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.