'Sridevi is as glamorous as she was 15 years ago'
Filmmaker Gauri Shinde directs her first feature film English Vinglish, with one of the biggest heroines of the 1980s and early 1990s, Sridevi, who returns to the silver screen after 15 years.
The film, which releases on October 5, revolves around a reserved and insecure Indian housewife, who travels to New York and struggles to learn English.
Shinde talks to Sonil Dedhia about how comfortable it was directing Sridevi, the inspiration for the film, and the support she got from husband and filmmaker R Balki.
What inspired you to make a film like English Vinglish?
My mother is the inspiration for English Vinglish. But at the same time, the film is fiction.
A lot of people in India struggle to read, write, and speak in English. She struggled as well. My two siblings and I would often tease her and pull her leg. It's the insensitivity and insecurity that made me do this film.
Image: Sridevi and Gauri Shinde
Photographs: Charles Leonio/Getty Images for Guess
'Sridevi is the hero of my film'
Why did you cast Sridevi? Was she on your mind while writing the script?
When I was writing the script, I never thought of casting anyone. I did not have Sridevi in mind, as she had vanished for 15 years.
Balki met Boney Kapoor and Sridevi and they asked what he was doing these days. He mentioned the script that I was writing.
Balki gave a two-line narration and Sridevi liked the idea. Then I narrated the whole script to her and she agreed to do it.
Today when I look back at the film, I feel Sridevi is the hero of my film.
Surely you had someone in mind when you finished writing the script?
I find it very limiting to write a script keeping in mind a particular actor.
When you see the film, you will realise that it is very difficult to cast someone for the character of Shashi that Sridevi plays. There are very few actors in her age group, who could have done justice to this character. I wanted to mould someone into the character, which is more challenging.
You've just mentioned the age group... will the current generation be able to relate to Sridevi?
We have been receiving a positive feedback for our film and there are a lot of people who are eagerly waiting for the film's release.
She may have taken a break for 15 years, but people are aware of Sridevi as some of her films have been iconic. I don't think many people in India are unaware of her work.
Image: Ajith and Sridevi in English Vinglish
'Sridevi is not intimidating at all'
This is your debut film as director and Sridevi's comeback film. Did that put you under pressure?
No, I didn't feel any pressure because from the time of casting, things progressed at their own pace.
Sridevi is a very easy going and grounded person. She is completely a director's actor.
The aura around Sridevi is that she is a big star but she is not intimidating at all. I should credit her as she made it really easy for me.
Was it difficult to get her in sync with the current styles of filmmaking?
It's been 15 years since she acted but she is a terrific actor. A lot of new technology sync sound, different lighting etc is used today in filmmaking.
Sridevi is very savvy about the new developments in the industry and was very quick to grasp it. She's not stuck in the 1980s.
Sridevi was known as this glamorous diva. Was it difficult for her to play a middle-class housewife?
She is as glamorous as she was 15 years ago, but for me she was the actor I was working with. The fact that she had no starry tantrums on the sets or off, helped me deal with it.
Image: Sridevi in English Vinglish
'Balki had tears in his eyes after watching the film'
How did your husband Balki's support help you during the making of the film?
He has been a great support. Although I've directed a hundred ad films, this was my debut feature film and I needed him to be with me. I am very thankful that he always stood by me and helped me take decisions.
What suggestions did he give you? Did you disagree about things?
I would be wrong if I said that we never had arguments. I believe these arguments were healthy arguments.
Whenever he gave me suggestions, I always listened and tried to consider them. He has been there and done that, so I had the benefit of his experience.
I pestered him to think about English Vinglish 24/7 till the time I finished the film (laughs).
Your husband has directed two serious films, Cheeni Kum and Paa. Were you inspired by his style of filmmaking?
I might have been inspired by the kind of films that he makes, but not consciously.
I think it's not only him but so many other filmmakers and people who I have met all through the years who have subconsciously been an inspiration to me.
What was his reaction when he saw the film?
He saw the film after the first cut and he had tears in his eyes, which says a lot!
Image: Sridevi in English Vinglish
'I am not trying to convey any message with my film'
How was the transition from directing a 30-second advertisement to making a 120-minute feature film?
My background in advertising has helped me a lot. It was the biggest training ground. I didn't need to assist someone to make a film.
Right from shooting constantly for hours to editing and music, it gave me a good foundation to stand on.
An ad film is 30 to 45 seconds in length so it made me understand what I needed in my film and to chuck out all the unnecessary elements.
The film was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and received a great response from the critics and the audience.
I was stunned to see that people gave a standing ovation to my first film! I was completely dazed. Only when I reached the hotel room did it sink in. It is one of the most cherished moments of my life.
A lot of Indians are insecure about speaking English. Do you think your film will change the perception of these people?
I hope the perception changes though that is not the big fat message that I am trying to convey with my film.
The film is about how a woman finds the courage to overcome her fear. It is about a woman coming into her own and that is an emotion that so many people can connect with.
Talking about English as a language, I believe it is because of British colonisation. We have our own mother tongue and we have made our own language of Indian-English.
Image: A scene from English Vinglish