Half-Girlfriend Review (Spoilers): Feminism in a Pretty Package

I already recommended the movie in my No Spoilers review. If you aren’t a rom-com person but still want to know what it’s about, or if you have already seen it and want to do an in depth discussion, this is the place!!!!

Whole movie in two paragraphs:

Arjun Kapoor is a Prince from Bihar, meaning an old family with a tradition of doing good and leading the people, but no English skills, no money, no respect. He gets a sports scholarship to a fancy Delhi university where he wants to study sociology in order to better help his people. At the university, he notices Shraddha Kapoor, a sporty girl from the rich crowd. He is nice to her and she is nice to him and they start spending a lot of time together and finally she kisses him. But then she invites him to her fancy birthday party and he realizes he isn’t quite part of her crowd. His friend Vikrant Massey tells him this rich girl is just playing with him, she isn’t serious, it’s one sided. With that in his mind, he invites her back to his dorm room one afternoon, she falls asleep on his bed, he kisses her, she rejects him, and they have a fight. They meet one more time when she tells him she is dropping out of college and getting married.

Arjun finishes college and returns home to help his mother run their school and charities. He points out to his mother that there are no female students in their school. In an effort to find out why, he discovers the biggest problem is lack of bathroom facilities for girls and it will cost a lot of money to add bathrooms to their school. He investigates funding and finds the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation which offers grants for bathrooms. His application is accepted, but he is warned that Bill Gates makes his decisions based on emotion, so he needs to talk to him directly in English in order to convince him. While he is in the city applying for the grant, he runs into Shraddha again. She is working and living independently, she left her husband after a year and a half because he was abusive, her parents did not support her, she is on her own now. They pick up their friendship again and she offers to help him with his English. He brings her back to the village and introduces her to his mother who HATES her because she is not of their class and is divorced and can’t make him happy. He gives the speech to Bill Gates, but then Shraddha disappears leaving behind a note that says she is dying and don’t look for her. Arjun gets an internship in New York and tries to forget Shraddha, but at the same time is looking for her because he remembers she dreamed of being a singer in New York. His friend Vikrant tries to convince him to forget her again, even sets him up with a very nice new potential girlfriend, but he can’t forget. He finally finds Shraddha and learns she WASN’T dying, she just lied and said that because it was the only way she could think of to convince him to let her go. Happy Ending, married and back in the village.

HALF GIRLFRIEND FILM POSTERS on Behance

I knew the outlines of the plot going in, I had spoiled myself on wiki. And based on just the plot outline, I was picturing a really stupid male fantasy story. The pretty rich girl on campus notices him, he tries to kiss her and she gets mad for no reason, years later she comes crawling back to him and teaches him English, and then ends up giving up her whole successful rich life to live in his village. It’s like an action film heroine, rich girl and poor boy and just wants to crawl in the dust following him around and being of service to him.

But NO! It doesn’t feel like that at all! Not in the way it plays out. Full credit to both Shraddha and Mohit Suri the director, we understand from the start that it IS a two-way love story. The “Half-Girlfriend” of the title isn’t about him being allowed to spend time with and dream about a rich girl outside of his grasp, it is about the rich girl wishing she was free to offer more and hoping he will accept and understand the compramise.

Shraddha isn’t a rich snotty girl he has to “win”. She is a nice normal person, and they become friends in a nice normal way. He compliments her on her basketball playing, she thanks him and asks him to play with her, he suggests they go to a movie together, she says yes, they go to movies and street markets and just hang out, like normal boy-girl college friends anywhere.

What really makes the whole thing work is Vikrant Massey’s character, speaking out the trite tropes we are all expecting. He is the one who suggests Shraddha is a spoiled rich girl that Arjun has to “trick” and “win”. He suggests that Arjun should have a chip on his shoulder and not see her as a person but as a prize. And he suggests that Shraddha is just using him as a fun vacation from real life. By him saying it, we can see in stark relief that that is NOT the case. Shraddha and Arjun make eye contact when they are talking, he doesn’t stare at her short skirts, he appreciates her basketball skills. When they go to the movies he tries to hold her hand and she gently pulls away. He doesn’t push it, she doesn’t “lead him on”. She listens to him and appreciates and respects what he says. She asks him questions like why he touched her mother’s feet but not her fathers and is curious about his answers. And he does things like notice a scarf she likes and buys it to set aside for her birthday. We have Vikrant telling us how the world would see them, and then the contrast to how they really are.

The most important part of the film, start to finish, is that Arjun is passive in the relationship and Shraddha is the active one. Arjun is clearly there for her from the start, an open hand just waiting. It is Shraddha who has to go on a journey. It’s a tricky balance, Arjun is our protagonist and point of view character, but his narrative function is just as a conduit to Shraddha’s journey. I really appreciate that decision, from a feminist analysis point. If this were a movie about Shraddha, it would be about women for women. But instead it is a movie about a man for a man showing how a man can see and respect and appreciate a woman’s journey.

