Half-Girlfriend & Hindi Medium: Made in England, Ship to Delhi

Nikhil Thiyyar

Two Bollywood releases attempt to tackle the discrimination that people who can't speak English face in affluent circles. Only one succeeds

Let’s start by stating an obvious but awkward truth. The national language of India is English. Atal Bihari Vajpayee may have addressed the UN General Assembly in Hindi. Kapil Sharma may exhort us to speak the language. Candidates who are giving the civil services exam may declare that a qualifying section on English comprehension is sacrilege. In Mumbai, every shop has to declare its name in Marathi, even though more people can read English than Marathi. Indian politicians whose kids attend elite English medium schools want the plebeians they rule to souse in their mother tongues. Despite the efforts of our pseudo-nationalistic political class to impose Hindi as a pan-Indian substitute, the truth is that English rules the roost. There is no language that holds as much social currency as the Queen’s language. Just ask the scores of rural students who attend ‘personality development’ classes after paying a fat sum of money. In India having a personality is equivalent to speaking English fluently. If you think this is not true then try to recollect the last time you judged someone for their poor pronunciation or inability to write in English properly (here’s looking at women on Tinder). Alternatively, think of the hilarity that ensued when Shashi Tharoor used the word farrago to defend himself after Republic TV published a slanderous allegation against him. We were not impressed by the fact that he used an obscure word but that he used an obscure word that most English speakers including this writer had never heard of. The most potent symptom of this language apartheid is the fact that there is not a single well-paying job in the country that does not require at least some degree of fluency in the English language.

The month of May saw two movies that tried to broach this socio-cultural issue, with varying degrees of success. The big ticket release was the movie adaptation of Chetan Bhagat’s book Half-Girlfriend. The book was Bhagat’s interpretation of the class conflict that arises between native Hindi speakers and those who live in a Vasant Kunj farmhouse. No matter what pompous literary critics might say of Bhagat, the fact is that he appeals to a vast number of readers. His stories might have zero nuance and the English used in his books maybe straight from a Rapidex book but the fact is that he got a whole generation of people who were not readers to pick up a book. That is an accomplishment in itself. This is not to say that the movies based on his books are all awesome. Only 3 idiots, Kai Po Che and to some degree 2 states can count as intelligent adaptations of his work. These movies have much to owe to their directors who created something genuinely credible out of cardboard source material. Movies such as One night at the call centre and Half-Girlfriend fall into the category of abysmally dumb adaptations. 

The problem with the cinematic adaptation of Half-Girlfriend reveals itself from scene one itself. We have Arjun Kapoor trying to speak Bihari accented Hindi in what is supposed to be an interview and failing marvelously. Arjun’s impersonation of a Bihari is exactly how you imagine a rich Bandra boy would sound like if he were trying to mimic a boy from Darbhanga. Rather than coming across as authentic, his accent is one of the most irritating bits of the movie. Given that the movie is determined from the start to be a ho-hum adaptation everything else that follows is not surprising. Riya Somani played by what is probably a highly stoned Shraddha Kapoor is a rich South Delhi girl who only travels in a Rolls Royce Phantom. She lives in a mansion where bedrooms have chandeliers and the swimming pools are bigger than a football field. Despite living a privileged life, Riya is unhappy because she is a whimsical pixie who gets married because she is heartbroken unlike the rest of rich South Delhi girls who cope with heartbreak by eating bricks of Haagen Daaz ice cream. There is also that literally monumentally stupid bit where the film’s protagonists climb onto the terrace of India Gate if such a thing is possible and then tell each other sad tales from their childhood. That’s right they go for some quiet alone time on what is possibly Delhi’s most guarded and barricaded monuments. It is somewhere around this point that the film derails completely. Whatever ensues next is the cinematic equivalent of waterboarding. Half-girlfriend is a traumatic experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by one amusing moment. It involves a computer-generated image of the face of Bill Gates being superimposed on some random white man. The CGI was so laughably bad that everyone in the audience burst out laughing instantaneously. Such are the meager joys of this ‘literary adaptation’. Many youngsters will go to watch Half Girlfriend presuming that it is an ideal first date movie. Word of advice: If your date likes it, cut off all contact and never go on a second date with them. 

The second movie that deals with the Hindi and English language divide is perhaps the better one of the lot. Not shackled with the baggage of having a Chetan Bhagat novel as source material, the Saket Chaudhry directed Hindi Medium is that rare movie that explores the morbid obsession that Delhi nurtures towards the English language. The film captures the disruption that ensues when new money meets old money. Raj Batra (Irrfan Khan) is a well to do boutique owner who is happy with his life in the crowded bylanes of Old Delhi. His wife Mita (Saba Qamar) is insistent that they admit their daughter to an elite English medium school and in order to do this they move out of their Chandni Chowk home and relocate to Vasant Vihar. The movie begins as a comment on how those who get educated in Hindi medium schools suffer from a deep sense of inferiority that can only be cured by an English education. The movie navigates this terrain in a surefooted manner. It depicts in a painfully humorous manner the sort of ostracism and ridicule that the highfalutin types inflict on those who do not speak English in a ‘propah’ manner. There is a telling scene in which a neighbour of Mita ridicules her for mispronouncing elite. The scene stealer in the film has to be Deepak Dobriyal who educates the well-moneyed couple about the harsh realities of slum life. On the surface level, Hindi level is a crowd-pleasing entertainer but more than that it is about the pains of trying to be upwardly mobile in a society where everything is heavily ossified and stratified. It’s scathing commentary on the madness that is nursery school admissions was much needed. All said and done it is the film’s layered treatment of the language apartheid that English speakers wreck on Hindi medium types that stays with you till the end.