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‘Half Girlfriend’ film review: The Chetan Bhagat adaptation is a 50-50 affair

Mohit Suri’s movie based on the bestseller loses most of the misogyny but remains a plastic romance.

”Myself Madhav Jha” meets the gorgeous and wealthy Riya Somani in college, and it’s a match made in romance novel and movie heaven.

Mohit Suri’s adaptation of Chetan Bhagat’s Half Girlfriend cuts through the flab, sheds most of the misogyny, and gets to the book’s shuddering heart. Madhav (Arjun Kapoor) can barely speak English, but gets a seat in the prestigious Steven’s College in Delhi on the basis of his basketball skills. On the court, he glimpses and falls for Riya (Shraddha Kapoor), and spends the 135-minute movie, as did his novelistic predecessor, pursuing her.

The other Hindi release this week is called Hindi Medium, but that title really belongs to this film. Its lead character is a member of an erstwhile royal family in Bihar (fading in the novel, not badly off at all in the movie) whose only drawback is his inability to speak English. It’s described as a foreign tongue, but since Bhagat’s book sold many copies in English and the film dialogue has liberal sprinklings of the same hated tongue, it’s safe to assume that romance, rather than linguistic politics, drives the plot.

Tushar Hiranandani’s screenplay and Ishita Moitra Udhwani’s dialogue lose the snarky and pompous tone of the narrator in the novel and convert him into a big soft teddy bear who is transformed by his love for Riya. Arjun Kapoor, of limited acting skills but tremendous chutzpah, is therefore perfectly cast as the lumbering hero who looks far too old to be playing a college fresher but is nevertheless well suited to rising and falling in love. Glaze-eyed Shraddha Kapoor is equally well matched as a woman seen entirely through Madhav’s smitten gaze. She starts out as an object of fantasy, disappears and reappears from Madhav’s life, and is such a diaphanous character that she is almost a ghost.

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Half Girlfriend (2017).

Both the book and the movie are low on psychology, but are alert enough to leap through every available narrative hoop. Madhav tries to get over a broken heart by pitching for funds to educate girls at the school run by his mother (Seema Biswas) to no less than the richest man in the world. The most audacious moment in the movie is the arrival in Madhav’s village of Bill Gates, or rather his face morphed on a local actor’s body as though in a meme produced by a teenager. Madhav’s pitch for funds, delivered so earnestly in broken Hindi that the Bill Gates facsimile melts in appreciation, is Half Girlfriend’s most radical departure from the book.

Director Mohit Suri has a proven track record for making cloying movies about adolescent love. His one attempt to depict adult emotions, Hamari Adhuri Kahani, backfired badly, but he is on far more stable ground in Half Girlfriend. Bhagat’s novel argued that the hormones that bubble on the college campus never quite leave the air even after the characters have grown older. So it is with Madhav, who passes on a chance to acquire a full girlfriend (Rhea Chakraborty in a pleasing cameo) and continues to light candles in Riya’s memory.

Madhav’s exertions are as exhausting on the screen as they are in the book, but Suri manages to convert Bhagat’s ruminations on the Hindi-versus-English debate into a romance that has a bit more feeling than is evident on the page. The movie remains cold and manipulative, and far too heavily dependent on Raju Singh’s swooning soundtrack to suggest emotional depth. The leads are not capable of suggesting the grand emotions at work, and whenever Suri wants to tug at heart strings, he cuts to a song.

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The song Phir Bhi Tumko Chaahunga from Half Girlfriend (2017).

Bhagat’s novel suffered from the writer’s inability to imagine Riya as anything more than a half person. The film too abounds with many such half persons, including Madhav’s college friend Sailesh (Vikrant Massey) who advises him that the best way to find out Riya’s real intentions is to bed her, and Madhav’s mother, another ghost in the potential money-making machine. It’s a 50-50 affair, a movie undone by its title.

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