Through Arjun’s eyes, we see that Shraddha has no self-esteem. She isn’t even serious and aggressive in playing basketball until Arjun encourages her. She is too shy to sing in public. She is pretty and rich but thinks of herself as useless. Arjun starts her feeling like maybe she has a right to decide her own life, to find value for herself as a person. But she is scared to really break free, to leave the cage where she has always lived. That’s why his kiss scares her, she was just barely feeling confident in making her own decisions, and now she has to doubt herself again. The most important part of this early section is the reveal that Shraddha is getting married. It’s not that she is marrying-not Arjun, it is that she is getting married AT ALL. Arjun’s first response is that she is only 19, and second response is that she will have to drop out of college. There were little lines of dialogue earlier about her wanting to go to class and things, so we know she is taking college seriously. And now she has to leave? That moment makes it clear that the tragedy isn’t this half-started love affair, but Shraddha’s half-started life. No more school, no more basketball, no more friendship, no more singing, all of that has to get locked away as she turns into a wife.

Shraddha’s big effect on Arjun is that he goes home and wants to get female students into their elementary school. That’s what he got from their romance. He doesn’t drink himself to death, or try to stop her wedding, or any of that. He gets at the root cause of why they couldn’t be together, her lack of freedom and opportunities as a woman. Arjun’s very first appearance is him explaining that he wants to study sociology to understand root causes, and it ties together with this, his awareness of the root cause of his break up being lack of women’s rights.

Shraddha is the one who seeks him out again. Before they get back together, she has already left her husband and then left her family and gotten a job and independence. All for herself. And then she goes to Patna knowing she might see Arjun again, she makes that decision. This time, the relationship is fully in her control. And the end is fully in her control as well. She determines that she needs to forget Arjun and find a new dream. So she ends things in the one way that will stop all discussion and make her fully free, and then goes off and builds a new life for herself in New York.

It’s really stupid that she lies about dying, really REALLY stupid. But this is ultimately a Masala love story, we need that extra melodrama. Setting aside the lie, the rest of it is good. She sees that Arjun’s mother doesn’t like her, and she decides that she isn’t going to fight her way into yet another family, she would rather be alone. Arjun finding her isn’t some magical Love Quest, it is proving to her that he will fight for her, that she doesn’t have to make her own way any more.

I guess that’s the other part of “Half-Girlfriend”. The simple meaning is that Arjun is befriending a pretty girl so he can kind of play at dating her. But really it is that Shraddha feels herself to be only “half” a girlfriend. She can enjoy being with him, she can even kiss him, but she can’t count on him, she can’t expect to be fully respected, protected, helped. She can only enjoy half the privileges of being a girlfriend.

11 thoughts on “Half-Girlfriend Review (Spoilers): Feminism in a Pretty Package

      • Thanks 🙂
        You know what surprised me in this review – that Shraddha is the active one in the relationship. It’s true, but it doesn’t look like that , becase she is always so distant and so enigmatic. He is the one who always thinks and talks about her , but yes, in the end she is the one who decides when the story starts and when it finishes.

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        • Yes! But part of what is so appealing about Arjun as a hero is how rock steady he is. He is a decent young man who wants to help his village and likes Shraddha. And he stays exactly that all the way through. Nice solid guy you can rely on, very rare hero type.

          On Tue, Apr 13, 2021 at 3:54 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  1. This sounds very different from the book. I didn’t watch the movie because the book was pretty misogynist: she is toying with him and allows him to call her his half girlfriend as she enjoys flirting but won’t take it to the next level. He tries to have sex with her and is really vulgar and insulting to her when she rejecrs him. This what makes her dump him. The rest of the book is him trying to prove to her thst he has shed his male chauvinist ways.

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    • Thank you! I was all set to read the book, or at least give credit to Chetan Bhagat for writing an interesting story. But sounds like it’s a case when the filmmakers took the loose outline and then completely changed the way it was presented.

      In the movie, she never flirts and it is clearly a mutual friendship/liking. He doesn’t try to have sex with her, he just tries to kiss her and when she says “not now”, he gets upset because she kissed him and now he isn’t allowed to kiss her? It is gross, for sure, but not nearly as gross as it could be. And the biggest difference, I think, is that he isn’t trying to “atone” for the rest of the book, he acknowledges it was wrong and apologizes to her and then moves on with the problems in front of him until she shows up in his life again.

      Thank you for saving me!

      On Wed, Apr 14, 2021 at 6:46 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I thought that it was easy for Mohit Suri to do a nice movie because he copied all the best parts from the book, and look it’s not true. Now I’m curious and want to read the book to see the differences.

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  2. Glad I watched this, even if it was later and I missed the watchalong. It was funny because it has a lot of plot similarities to Two States, one of the few other Arjun movies I’ve seen, while being a very different movie. I appreciated the complicated love story (though agree lying about having a terminal illness is gross! come to think of it, terminal illness as a plot point thrown in to heighten the stakes of your romantic drama is always gross). I appreciated the realistic, non-KKHH basketball playing. And so many great songs!

