Friday Classics: 2 States, A Brilliant Short Film on Family Disfunction Wrapped in a Nice Rom-Com

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.

Image result for 2 states poster

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.

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12 thoughts on “Friday Classics: 2 States, A Brilliant Short Film on Family Disfunction Wrapped in a Nice Rom-Com

  1. I never felt like Alia was an authentic Tamil girl, but I still loved her in the movie! I think Juhi Chawla in Hum Hain Rahe Pyar Ke is the most authentic southern character in the Hindi movies I’ve seen.

    I’m pretty sure that they go to school in Ahmedabad, not Bangalore. I remember them specifically talking about how Gujarat is a dry state.

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    • I should go back and watch Hum Hain again, there were so many north-south jokes that just went over my head the first time.

      On Sat, Aug 25, 2018 at 12:01 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. Aside from them going to IIM Ahmedabad and not Bangalore as others pointed out, I have a minor nitpick. You put Arjun’s decision to study in IIM as a way to move away from his dysfunctional family. Think of it as if somebody is serious enough to apply to Harvard and actually make it, it’s not a choice you make to move from your hometown to Boston. It’s a dream to study in Harvard. In India, dial those academic aspirations to 11 and you have every kid who has thought of going to IIT/IIM by themselves or at least has been told to. We don’t see it odd for Arjun and Alia to pursue studying in Ahmedabad, of course they would go there because that’s where IIM is (Although it is hard to buy them as IIM students). We don’t see it a personal choice. Unlike Arjun’s decision to work in Chennai which is personal because he goes there to convince Alia’s family.
    Other than that she was supposed to be a south Indian, I liked Alia in this. She managed to bring out the cheeky confident parts of her character quite well, without turning into an MPDG.
    Which south Indian actress do you think could have been good in the role? Samantha comes to my mind. Although for some bizarre reason, the story makes a big deal about the heroine being fair skinned in spite of being South Indian. Which is not as uncommon as people think, but it’s as though that’s the only kind of South Indian acceptable for a Punjabi boy.
    Did you get a chance to read the book? Like you said, the movie touches upon darker parts and seems afraid to go deeper. The book is as shallow as they come. The story is sort of enjoyable. But the characters are basically caricatures, they come off as spoiled and selfish and downright unpleasant. It is to the movie’s credit that the managed to bring out something credible out of it.

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    • I know there is a comment in the film about choosing to go far from home. Maybe it is about Arjun’s IIT degree? There are multiple IITs, yes? I think there might have been a comment about him choosing to go to one farther from Delhi.

      Agree about Samantha, Nithya Menon would also have been fantastic in the role, and I think she would have had really interesting chemistry with Arjun. Trisha would have been good too. I noticed the fair skin comments too, but I chalked it up to an acknowledgement of how extremely pale Alia is (since she is one quarter German and one quarter Kashmiri, she is far beyond normal Indian paleness to me). A way of saying “yes, we know this casting is odd”.

      Interesting that the movie goes deeper. It looks like Abhishek Varman was credited as the main writer. I wonder how he ended up bringing out that part of the story and making it more sympathetic? There’s also the very very backgrounded detail that Arjun is planning to work and become a writer only after that, which makes his character so sympathetic to me, that he wants to write but also realizes he needs to put his job and his school first.

      On Sat, Aug 25, 2018 at 1:39 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I don’t remember if they tell us if Arjun went to IIT, let alone where. Chetan went to IIT Delhi. I suppose Arjun might have gone there too.
        The heroine being fair skinned didn’t come after casting Alia, I think they felt OK about casting her because the book makes a big deal of her ‘fairness’. Chetan’s wife might have been light skinned (I don’t know), but it’s strange that he had to emphasize that in a book where he’s supposed to call out on regional stereotypes. On the plus side, Arjun wanting to be a writer also comes straight from the book because that’s what Chetan ended up doing.
        The credit does go to the writers, director and cast for taking unsympathetic characters and making them relatable. I think the biggest gain comes from not having to read Chetan’s prose. Which is why I was wondering if you read any of them. He picks interesting backdrops to set his stories in and some times they are engaging. But his dialogues are cringeworthy. He cannot write relatable, engaging characters and his characters come off as immature brats. It doesn’t help that the protagonist himself is also an immature brat because we have to see every other character through his POV.

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        • Oh, it’s in the book too? Then yeah, that is weird! It stuck out for me in the movie and I just figured it was an awkward way of justifying Alia. But if that is the same as the book, then there is no reason for such an awkward series of dialogues.

          I’ve avoided Chetan Bhagat because I have heard that about his English. I notice the same thing sometimes with English dialogue in Hindi films. It’s technically correct and understandable and all of that, but there is no poetry to it. I am sure there are many other people who have written about this, the betwixt and between state where few people speak high fluent Hindi, and yet the English that has replaced it misses the subtleties that are possible. Another reason to be excited that the dialogue for Takht is being written bu a straight up Hindi language poet!

          It sounds like Chetan’s books are perfect for film adaptations. Filmscripts would have to rewrite the dialogue anyway, and work with the actors to develop their version of the characters, and with Chetan they are working with almost a blank slate, since the dialogue is worthless and the characters are shallow. Far better than an adaptation that makes everyone miss the beauty of the book.

          On Sat, Aug 25, 2018 at 9:00 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Nowadays, Chetan seems to write books with ridiculous titles like half girlfriend just so they get made into movies. They seem less like books and more like bad screenplays.
            His last book, One Indian Girl, was a cringeworthy attempt at writing a book from a female POV and about “feminism”. It was atrocious to say the least.
            And now we have a dozen clones of Chetan Bhagat sprouting up like Nikita Singh, Durjoy Data and Ravinder Singh who write even worse than him.

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  3. What I liked the least about the movie was the way they treated IIM -A. It is the most prestigious institution for MBA in the country. And they treated it like it was St Xaviers in Mumbai. Students spend years (most of my classmates spent half of their engg years) preparing for CAT. I didn’t get that seriousness from the movie. They had prom, Garba, Holi and what not!!
    I think it all stems from the direction – which was just about adequate, but doesn’t elevate the source material. The book had a lot of humor, which also the movie lacked. I liked Arjun, Amritha and Revathy the most. Alia was weird casting – but her acting kind of salvaged it. The scene in which he proposes Alia also came off pretty bad compared to the book I though.
    You’re right Arjun does come from IIT in the movie too. This honestly is a sequel to 5 point someone (the book 3 Idiots was based off of). Arjun talks about dating the prof’s daughter, not paying enough attention to studies during his Engg which he wants to correct and basically becomes a little more commitment phobic initially. I did like that he’s the more shattered one after they break up. Usually filmmakers go for the girl is shattered and boy is enjoying his new found single-dom which was different and refreshing here.

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    • I liked the focus on Arjun’s experience of the romance through out. From the uncertainty of the first meetings, not sure what she wants from him, to the heartbreak after the break-up, to the present day having weathered all the storms. So many movies shortchange the hero’s emotions, he falls in love at first sight and then that’s kind of it for his emotional journey. This one gave fair time to all his steps along the way.

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    • Exactly, my cousin got into IIM Ahmedabad last month, and he spent the whole of last year studying and attending classes. It’s a huge deal because its the best IIM in the country. We had a party for him when he got in. And now he barely has time to call his mom, let alone party and make out with girls.

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