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My heroine is the hero
If there is one person responsible for bringing Sridevi - a mother of two who had turned her back on the movies for 15 years - back into public consciousness, it is Gauri Shinde. The svelte, frizzyhaired director of Sridevi's comeback vehicle English Vinglish, who looks to be a welcome addition to the growing list of female filmmakers, counts herself lucky to have landed the actress-in-retirement in her debut film itself.
While writing the script, Sridevi was strictly off-limits. "We weren't even thinking of her. We didn't know each other but somehow we clicked, " she says. "Love at first sight" is how she describes their first meeting. "That's what actually happens when two people meet without any preconceived agenda or planning and fall in love, " says Shinde whose favourite Sridevi films are not the commercial blockbusters she is most known for but "little gems such as Sadma, Mr India and Lamhe".
English Vinglish, a feel-good comedy about a housewife struggling with her English speech, couldn't have found a better protagonist than Sridevi, whose own difficulty with both Hindi and English languages is somewhat legendary. Yet, it was not Sridevi who was the real inspiration for the script but Shinde's mother who turned out to be her biggest reference point.
"My mom had a problem with English. That's how I got the idea. I took a few relatable incidents that happened to her, like the jazz dance scene that you see in the trailer. Something like that had happened to her and we had all laughed, " says Shinde. More than the language which has been used as an instrument for comedy, Shinde reckons that deep within English Vinglish's real themes are insecurities and confidence issues.
"Language is there, " she says. "But it's used as a medium. The larger point is that we are trying to fit in all the time. English in India is all-pervasive. If you can't speak it, you are not cool. We always have one or two people in our family or among our social circle who have this issue with language. They could learn to speak English properly but something prevents them from doing so. "
She explains, "My mom, for instance, could have learnt if she had tried but it's just the confidence. It takes that one little step to overcome it. " Personally, she feels people should be accepted the way they are. "Whether you know English or not, be proud of who you are. "
Despite all that, the film is far from being a close translation of her mother's life. "It's not autobiographical. That would be too boring, " she says.
Having worked on the film for over two years, she says the labour has exhausted her. "I will be relieved once it is out, " she says, referring to the release. What's worrying her more though is her family's reaction. "That's going to be my big nervous moment. "
Her parents, culturally and literarily inclined, have had a decisive influence on her life. It was her father, she recalls, who took her out for her first movie ever, The Sound of Music. Growing up in the open and green swathes of Pune was refreshing, says Shinde who excelled in basketball and badminton in her college years. "It was a normal household. I had two brothers who went on to become engineers. There were lots of cats around, " she smiles. Her parents prodded her towards an academic life but never discouraged her from getting into films.
"In college, I was very lukkha (loser), having enrolled in commerce. I thought I should do something else. So, I started working. It was actually my father who said that the creative field would be more suited to my temperament. He was the first to discover that aspect in me. My biggest fear was ending up in a 9 to 5 job. "
She decided to come to Mumbai to look for work. "My father was happy but worried. He helped me move, coming down personally to drop me and didn't leave until I was settled. " It was here, while working for the ad agency Lowe Lintas that she met her future husband, ad man R Balki who later made such films as Cheeni Kum and Paa.
Shinde, who married Balki in 2007, says he first spotted her in the office lift and pursued her from that point, "much to my annoyance". He turned out to be quite a persistent lover. "It was like a regular romance, nothing much, " she says, bashfully.
Since both enjoyed watching cinema, little wonder then that their first date was at the movies. "We are huge fans of Kajol. Dushman had just released and we went to watch it. We still remind each other of that day. In fact, that's the only date we still follow. " While films may be one bonding point, the other could be their mutual love for children. Whether it is Cheeni Kum, Paa or now English Vinglish, they create important roles for kids. "We are fond of children, " she says, quickly adding, "Other people's, that is. If we had our own we wouldn't be dealing with them, I guess. "
Balki is not only a doting husband but also a strong support system to her. Yet, they are only marginally involved in each other's films. "He is definitely more involved in my work than I am in his. I do whatever little bits as his wife. In Paa, I took care of Vidya's (Balan) look. "
Influenced by the films of Woody Allen and Hrishikesh Mukherjee because of their focus on "people, families and relationships", Shinde says a filmmaker is only successful if he/she is original. It irks her to be clubbed in the league of female directors whose subject is women-oriented. "A journalist recently asked me, 'Why do all women directors want to make female-centric films? I said first, let's correct that question because I don't think all women directors are doing that. Zoya Akhtar and Farah Khan make films from the male perspective. What you can say is that their heroines are strong. In my case, my heroine is the hero, " she says.
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