Review: Half Girlfriend

Early in Mohit Suri’s Half Girlfriend, based on Chetan Bhagat’s novel of the same name, we see a to-do list of items chalked out on a blackboard (in very good handwriting, it must be said) in order for one to acquire good command of English: watch English movies, listen to English songs, read English books etc. If it were only that easy, especially for someone from a far-flung town in Bihar trying to … impress his girl from the creamiest social layer in south Delhi? Nah, that’s been done before. 

Our hero Madhav Jha (Arjun Kapoor), the burly basketball player who gets into a not-so-suspiciously named university named St. Steven’s through its sports quota, aspires to be the change his small town, Simrao, needs. “Myself coming from village,” he says in front of an interview panel of three men with stiff upper lips (the sort whose day-to-day living room conversations would commonly include sentences like “exasperated farrago of outright lies”). But he is not the stereotypical working-class struggler you see in movies like Raanjhanaa. He has royal blood, this aspiring sociologist and scion of a yesteryear Raja who has been brought up by a single mother, Rani Sahiba (Seema Biswas). She has taught him never to accept defeat but to defeat defeat — a weak line that attempts to string together the whole film — and speak from the heart. 

And so he does, upon seeing the beautiful Riya Somani (Shraddha Kapoor) checking off several trademark Bollywood heroine must-dos such as walking into the rain in slow motion, singing to herself and coming down a flight of stairs dressed in designer gowns. She huffs and puffs only in English, has dysfunctional parents (extra credits for not casting a drunk Ronit Roy as the violent father) and dreams of singing in a New York City bar. All this emotional outpouring is done, strangely enough, atop New Delhi’s India Gate, where Riya seems to have easily snuck up for many years (CISF be damned). In addition to rolling my eyes after cliched ‘cute’ exchanges, I was concerned about a potential bullet from a security guard’s gun whizzing past the couple.  

In a rather refreshing manner, Riya does not shun him for his (forced) Bihari accent replete with “noejj”, “toejj”, “bhery” and comically misplaced gerunds. At her birthday party, set in her extravagant backyard, she tells him: “This is how my life is, but this is not me.” But Madhav is overly naive and gets lopsided ideas about love, consent and relationships from his half-baked roommates. 

Never mind the clandestine crawl of his hands over hers in the dark of a theatre or his tight wrist hold and finishing shove when in a fight. Boys will be boys, as some political patriarchs say up north, right? It was Riya, after all, who allowed him to  became her hangout buddy, her movie companion, her sober friend-cum-driver who ensures she gets back home safe but also tries to slip in a kiss when she’s visibly high. She admits that she is halfway to becoming something more than a friend and hence the ridiculous justification of the movie’s title. 

Madhav, otherwise would be the perfect role model for his prohibition-imposed State (a teetotaler) and our central government (‘beti bachao, beti padhao’, he ends his speech in the United Nations a few years after college. Yes, you read that right). 

To be fair, Madhav’s pursuit of championing social change was right there from the beginning. It only took a breaking of the heart to set him on course again. After the inevitable reunion in the second half that also involves a hilariously-bad VFX cutout of Bill Gates’ face, the story takes a tragic twist and escorts us from Patna, Simrao and all the way to New York City for a predictable finish. 

At some point, it felt as though this film turned from plain water into a strange cocktail of Karan Johar with splashes of Imtiaz Ali. There are eleven songs (all of them hardly impressive), rendered independently by six different composers — Phir Bhi Tumko Chaahunga” by Arijit Singh and “Stay a Little Longer” by Anushka Sahaney stand out because they are relentlessly rehashed every 15 minutes.  

