What’s a half girlfriend? Madhav Jha, Bihari bhouy, bheak in Ingliss, doesn’t quite know. Neither does college mate Riya Somani, the girl he has fallen for, who describes herself thus, with dead seriousness, without a shred of irony. They struggle, he who inhabits one part of India, she who comes from a wholly different one – he is a Hindi speaker who comes from a small town in Bihar ; she is the immaculately-turned out daughter of rich parents from New Delhi — to find an answer to that crucial question which underlies all youthful romances: do we belong?
Madhav (Arjun Kapoor) and Ria (Shraddha Kapoor) take a full two hours and some, to find out. Under Mohit Suri’s baton, and staying faithful to Chetan Bhagat’s source material from his novel of the same name, the two give us some laugh-out loud, felt moments, but which ultimately get stymied by too much sufi-fuelled song, and some mis-steps. I half liked Half-Girlfriend.
The answer to the original question is squelchy. Is a girl who keeps giving a guy a little hand-out, but keeps pulling back when asked for more, a ‘half girlfriend’? The film taps into, and speaks to the half-cooked, confused desires of a certain kind of male (in this instance North Indian/ Bihari) when he gets Madhav’s roommate at St Steven’s College, yes, modeled on that College which uses the capital c with dead seriousness, without a shred of irony, to say: ‘yeh aadha, pauna, chauthai kya hai’?
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When your hormones are surging, even a ‘half-girlfriend’, specially the girl everyone in college has an eye on, will do. Arjun Kapoor is a likeable actor, and plays the wanting-to-get-into-the-tony-redbrick-college-under-the-sports-quota Madhav with sincerity, even if it feels put on in places, and his accent keeps slipping. His gym-begotten buffness is a problem, not only because it makes him look older than he should for the part : it’s simply not the athletic leanness befitting a basketball player. Plus, the film keeps him fixed in a sort of dramatic spotlight which is Bollywood’s weakness: the ‘hero’ is always a little more than his surroundings; his pals (Vikrant Massey, especially) are never as visible as him, even if they have better lines, and say them better.
And that goes too for Shraddha, who is loosening up as she goes along but has still to discover depth. She’s far too made up and costumed for a college girl, even if her character comes from wealth: students sporting designer threads are all right, but Riya feels far too finished. And please, no, you cannot just sneak on to the top of India Gate for a little tryst with your so-called half-boyfriend, even if you are a Bollywood fantasy.
Could it have been better? The book, despite its shortcomings, feels more an organic whole : the film, which was what the book was always going to be, tries too hard. When a character says: ‘sentiyaa gaye ho ka’, not once, but twice, he is not just talking to the characters around him, they are not just having a conversation; he wants us hear him, and grin at the Bihari-ness/ desi-ness of it all.
We know. We heard you that first time. What we want is more between a guy and a girl. And we don’t want it to be buried under a song: if you find a quiet moment in the second half, let me know, and I’ll go off and find it for myself.
I enjoyed the first half. Suri knows how to create drama, and sweeps us up in places, enough for us to ignore the constructed-ness of the characters and the plot. In the second, which is doused in melodrama and swelling `gaana’, I was left with that looming question: is half better than none?