Sridevi’s performance in English Vinglish isn’t just about an actor’s skill, but about a style of acting that we rarely see on screen anymore

The unanimous praise Sridevi has received for her performance in English Vinglish — even those who’ve had issues with this charming film (and I raise my hand sheepishly) have had no issues about how the actor embodies a middle-class, middle-aged housewife — makes me happy for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s fantastic to be reminded of a style of performing that very few actors are capable of anymore, a style that harks back to mime and our classical dance, a style that’s a heightened form of silent-film acting.

When I mentioned this earlier, some people (fans of Sridevi, I presume) took offence about the ‘silent-film acting’ part, and I think I know why. That style of exaggerated performance is seen as overdone and undesirable today, where acting has come to be considered good only if it is ‘subtle’ and ‘nuanced’. (Actually, we may have gotten to a point where anything in a film is considered good only if it’s ‘subtle’ and ‘nuanced’)

But there are all kinds of silent-film acting, with different levels of exaggeration, and what Sridevi does is just enough to render dialogue or explanation unnecessary. This is not the silent-film acting of far-flung arms and clasped bosoms, but the kind where a normal expression (one that would have been expressed without emphasis by, say, Shabana Azmi) is imbued with just the right amount of highlighting so that we register this emotion without being slapped on the face with it. It’s marvellously direct — and it’s there in the scene where her insensitive husband declares in front of family that his wife was born to cook. Her reaction — which seems to say “Is there no end to the extent you will go to humiliate me? I mean, I’m standing right here, right in front of you!” — is enclosed in the gentlest of quotation marks. Every single person in the audience knows what that face is thinking, what it’s saying without saying. This is a beautiful instance of silent-film acting, and it doesn’t need an intertitle.

Sridevi, in the days she was the No. 1 heroine, was rarely called to exhibit this dimension of her talent. She was asked, primarily, to do the other kind of silent-film acting, the wildly exaggerated kind. Of course, she was very good at that too — it’s not difficult to see why Kamal Haasan, once, called her an excellent bag of tricks — and she gives us just a glimpse of that self when her young son asks her to imitate Michael Jackson’s dance moves.

This performance is so pleasurable because it reminds you of livewire actors such as Farida Jalal and Juhi Chawla, who are often dismissed as “spontaneous”, without the acknowledgement that this spontaneity is its own kind of talent (if not technique).

The other reason I’m pleased about this performance being so widely noticed is that it stems from a solidly written part. The character exists three-dimensionally on paper, and the actor then endows it with flesh and blood. That’s the only way good performances — namely, performances that leave you with the feeling that you’re seeing a fully-formed person on screen — can happen. If the role is badly written, the actor can do nothing. We saw this recently with Kareena Kapoor in Heroine. All we can do is note how well she laughs or how convincingly she cries — we note the bits and pieces, but these don’t accrue into a convincing character.

I guess what I’m saying is that as good as Sridevi is, Gauri Shinde, the director of English Vinglish, is equally responsible for the success of the character. A third reason I feel really happy about the notices Sridevi is getting is that it’s a very Indian performance. Very often, we take Western standards of movie evaluation as our own. We denounce melodrama. We laugh at songs and dances. We sneer at loud background scores. And when it comes to acting, we praise the subtle and nuanced interpreters of emotion.

This is not wrong, but in exclusively doing so, we are turning our backs on a cinematic tradition that goes back to — yes — silent cinema. I don’t place much faith in the numerous awards handed out by various publications every year, but I hope Sridevi wins each and every one of them, for reminding us not just about one actor’s skill but also a style of performance that rose from the face and the body and spoke to the farthest reaches of the audience.

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