Despite the heavy baggage of Bollwyood cliche, both Arjun Kapoor and Shraddha Kapoor give spirited performances that hit the ‘just right’ spot and make Half Girlfriend, well, half-likable. They have perhaps cracked an acceptable formula to portray Chetan Bhagat characters. Only time will tell when they announce the cast of One Indian Girl

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A sleuth’s tale

Book review: Arthur & Sherlock — Conan Doyle and the creation of Holmes

It was 130 years ago that the world was introduced to a lanky, sharp-eyed sleuth by the name of Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, John Watson. He certainly was not the first of his kind to appear in literature. So what makes him — with his distinctive pipe and deerstalker cap — the default image of the very word ‘detective’? (Even today,  when you punch in the word on Google, it is Holmes’ silhouette that pops up first).

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Michael Sims’ Arthur & Sherlock — Conan Doyle and the creation of Holmes (Bloomsbury, 2017) narrates the fascinating tale behind the conception of the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV. Vigorously researched, the book contains a good deal about Arthur Conan Doyle’s childhood and upbringing in the Scottish city of Edinburgh, his natural affinity for storytelling and most importantly, how his time period coincided with the growth of scientific reasoning and the shift from poetry to fiction as a respectable form of literature — all of which were essential to his work’s success.

Sims divides his book into three parts: Conan Doyle’s early years and entry into medicine, his literary influences and eventual rise to fame with Sherlock Holmes. A good amount of information comes from Conan Doyle’s memoirs and Sims has carefully pointed out tributes the former has paid to authors, especially Edgar Allen Poe, in his writings. Some similarities in sentences (of Doyle’s) border on plagiarism and would not be taken so kindly today. But then, even the concept of copyright was unheard of in Georgian and Victorian times.

Conan Doyle’s portrayal, his rise from abject poverty to a not-so-successful physician to infamous author, is most empathetic. He lives on a shoestring budget in Portsmouth, subsists on canned beef and bread, stocks up basic furniture on credit and struggles to find patients. Yet, he refuses financial help from his mother. One can almost relate, even today, to the plight of a bachelor, fresh out of college, trying to find his own feet in another city. But what a leap of faith it must have been, in the 1870s, to pause studies and take up an unpaid internship as a doctor onboard a ship sailing in the Arctic or along the western African coastline. He slowly realises he can make more money through these experiences than slogging it out to become a surgeon of repute. That too turns out to be easier said than done; his first attempts at short stories face rejection or return a pittance.

The storyteller in Sims seems to be a trivia aficionado, embedding gems of information that some might find inconsequential: how the surname Doyle derived from the Anglo Norman D’Oil, a short history of Edinburgh’s slums, the etymology of ‘diphtheria’, the story of Beeton behind the Beeton’s Christmas Annual in which Sherlock Holmes debuted (this man also famously published the controversial novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin). But the tales, especially of Conan Doyle’s mentor, the legendary Dr Joseph Bell whom he acknowledges as the primary inspiration for Holmes, and of the genre’s precursors (Poe’s Auguste C Dupin, Voltaire’s Zadig and an unlikely biblical protagonist) are unputdownable.

Despite all the heavy stuffing, Sims’ writing is most accessible and perhaps, at times, lacks the exciting punch it should ideally have had. William Dalrymple once compared his style of writing after arduous research to Chinese cooking, “where three-quarters of the time is spent on chopping things up and the actual cooking takes very little time.” Sims seems to have overdone his cooking with Arthur & Sherlock in certain chapters, with redundant statements (“Thomas Babington Macaulay was Arthur’s favourite writer” appears many times), rambling into inconsequential tangents that force us to exclaim like Sherlock Holmes himself: “What the deuce would it be of any use to me?” He has also left us turning pages in vain, in search of why Conan Doyle ‘killed’ his detective at Reichenbach and how public pressure forced his revival. We see paragraphs dedicated to origins of Gregson, Lestrade and Irene Adler but not Moriarty!

In all fairness, Sims’ work is nothing less than a labour of love and an extraordinary resource for fans of crime fiction. It is a must-have for all Sherlockians and possibly, for history buffs impinged with some love for literature.

An edited version of this piece can be found here in The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.