English Vinglish (2012) was touted as a film furthering women's causes with its portrayal of a married woman's aspirations and her willingness to adapt to a dynamic world by learning English. Through the journey of a married, homely Indian woman's quest to learn English after her circumstances force her to be alone in US for two weeks, we get to experience the unique challenges faced by someone who is not only linguistically limited, but also culturally inept at navigating the multicultural environment of New York (representing the outer world forbidden to women). But far from being a film about a woman finding freedom through education and life-changing experiences, the film turns out to be a primer in new-age conformity for housewives in twenty-first-century India. In this essay, I will argue that English Vinglish, unlike what most reviews  said, doesn't just peddle patriarchy, but also tries to push women to be better trained and learned only to serve their family.
When we first meet Shashi (played by Sridevi) in the opening credits of English Vinglish, she's catering to the early morning needs of all of her family members. She makes four or five different dishes to suit the dietary requirements and taste buds of her husband, her kids, and her mother-in-law. Despite all that she does, there isn't any depiction of gratitude from her family members. Instead, Shashi's daughter makes fun of Shashi's pronunciation of an English word, and her husband joins in on the joke. Toward the end of the scene, Shashi looks a bit dejected; but she nonetheless seeks validation from her family members and hardly ever confronts them by articulating how their spiteful behaviour affects her mentally.
Shashi constantly looks for external validation as it helps her feel secure and seems to be the only way she assesses her self-worth. This stems from the way her family treats her—she views herself from the lens of her family members, who often humiliate her and berate her. Hence, she has a very limited belief in herself and her capabilities . When she goes to US for a family wedding (she had to go alone, her family joined her after some time), she looks for validation for her cooking and her laddoos from the guests in the days leading up to the wedding. She had developed this inferiority complex due to many reasons, one of which was her inability to speak English. As per my reading of the film, she looks for external validation to counter this inferiority complex that had been imposed on her by her near and dear ones.
Shashi quietly joins a four-week English course to try and learn the language. While this seems like Shashi is finally breaking free from her limited existence as the wife/mother, we have to keep in mind that it is more than just learning a skill—what's important is how those learnings help people break free of their chains and become the person they wanted to be. As per this understanding, the film isn't furthering the feminist cause.
In her book Seeing Like a Feminist, author Nivedita Menon draws parallels between social order and nude make-up in her introduction. She writes, "The whole point of nude make-up, clearly, is to spend hours painting your face in order to make it look like you had not touched it at all. The maintaining of social order is rather like that" (vii). Menon goes on to write, "A feminist perspective recognizes that the hierarchical organising of the world around gender is key to maintaining social order; that to live lives marked 'male' and 'female' is to live different realities" (viii). Though Shashi's journey is filled with relatable challenges and emotional crescendos, at no point does she try to use these experiences and opportunities to assert herself and her identity more strongly.
Her family later joins her in the US; her husband is clearly surprised at how Shashi is able to manage her way around the city on her own—he didn't think of her as an individual who'd be able to navigate any circumstance without his help. He doesn't feel happy or proud of his wife's newfound power and freedom. There's a hint of insecurity in his demeanour when he communicates his surprise at the way Shashi has been going about her daily tasks in the US. This is one of those few scenes where his frail ego is on display, without the garb of humour that he often employs . Yet, Shashi doesn't see his misogyny, and continues to play the role she has been playing in her family—that of a metaphorical doormat.
Towards the end of the film, Shashi raises a toast to the newly-wed couple. Here, she reflects upon her own experiences as a married woman. Burdened with more than her fair share of responsibilities and undervalued by her family, Shashi still goes on to say that family is everything and both the partners in a relationship are always equals. While she says this out loud, her actions still depict her subservience to her husband—in the final scene of the film, when Shashi asks for an English newspaper on her flight back to India, she looks at her husband for validation, and he looks smug; his wife, and English speaker, is still dependent on him for her self-esteem. The societal nude makeup that Nivedita Menon talks about is well preserved, now also polished with immaculate English.
An important sub-plot in the film is about Shashi's fondness for one of her classmates in her English class, a man named Laurent (played by Mehdi Nebbou). He praised Shashi in the class, which made Shashi feel good about herself. The song 'Gustakh Dil' hints at Shashi's latent feelings towards this man; but Shashi never takes it ahead even platonically. This further portrays how stifled Shashi is: she couldn't even be friends with a person. So, English doesn't really change Shashi in any way except for the fact that she can now take orders from her husband in English.
Queen (2014), which was released less than two years after English Vinglish, is also about a woman all by herself in a foreign land. But in Queen, the protagonist's internalised patriarchal norms are challenged, and she gains agency. She even chooses her own partner. Similarly, if we look at Usha (played by Ratna Pathak Shah) from Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016), she goes against the norm to do something that gives her pleasure. Shireen (played by Konkona Sen Sharma) in the same film, who would probably be Shashi's age and in a much worse condition, initially tries to balance her dual life without voicing any dissent, but in the final act she confronts her misogynist husband about his lies, albeit only to be physically abused.
These characters are depicted as feminist. However, Shashi is a prisoner of the system and doesn't challenge any norm. The only pleasure she seeks is the happiness of her loved ones; even towards the end of the film, Shashi fails to see herself as a multifaceted individual . The film, clothed as a tale of women's empowerment, almost celebrates this dominance of men over women. Shashi's return to the old-world patriarchal structure is supposed to be a happy ending, where the husband gets to dominate the wife—his power strengthened by Shashi's return to him and the old world. It re-affirms the audience's belief that the true calling for women like Shashi is to be wives. They can do much more than just taking care of others—as Shashi proves—but they primarily exist to serve others.
 The Times of India review called it a "tale of women empowerment, bound to empower every viewer." Linked here.
 This might not be a correct assessment of her capabilities, as she was easily able to manage and deal with her customers. In the company of her family though, she often looked down upon herself, and she believed that version of herself as the real Shashi.
 In one scene, the husband jokes to her extended family members about Shashi being born to serve laddoos. He then says that he's praising her by speaking this way.
 When she has to choose between going for her English test and making laddoos, she says that what's the point of passing in English, if she fails in her favourite subject (making laddoos).
English Vinglish. Directed by Gauri Shinde, performances by Sridevi, Adil Hussain and Mehdi Nebbou, Hope Productions, India, 2012.
Kahaani. Directed by Sujoy Ghosh, performances by Vidya Balan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Indraneil Sengupta, BoundScript Motion Pictures, India, 2012.
Menon, Nivedita. Seeing Like a Feminist. Penguin, 2012.
Queen. Directed by Vikas Bahl, performances by Kangana Ranaut and Rajkummar Rao, Phantom Films, India, 2013.
Shilpa Rao. "Gustakh Dil." English Vinglish, T-Series, 2012.