As is custom, I spent this weekend devouring the book Half Girlfriend by Chetan Bhagat and also watching the movie, instead of studying for finals. I’ll start by saying that, while I have a few bones to pick with Bhagat’s writing sometimes, the movie does absolutely no justice to the book at all. I’ll start with my thoughts on the book, and then I’ll talk about the movie.
Bhagat’s Young Adult romance novel came out in 2014. It’s about a plucky young dude named Madhav Jha who does not speak English very well, falls in love with pretty-girl Riya, and eventually wins her heart after a ton of plot. Bhagat’s weakness in my opinion is that he goes so ham with the romanticism. Some of this stuff only sells because it is a romance novel. Otherwise, I would not find it cute at all. For example, do you really want a person in your life who lies about having cancer? This is Riya’s method of making sure Madhav does not go looking for her. Personally, I would say that’s a dealbreaker for a romantic partner, friend, or really anybody trying to be in my life. But it serves some plot purpose, and I guess we’ll let it slide.
On the other hand, Bhagat does fantastic character development. To digress somewhat, I wish he would apply this skill in some realm other than romance between two young people. Imagine a story about two old people told with this level of lightheartedness and fun. Or even a story about two friends told with this level of depth. There are so many platonic stories about people that deserve to be told with heart. I feel like Bhagat’s insight about characters would be radical in the context of something other than romance.
An example of how characters change in the novel would be the way Madhav’s English improves from when he begins as a college students at St. Stephen’s to when he goes to New York for his internship. This is a great illustration of that phrase his mother says about how in his family, they do not give up. It plays such a huge role in how he relates to Riya. In the beginning, you can feel how he envies Riya’s ability to speak English when he is in college and how that makes him more of an outsider to her world. Later in the book, when they are working together on his speech, it becomes a force that binds them. Riya is so proud of Madhav when he adds parts to the speech that they did not rehearse. The way their relationship gets stronger is mirrored by the way Madhav’s English gets stronger. I love how subtle this change is, but how much of an impact it has on both of them.
In the book, you also get this beautiful moment of reckoning when Madhav reads Riya’s journal at the behest of the author he gave them to. We finally get an explanation for why Riya behaves the way she does. She is not just a cowardly rich girl, as we are lead to believe. She has been hiding a lot from Madhav. Her father used to molest her as a child. She gets married and her in-laws are controlling and manipulative, which leads to her decision to divorce. Like I said, lying about cancer seemed a little desperate, but given the context, it makes sense that she feels she has no other choice. I actually like that Bhagat doesn’t make this a huge deal. He seems to be commenting that every human being has a past, even Desi women! (I know, what a groundbreaking idea!) That does not make them any less worthy of love. I like the nuance of a female character who has complicated, human experiences. It is a great contradiction to the NRI obsession with the “good little Indian girl”.
I felt pretty middling about the rest of the book. We get this dramatic scene near the end where Madhav runs two miles in the snow to catch Riya before her last song. Again, a far more radical scene if it were for a friend. The ending is cute. It’s a bit of a fairy tale to me, the guy going after the girl and all that. Personally, I have never met a 19-year-old man who gives that many fucks about just one woman. But okay, maybe in Bihar, such romance still exists. Who am I to judge?
So if I had wanted to make a movie for this book, I would have followed the novel to a T. Bhagat’s novel is basically a Hindi movie. You have your script and everything already written. You just have to follow it.
That is not what these morons did.
The first weakness of the movie is that they decided to focus on the “half” part of Half Girlfriend. Riya (Shraddha Kapoor) tells Madhav (Arjun Kapoor) she wants to be a half girlfriend, his mom guts her about having half a marriage, blah blah blah. I actually think the point of Bhagat’s novel was that these characters are not half anything. They are two whole, good human beings, but they are still learning this about themselves and each other. That’s what made the novel beautiful. It was about two people who slowly get to know each other. The movie was really clumsy about that point.
I hate how Madhav’s English doesn’t improve in the movie. It would have been a better way to showcase Arjun Kapoor’s acting. In the book, the improvement of Madhav’s English gives him agency. He gains confidence when he can give a speech. He gets to a point where he can navigate New York on his own and even has other people ask him for help with English. In the movie, they went full 90’s and made not only Madhav, but even the white girl speak Hindi. I was not impressed. In the book, Madhav gave a spectacular speech. Our village Bihari hero stands up for all of India when he tells Bill Gates to give his school just one chance, when people in the United States are given so many chances. This scene falls extremely flaccid in the movie when he gives up completely and reverts to Hindi. It comes off a bit like a dog begging for scraps, not at all the gutsy young man of the novel.
I also hate how they completely left out the fact that Riya was molested by her father. They instead decide to make some kind of feminist statement with the abused mom and the school where no girls attend. I hate when movies do this. Films never make as good a feminist statements as books (See: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). I actually think addressing the fact that Bihar is considered “backwards” by the rest of India would have been a radical point for Bollywood to acknowledge. The fact is, there are still millions of poor people in India that do not have access to education, and it is true that Indians have stereotypes about their own countrymen. That would have been a brave and honest thing to acknowledge in film. It felt as though the filmmakers did not want to bring shame to the country by portraying poverty, so they chose instead to bring shame to the country by pretending that sexism can be given a quick fix by kind white people.
The rest of the movie was incredibly boring. Our director relies too much on the montage-set-to-a-song formula, so instead of acting, we get great swaths of The Sad-Madhav Reel. They tried to be deep and have Riya walk away at the end while grabbing Madhav’s hand, which was dumb as fried shit. (Why the fuck would you take away the “lovers reunion” moment? Isn’t that the whole point of a romance? Have these people ever seen a Hindi movie?) I thought it was also a stupid decision to include a lovemaking scene in the movie. You have none of the build-up for it. Definitely not the character development. The depictions of white people lack nuance. They’re either cute NGO people or bad, mean bouncer guys. The sound mixing sucked for some reason. Riya is weirdly breathy all the time. And the singer who portrays her English singing really overdoes the husky sexy-voice shit.
All in all, a disappointing movie for a book that is as much fun as Two States. It really makes me sad because this film is one of the few depictions we get of Bihar in popular media. It would have been great if it could have been portrayed with more detail and humanity, if the film could have breathed life into the book. It looks like literature still holds the upper hand in some regards.