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Gaslighting is a kind of domestic violence, and how it affects a woman is well portrayed in the Bollywood movie, English Vinglish.
Remember that classmate of yours who repeatedly called you ‘fat’ and then accused of being ‘hypersensitive’ if you felt bad? Or that boss of yours who told you that you were ‘overthinking’ when you politely confronted him about the sexist joke that he cracked during the lunch? Chances are that you are a victim of gaslighting.
As per Wikipedia, gaslighting is “manipulating someone by psychological means into doubting their own sanity”. It is a form of emotional abuse that stifles a person’s self-esteem and makes him/her vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.
The person who engages in gaslighting is called a ‘gaslighter’ while the victim is called a ‘gaslightee’. A lot of Bollywood films explore physical and emotional abuse but Gauri Shinde’s ‘English Vinglish’ deserves a special mention because it focuses on a different kind of emotional abuse.
In the film, Sridevi plays Shashi, a homemaker who also happens to run a small laddoo business. Her husband, Satish, is a charming man. He is educated. He is romantic. He doesn’t hit her. He doesn’t shout at her. A man like Satish can never abuse his wife, right?
Wrong! In her book ‘The Gaslight Effect‘, Dr. Robin Stern talks about gaslighters who are always ‘nice’ to their victims but are as dangerous as abusers who directly intimidate their victims. Satish doesn’t fit into the stereotype of an abuser but he still manages to make Shashi feel unworthy.
As the film progresses, he cracks ‘jokes’ on Shashi’s inability to communicate in English. His jokes and jibes are so frequent that even their daughter starts feeling embarrassed by the fact that Shashi cannot read, write or talk in English. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film, Shashi struggles to communicate with her daughter’s Principal and the girl humiliates her.
Satish is a gaslighter because he manages to convince Shashi that she doesn’t deserve love and respect. Shashi is warm, funny and compassionate but Satish cannot see any of these qualities. Shashi always feels that there’s something wrong in the way he treats her but she dismisses her feelings because Satish’s comments make her doubt her own intuition. She starts believing that she is less worthy and signs up for English-speaking classes. She meets some wonderful people who appreciate her for her culinary skills, her intelligence, her laddoo business, her beauty, her open-mindedness and her passion. She eventually learns English and manages to impress her husband and daughter.
Fortunately, she realizes that she deserves to be treated with respect…even if she cannot speak English. In a moving speech, Shashi says that those who truly love you will never humiliate or mock you. With this statement, Shashi breaks free from the cycle of gaslighting. She might have signed up for the English-speaking classes to prove that she is a worthy person but thanks to her new friends, she starts believing in herself and stops seeking approval from Satish.
Dr. Stern says that as long as a person believes that he/she is not good enough, he/she will be always vulnerable to gaslighting. The only way to end gaslighting is to know that as long as you are not harming others, you do not need to do anything to be treated with basic respect and dignity. Your worth shouldn’t be based on speaking a language, looking a particular way or earning a certain amount of salary.
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