This is how Mohit Suri’s Half Girlfriend starts: Madhav Jha (Arjun Kapoor), a student from Bihar, struggles to speak English during his college interview. Later he feels only half as good as the fancy Riya Somani (Shraddha Kapoor), who he adores.
While watching these scenes, it occurred to me that Half Girlfriend is something of a companion piece to Hindi Medium (this week’s other release). At their core, both films have a class and language barrier. But this Mohit Suri adaptation of the (nauseatingly titled) Chetan Bhagat book is the love story of two people who breach the language hurdle and bond over basketball.
Even till the end I remained unclear who Madhav is: Around Riya he’s a buffoon, he’s a puppet in the hands of his roommate, sometimes he’s a boy proud of his identity whose English remains rusty even after three years in an elite New Delhi English Medium institution, and he’s a mama’s boy with royal lineage and a vision for equal education.
The story is told through Madhav’s eyes and while there is a deliberately written in line about educating the girl child, it’s mostly about his obsessive love for Riya.
Riya’s terrific sports wear and hairstyles are more noticeable than her basketball moves, but it’s enough for Madhav. Popular, posh and also hurting because of the violence at home, Riya loses herself in song. To be correct, she sings one English song – ‘Stay A Little Longer’ – throughout the film.
Riya harbours a dream of becoming a jazz singer in New York. And what’s Madhav’s dream – to be with Riya. In an icky scene where she’s resting in his hostel room, he goes all psycho on her, leading to the half girlfriend fully breaking up with him. Cut to her inviting Madhav to her wedding to rich NRI type.
Madhav now pathetically mopes around for years after their bizarrely described half girlfriend-boyfriend relationship dials down to zero. He graduates, returns to mummy (Seema Biswas) and finally finds a mission – get funding from Bill Gates to expand the family-run all-boys school to include girls as well.
And then one day, when he’s in Patna to make a presentation to the Bill Gates Foundation, he bumps into Riya. Riya helps Madhav with his English language presentation to the Foundation, he introduces her to his hometown Simrao, the school, his suspicious and protective mother. It seems the half status might is growing into full, till Riya runs off again.
Since I have not read the book, I didn’t expect Bill Gates to show up in the film (his bespectacled smiling face is superimposed on someone else’s neck, inadvertently giving us the one laugh-out-loud moment this film urgently needed). Neither was I aware of the contents of Riya’s goodbye letter that crush Madhav and propel him out of his inertia to New York City.
Those who have read Half Girlfriend say this is quite a faithful adaptation, and perhaps even better than Chetan Bhagat’s novel. I shudder to think how laborious the book must have been given the paper-thin story.
Maybe it’s described best by Madhav’s roomie Sailesh (Vikrant Massey, a single spark in dullsville): a little more than friend and quite a bit less than boyfriend. Whatevs!
Arjun Kapoor’s expressions make sudden shifts, and the changing length of his beard ensures you notice this even more. He’s described himself as the “quintessential Chetan Bhagat hero”, but Madhav Jha is not heroic and Kapoor plays him like a nothing more than a country bumpkin and stalker. As for the part of Riya, any twenty-something actress could have pulled off this two dimensional part.
Mohit Suri keeps the narrative ticking along at a steady pace, though surprisingly for a Suri film, the music is a let down. The costumes loudly proclaim “wealthy, urban” versus “provincial, simple”.
A great deal of effort has gone into making the basketball scenes authentic. If only some of that had gone into improving the dialogue, especially the incredibly awkward English lines, and Arjun Kapoor’s Bihari accent.
Half Girlfriend is strictly for fans of the book or the two leads, because at best it’s quarter tolerable.