The journey of Shashi (played by Sridevi) in Gauri Shinde's 2012 film exemplifies the empowerment that every woman can achieve when she embraces her own worth and potential

When we think of important women, figures like Pandita Ramabai, Kalpana Chawla, Sarojini Naidu — exceptional women who broke barriers and excelled in unorthodox roles — come to mind. But it’s equally compelling to consider the normative role of the traditional Indian housewife. Where exactly does she find herself in the narrative of empowerment? In a clutch of Hindi films in recent years, many female characters have cultivated agency while sticking to their conventional gender roles of wife, mother, and daughter. The courage and will to overcome their circumstances have transformed these very relatable and conservative characters into pathbreakers. Remember Rani from Queen (2013)? Ayesha Mehra from Dil Dhadakne Do (2015)? Or Shashi Godbole from English Vinglish (2012)? These women show how to overcome the challenges that come with gender expectations.

Perhaps the most inspiring among these is Godbole from Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish, beautifully played by Sridevi in one of her last roles before her untimely death in 2018. Shashi is a caring mother, a loyal wife and a dutiful bahu in the Godbole household. While seamlessly slipping into all these roles, she also runs a small catering business, delivering ladoos and snacks to her customers. Despite all the work she puts in to take care of everyone’s needs, she does not receive the respect she deserves from her spouse Satish (Adil Hussain) or her daughter Sapna (Navika Kotia).

The lack of respect in the household is partly because she cannot speak English, but largely because the gender roles she so sincerely plays no longer fit into their cooler updated versions. Shashi suffers from the consequence of premature redundancy, from not being able to converse with her daughter’s teacher in English or share a joke with other parents. Moreover, her desire to learn English is abated more than the external world by her own critical husband and daughter, who are ashamed of her presence outside the household.

The story of many Indian women

The film begins with Shashi moulding ladoos and frying chaklis for her clients. She calls Satish to ask for the car to deliver the boxes to her clients. Satish says he needs the car for a meeting he has to attend, and also expresses surprise on why she’s personally delivering the boxes to her clients. She decides to deliver the boxes with her help in a rickshaw, and receives an overwhelming positive response from her customers.

Interestingly, the personal touch that Satish disapproves of is actually a popular business practice. For instance, when Starbucks asks for your name to write on their coffee cup (often misspelling them), they’re essentially trying to replicate the intimate, cozy feeling that small businesses like Shashi’s provide. While Shashi doesn’t have a marketing manager advising her on the importance of this personal touch for building customer loyalty, she instinctively incorporates it out of genuine care. What she doesn’t realize yet is that she’s a natural at it! The question is: why doesn’t Shashi recognize her entrepreneurial talent?

On her way back from the delivery, she calls Satish to share her excitement over her success, only to be brushed off because he is in a meeting. When she comes home, she keeps her earnings in a box inside a cupboard, instead of depositing them in a bank account, as one might expect. Again, surely, a man with the intelligence of Satish knows that keeping savings in a bank account can earn interest, but he does not care to give her any financial advice. At night, when Satish comes back from work, he eagerly devours Shashi’s Rajma Chawal before calmly suggesting to her to close her ladoo business. Shashi defends herself, saying, this is my only shauk (passion). Satish isn’t outright controlling; instead, he slyly remarks, “Your food is only for me. Why should others enjoy it?”

Satish only nudges Shashi out of her comfort zone when it benefits him. For instance, there is a scene wherein Shashi is forced to go with Sapna to the parent-teacher meeting because Satish has an important appointment. When he informs her of this responsibility, Shashi expresses her apprehension, to which Satish replies, “Don’t be silly, Shashi, you’re not going to the jungle; they won’t eat you.” Shashi goes to the PTM to her daughter’s embarrassment, the teacher is kind enough to speak to her in Hindi and has a pleasant conversation with Shashi regarding Sapna, her daughter. However Sapna taunts Shashi on the way back for her overly warm behaviour.

Shashi’s story has a universal lesson for all women.

And that remains Shashi’s main obstacle, the fact that every time she steps out of her comfort zone, she is punished for her flaws and imperfections. She isn’t valued for who she is. Her lack of proficiency is unfairly equated to her self-worth. Her inability to pronounce the word ‘jazz’ is seen as her inability to have any good qualities. Her kindness and love are taken for granted and her ability to make her customers happy is seen as nothing more than a hobby. And this isn’t the story of just one woman, this is the story of many Indian women. The only thing stopping women like Shashi in a country like ours is the knowledge that they can. They can be whoever they want to be — a house-wife, an entrepreneur or both.

The road to independence

Things start to turn around for Shashi when she has to travel to New York all by herself to assist with niece’s wedding preparations, leaving Satish and her daughter in Pune until the ceremony. What’s different this time is that she is rewarded for her courage. She is welcomed whole-heartedly by her elder sister, Manu and her niece Radha, just as she is. She enrolls herself in an English class using her earnings from her catering business, and navigates the complex metro system in New York to reach her destination. On her first day of class, Shashi’s teacher, David Fischer (Cory Hibbs), asks her about her occupation. Shashi earnestly explains what she does in her broken English — it’s a big moment in her journey. David quickly understands what Shashi is saying, and calls her an entrepreneur, leaving all the students impressed with her.

Suddenly, Shashi sees herself in a new light. She’s no longer a housewife with a silly hobby. She is a woman of business, someone to be taken seriously, someone with self-worth. What’s worth noting here is that at this point absolutely nothing has changed in Shashi’s life. She is the same person that she was in India, but it’s the perspective that liberates her. The external validation of her achievements sparks a newfound confidence in her. The lesson for all women is clear: we must expose ourselves to different mindsets and redefine how we perceive ourselves. By recognizing the significance and value of our work, we empower ourselves to demand respect from those like Satish.

When Shashi takes the small but significant step to learn English, she finds friends, confidence, and herself.

A second boost of confidence comes when a French chef Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou), enrolled in the same class as Shashi, is romantically interested in her. Laurent finds Shashi beautiful, intelligent and brave. Contrary to Satish, Laurent is very open about her love for Shashi. And although nothing materializes with the two (not that we know of), Shashi thanks Laurent for making her feel good about herself. As the wedding approaches, Shashi’s family, Satish and the kids join them in New York. When Satish sees a confident Shashi in New York, independently leaving the house and managing her life without depending on him, he is not so much impressed but surprised at her independence, almost as if he despises it.

On the day of the wedding, Shashi makes an emotional speech to the happy couple in the presence of her friends, teacher and family. She shares her perspective on the meaning of marriage, and how when a couple cannot help one another, they must help themselves. They must take it upon themselves to help themselves. Just like Shashi. When she took the small but significant step to learn English, she found friends, confidence and herself.

Shashi’s story has a universal lesson for all women. It reminds us that we must take charge of our own destinies, encouraging and believing in ourselves despite any doubts or scepticism. It’s a reminder that our beauty, intelligence, and strength are qualities that deserve recognition and respect, even when others may fail to acknowledge them. Ultimately, Shashi’s journey exemplifies the resilience and empowerment that every woman can achieve when she embraces her own worth and potential, even when no one seems to think so.

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