Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Half Girlfriend: Review

If this review of Half Girlfriend seems to fixate on matters of plot, it’s only because there isn’t much else to write about. Mohit Suri makes a particular type of film—full of rain, pain and emotional strain— but, from moment to moment, scene to scene, he isn’t the most imaginative of directors. Nor are Shraddha Kapoor or Arjun Kapoor captivating actors; the latter, in particular, has always struck me as one of the most reluctant performers in Hindi cinema. The only source of slight interest lies in seeing what happens to the characters in this film, and how they express themselves.

Expression—or the lack of it—is at the heart of this story. From the moment Madhav (Arjun Kapoor) steps onto the St. Stephen’s College campus, he’s on the back foot. The film wastes no time in making its central point—Hindi-speaking persons in the predominantly English world of higher education are often judged unfairly. This is, of course, true; you’d need a film at least a couple of degrees subtler and smarter to make a societal truth this evident un-didactic and dramatically satisfying. But in the world of Half Girlfriend, there are few half-measures. Both sides are caricatured: Madhav’s friends speak Bihari Hindi and are therefore crass; the English speakers are wealthy and insufferable.

However, if you speak both English and Hindi, you apparently have a shot at being a decent person. There’s a nice moment when Madhav, who’s besotted with Riya (Shraddha Kapoor) from when he first lays eyes on her, finds out she can speak Hindi; his relief is so pronounced I half-expected the soundtrack to break into a sitar taan of the sort used to indicate emotional release in 1950s films. In no time, the two of them become close; they kiss, and Madhav—not unreasonably—wonders if she’s become something more the label she’d given herself: a “half girlfriend”.

Even if you haven’t read the Chetan Bhagat novel that’s the source for Half Girlfriend, you may have heard about the contentious scene that arrives some 80 pages in. Madhav is sitting with his college friends, asking them how he should proceed with Riya. Their advice is to “make Bihar proud”; in short, call Riya to his room, make a move on her, and find out whether “half girlfriend” means “no sex”. This scene is reproduced almost identically in the film. The only dilution is what Madhav says when Riya rebuffs his advances: “Rehti hai toh reh, varna kat le (Either stay, or get lost).” In the book, it’s a cruder “Deti hai to de… (Either put out, or…)”.

The rest of the film seems to exist only to say: “But really, Madhav’s not a bad guy”. He wants to build toilets for female students in a school in his village—an endeavour that’s almost comically virtuous. By the time Riya enters his life again, she’s gotten over the incident in college, and the two of them seem set to walk off into the sunset, a half-Hindi, half-English song on the soundtrack. But this wouldn’t be a Suri film if the path of true love ran smooth. Cue tears, drinking, rain, self-destructive behaviour, more rain, and seven lovingly crooned songs that all sound the same.

Prominent as the Suri trademarks are, Half Girlfriend is very much a Chetan Bhagat film. All the markers of the man—the anti-intellectualism, the perfumed reek of good intentions, the ability to grind down complex issues into bite-size chunks of positivity—are present. “Madhav Jha is not a name. Madhav Jha is an attitude,” we’re told at one point. It’s surprising this line isn’t in the book: it has the sort of management-institute facileness that suits the author’s style perfectly.

This review appeared in Mint.

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