    I don’t see the characters quite the same as you do. Arjun is such a needy puppy dog with Shraddha, he follows her everywhere with those wide open puppy dog eyes, that kind of situation can be exhausting. It’s true that as he gets to know her better, he brings out a joy and confidence she was lacking, but there is a strong undercurrent of that “I’m so in love with you, my love proves I deserve to have you.” Not faulting Arjun here, he makes the character as sympathetic as he can be, it’s just how he’s written. Vikrant played into that male sense of entitlement – made me so mad, as he was supposed to. Your reading of him is spot on. That scene in the dorm room, though, was scary. Arjun is so much bigger than Shraddha, he’s coming on strong and then when she tries to leave he grabs her wrists and shouts at her and ends up tossing her into the edge of a table. It doesn’t make much sense for his character to be physical that way, it comes out of nowhere, but it’s bad. And then when she leaves and Vikrant has gathered the male students to jeer at her, it’s humiliating and awful. Of course she would break with him and stop talking to him, especially given her abusive father.

    The thing from Arjun’s side is that he seems to become a better person after she leaves. Buckles down in his studies, graduates and secures a position that he walks away from to go home to work in his community. He’s sad but he’s able to contribute and find ways to get resources and opportunities for his mother’s school. Then Shraddha comes back and he’s right back to being a lovesick puppy, waiting in a hotel lobby for her for 7 hours. She helps him with his speech but ultimately he doesn’t even give her speech, he speaks for himself about his family and his inspiration and that gets him the grant. When she disappears again he falls apart, but that’s arguably because he thinks she’s dying or dead. And he pulls himself together to make the most of his internship.

    Shraddha I don’t see as an empowerment story, not exactly. She’s scarred by watching her father hit her mother, she’s very good at going through the world with a mask and hiding behind her privileges. What I think Arjun gives her is a better version of herself, a more genuine, joyful, freer, braver self. Until the confrontation in the dorm room, after which she retreats back behind the mask and the wall of privilege, and then rushes into a marriage because if she can’t be free and brave she can at least get out of her parents’ house. Only perfect guy turns out to be an abuser, too. She cuts with him and her parents – healthy! – and sets up an independent life, but she’s not joyful or free. I think this is why she seeks out Arjun, she’s really trying to recover that better version of herself she found with him. But then his mother calls her out as a quitter, and maybe she sees that she could have derailed his life (“you have had so many chances, my son has just this one chance”), and she runs away again. (Side note: this interlude is the closest Arjun comes to having to understand and take responsibility for the fact that he scared and hurt her. Arjun sells it, but the comments above make me wonder whether the character is ever held accountable in the book because it’s really a moment in passing.)

    The dynamic between their characters is set up as Shraddha the quitter who always runs away from her troubles meets Arjun who will never stop and never back down. In the end, his persistence wins the day. They end up back in Bihar, with Shraddha telling their daughter not to give up and to keep trying (which, no way can a tiny child that size lob a basketball through a hoop, but it’s a nice ending). I guess there’s some narrative symmetry in the fact that it was only after he finally quit that he found her. And to be clear, I do think they both ended up happier together, because Shraddha is a better person around Arjun, and her ability to let go of her masks and privilege made it possible for them to build a life together. And Arjun gets to be the good person he set out to be in the beginning because he’s no longer channeling all of his energy into chasing something he can’t have.

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    • Not sure if you knew this already, but both 2 States and this movie are based on books by Chetan Bhagat. He met and fell in love with his wife in college, despite coming from a different background. And he grew up in an abusive home, as an adult he got his mother out of the house and bought her a place to live and cut off contact with his father. So those two themes pop up all the time in his stories, abuse and couples from different worlds meeting in college.

      I don’t know if this was in the book or not, but if it wasn’t, it was a really good add in the movie to show Shraddha having the conversation with Arjun’s mother. So we know that she was warned off and left unwillingly. It makes Arjun look less stalkery if the audience knows he isn’t just imagining things. And I do appreciate that he just steps back when she says she is getting married and tells him to go away in college. he doesn’t even get angry. In fact, besides that one time, we never see him get angry with her at all.

      On Thu, Apr 29, 2021 at 12:09 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I didn’t know they were both novels by the same author, that makes sense. Yes, that scene sticks out because it seems out of character. There is no other moment when Arjun gets physically violent or overbearing with anyone, let alone this much smaller person he’s in love with. The whole aspect of his character that is taken in by Vikrant’s macho goading is his least attractive and least fits into the rest of the picture we have of him. I guess it’s supposed to be an innocent country boy thing? He doesn’t seem gullible or dumb with anything else, though.

        Afterward I was comparing the story in my head with Kabir Singh or Thappad and in both of those the guy’s character was set up in a way that a moment of physical violence was believable – partly by making the character deeply unlikeable in the moment, which maybe they didn’t want to do to the hero of the story here.

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        • Yeah, the moment doesn’t fit with any other part of their relationship in this movie. On the other hand, he is supposed to be 19, so I could believe one random unrelated emotional moment. Another good part of the film construction, they show us again and again that this is an isolated moment in his character and their relationship. He is otherwise respectful, careful, and so on.

          On Thu, Apr 29, 2021 at 11:46 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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