present portfolios. Just being Preity Zinta or Rani Mukherji or Kajol might not be enough: Sridevi has just broken through the ceiling,will those following behind be able to catch up?
Desai is the author of Darlingji: The True Love Story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt