This is a lazy Friday post, it’s been a bit of a busy week at work. But it’s nice to have a chance to revisit a film that isn’t exactly deep and perfect, but is still interesting and worth talking about a little bit.
There’s a lot that could be better about this film. Casting for one thing. Really just one character. Rohit Roy is perfect, Amrita Singh is beyond perfect, Revathy is lovely, and Arjun is unexpectedly excellent in a role practically designed for him. But Alia, Alia is a WEIRD WEIRD choice!!!! In so many ways! She is supposed to play a strong confident woman, and she was barely 21. She is supposed to play a southerner, and she is so northern, she’s German. It just makes NO SENSE. Which isn’t to say that she does a bad job, she just doesn’t do as surprisingly perfect a job as everyone else around her.
The same could be said for the director, Abhishek Varman. He is fine, does a good workmanlike job. After spending 4 years in training as an assistant director to a variety of talents on a variety of films. Absolutely acceptable background and talent level for a small rom-com. The problem is, this didn’t have to be a small rom-com. The cast and the characters and the story had, hidden within it, the possibility of something really unique in Indian film. If there had been a stronger more interesting actress in Alia’s role to help hold up her end of the story, preferably a southern actress to make that north-south conflict clearer and perhaps lead to a cross over hit. And if there had been a director with a touch of darkness, with the sure hand to draw out the hidden parts of this story and make us look at them directly, it could have been something more like Bobby or Ishaaqzaade or even Kaatru Veliyai. Where the audience slowly sees that the “true love” is also a way of escaping the dark world they are living in.
But, as it is, we are left with a pleasant love story that has another story just off to the edges, not quite brought forward.
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The surface story is hardly a story. A shy engineering type boy, Arjun Kapoor, and a confident marketing type girl, Alia Bhatt, meet at the exclusive Indian Institute of Management. They have both chosen to go to school far from home, Arjun from Delhi to Ahmedabad, Alia from Chennai to Ahmedabad. Not quite as far. They fall in love and are together through out the training course, practically living together in his dorm room.
At graduation, the parents meet for the first time and it does not go perfectly. But they continue with their plans, Alia moves back home and gets a job in Chennai. Arjun follows her and also gets a job in Chennai so they can be together in his apartment, and he can slowly win over her family. He succeeds, and then it is time for her to come to Delhi and meet his family. It is hard, she resists the northern attitudes towards dowry and clashes with his mother who was looking for an obedient daughter-in-law, not a working woman. But eventually she wins over his mother. And then things go wrong when the families meet up again in neutral Bombay in order to get serious about planning the wedding. Arjun’s mother makes a fuss over dowry again and implies that they should be grateful to get her son for their daughter. Alia and her parents are insulted and storm off. Arjun is miserable, but then is surprised when his estranged father helps them to reunite. And they are finally married, following full southern rituals.
That’s the surface story, what is promised by the title “2 States”. A couple who meet in limbo, in a state where neither of them are from, in grad school where their parents can’t see them. And then, slowly, bring the two sides of their lives together across the gaping north south border.
It’s an interesting story, and a useful one for those of us who are outsiders to Indian society, a harmless simple introduction to the basics of North versus South culture. And Alia and Arjun have surprisingly good chemistry, she manages to pull off the focused intelligent excited young student and then young career woman, intrigued by the shy awkward smart guy in her class. And Arjun manages to pull off the student whose still face and few words hide depth and a quick sudden fall into love. And a young man with the patience it to tutor her brother, drink with her father, help her mother with her singing lessons, and on and on.
But it’s with Amrita that Arjun has the best chemistry. When they are together, he immediately turns into the spoiled little Punjabi boy who is devoted to, and a little scared of, his mother. I could easily watch an entire movie just of them. Especially when, halfway through, it starts to switch into a whole different unexpected story.
This movie could have been a brilliant exploration of the life of the child of an abusive home. There are little hints early on, Arjun’s shyness, his decision to go to school far away from home, an avoidance of talking about why his earlier romance failed, and so on. But it is in his first visit home to Delhi that more and more of the gaps are filled in. He wants his mother to move out and move in with him. His mother’s sister visits but makes sure to ask if her husband is home. They go to a family wedding, and his father does not join them.
This is a very specific kind of trapped in an abusive marriage. His mother came from a good family, and a large family, that’s why she wants to stay in Delhi and be close to them. But she eloped with a military man, meaning she was on her own after marriage. Still invited to the family events, still friendly with her sisters, but without the kind of family support she might have had if it had been a marriage with family approval. And without the self-confidence she might have had otherwise, this was her choice and it was a bad one, she deserved to live with it. Especially now, as her husband was out of the military and they were left to live a somewhat uncertain life on his pension. Beyond that, it was the same as any other abusive marriage. Rohit Roy fades in and out of Amrita and Arjun’s lives, hardly noticed. He doesn’t care enough to go to Arjun’s graduation (another early hint of problems) or to his wife’s family’s wedding. They have learned to live as though he doesn’t exist, to ignore him until they can’t ignore him any more. Amrita is talkative and naggy and possessive over her son because he is all she has, and because she has protected him all these years. Arjun puts up with it because he knows what he owes her, and because he doesn’t want to risk abandoning her to suffer alone. They have planned together, all these years, that Arjun would succeed and get a good job and get her out. And Alia threatens that plan.
That is the movie I would be curious to see, a young couple in love in college that slowly turns into a dawning realization of the real problems in his family and her struggle with whether or not she wants to join it, and his struggle to break the cycles and get free, with his mother. But instead, this movie pulls its punches. Just as we have these flashes of anger from Arjun, these moments when we confront his father, suddenly the movie veers away, goes back to romantic angst and Alia breaking the engagement because of Amrita, not Rohit Roy. And then, in a completely unbelievable and pandering twist, Rohit Roy sees his son’s pain, has a change of heart, quietly works to make the engagement happen after all by contacting Alia’s parents, and finally wins them over and wins over his son. So that the marriage takes place with Rohit and Amrita and Arjun all there, happy-happy, fathers are always wonderful.
This is such an odd twist, and such an unbelievable one, that I went and looked at some interviews with Chetan Bhagat about his real life relationship with his father (since this story is semi-autobiographical). In real life, his father was not invited to his wedding. He moved his mother away and down to live with him. He had not seen or spoken to his father in years. So, no, there wasn’t a miraculous reveal that “All the drinking yelling and physical abuse was just hiding a soft heart!” All the drinking yelling and physical abuse was hiding a man who was a drunken yelling abuser. And the happy ending was Chetan surviving that childhood and successfully rescuing himself and his mother.
This movie is an odd situation of the truth creeping into the fantasy. It sets out to be a happy story of young love, but the darkness of Chetan’s life keeps stealing into the life of Arjun, the character based on him. Until the film wrenches itself back to fantasy, resisting the natural slide, the story this narrative wants to tell (if you want to read how Chetan/Arjun’s character would actually feel, check out this fascinating interview here. Really, you should! He even talks about being afraid to be a father and continuing the cycle of violence).
Especially because it has the perfect casting. Rohit Roy brilliantly captures the anger and power of the abuser, and also the smallness and cowardice of him. Amrita Singh switches perfectly from the confident amusing over the top Punjabi mother, to the terrified woman cowering in front of her husband. And Arjun, his boyish smile and troubled eyes have never been used to better effect. He is too young, and also far too old at the same time. The sequence starting at one hour and 23 minutes and going for the next five minutes is a perfect short film, a perfect character study of a dysfunctional family and the girl considering marrying into it. It is so good that it ruins the rest of the film, makes the return to light romance seem odd and shallow.
I guess what I am saying is that it is a movie cursed by its own quality. The love story is so nice that the film wants to continue it. But the dysfunctional family story is even better.