Coincidences and product placements galore make Half Girlfriend a dull watch.
India is in a complicated relationship with Chetan Bhagat. One section of the country buys his books and places them on bestseller charts, while the other resents his success. Five of his books have become films (including 3 Idiots, a blockbuster starring Aamir Khan). Bhagat has dived into different pools: He writes columns, he’s written a screenplay, he’s judged reality TV shows, he delivers motivational speeches, he’s been listed by Time magazine as one of the most influential people in the world and he has appeared on Forbes India’s list of top celebrities.
And yet, Bhagat is one of the most trolled, most reviled. It’s like India can’t make up its mind about the guy. Whenever Bhagat announces his new book, the air is rife with textual tension. Will the critics – finally – like it? Will the junta – finally – snub it? What explains his popularity? Because, according to him, he “writes in simple English”? What explains his unpopularity? Because his books are (not simple but) simplistic? Which means: Are we okay taking his books to our beds, but not displaying them on our bookshelves? Is everyone reading Bhagat secretly? India’s got 99 problems, and Bhagat is one of them.
But, at the cost of sounding immodest, yours truly has finally cracked it: Bhagat is India’s ‘half author’. Half author – what does that mean? Let me paraphrase a dialogue from the film Half Girlfriend (based on Bhagat’s book): “Half author maane blogger se thoda zada, author se thoda kam” (more than a blogger, less than an author). Now, after having solved the Bhagat conundrum in less than 300 words (a hat doff to the man’s erstwhile newspaper columns, which weekly solve India’s problems), let’s talk about his latest contribution (where he debuts as a co-producer): the film Half Girlfriend, directed by Mohit Suri, starring Arjun Kapoor and Shraddha Kapoor.
Bhagat’s and Suri’s is a match made in heaven. In fact, it’s surprising that it took them so long to collaborate. Bhagat: someone who writes screenplays masquerading as prose. Suri: someone who makes music videos masquerading as films. And, as expected, they create magic right away. Half Girlfriend is centred on Madhav (Arjun Kapoor) and Riya (Shraddha Kapoor). Madhav, a boy from Bihar’s Simrao village, gets admission in Delhi’s St. Steven’s College. Riya, a Delhi girl, is his batchmate. “Coming from village area,” Madhav struggles to talk in English; he’s gotten admission through the sports quota. Riya, in contrast, is a big city girl. She’s also the anti-Jaadu (the friendly alien from Koi Mil Gaya). If Jaadu got his mojo from a bright sunny day, Riya’s thing is grey skies sending down rains. No really. Whenever it rains (and it rains a lot in this film), this girl is out, blissfully getting wet. Soon, Madhav and Riya become friends: they watch films together, shop and hang out on India Gate’s terrace. So far not (so) bad.
But that is only a minor consolation, because Half Girlfriend’s wheels come off soon. A crucial plot point – Riya moving to Patna to track Madhav down – makes a sum total of zero sense, because Madhav doesn’t live in Patna, but Simrao, which is more than 800 kms away. That’s a bit like moving to Mumbai hoping to find someone in Aurangabad. But that’s not it. Half Girlfriend, like any bad film of the ’90s, banks on a bunch of coincidences. Whenever Suri and Tushar Hiranandani (the screenplay writer) run into a roadblock, they pull out a magic trick out of their bag: a chance encounter, an accidental sighting, a long-held hunch. Watching Half Girlfriend, at times, does feel like watching a magic trick – minus the fun, drama and intrigue.
Moreover, Arjun and Shraddha share zero chemistry; the scenes between them are so generic and bland that the film’s crux – Madhav’s love for Riya, a love so great that it propels him to move from India to the US – feels unconvincing. Besides, like rains, there’s a lot of running in the film. Madhav runs in different parts of the world in different circumstances. He runs after a bus. He runs to reach a bar. He collides with a car, gets up and runs again. He runs in Delhi. He runs in Patna. He runs in New York. What is this strange world, you wonder for a moment, where they have no taxis, autorickshaws, Ola or Uber? Then you remember that this is a Bhagat-Suri world and you instantly feel bad.
Then, given that this is a Suri film, there are songs, and there’s an Arijit Singh song. The Singh song – ‘Main Phir Bhi Tumko Chaahunga’ – is a character in itself, resurfacing, again and again, in scene after scene. Then, given that this is a Suri film, the hero hits the bottle. And in one particular scene, my favourite, all Suri-isms come to life: a hero drinking and running, in the rain, while a song plays in the background. Half Girlfriend also subverts Exposition 101. In a vital scene, Madhav explains Riya’s motives, in great detail (which was obvious anyway), to a bouncer in a New York bar. And then there are product placements. Madhav and Riya watch a film (PVR Pictures). Madhav books a flight (MakeMyTrip.com). Riya gets a job in Patna (Close-Up toothpaste).
But Half Girlfriend’s most ingenious product placement benefits not a corporate but the current government. Madhav gets a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (in a scene featuring a bizarre computer-generated Bill Gates) to make toilets in his village’s school, so that girls are encouraged to study. Later, in the film’s final segment, Madhav, while interning with the United Nations, gives a speech in New York, explaining the project’s importance, saying his views are echoed by the country’s prime minister who believes in “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao”. It’s a masterstroke: A plug for Narendra Modi’s government, battling accusations of imposing Hindi hegemony, in a film whose hero only speaks Hindi. It’s a perfect fit: inadequacy of policy implementation meets inadequacy of filmmaking.