Chetan Bhagat is a strange phenomenon. He inspires both fierce loyalty and venomous disdain, at once hailed as the savior of Indian English literature and as having brought about its bastardization. Then again, leaders of revolutions, be they literary or political, are always polarizing figures. You can’t get 5 people to agree on whether James Joyce was a genius or a raving lunatic. As for Bhagat’s literary ability, after having read his books, I am more inclined to believe his detractors, who usually demolish him in far crisper and polished language, than is commonly used by Bhagat’s avowed fanbase, who revert to a kind of pidgin Hinglish lingua franca pioneered by Bhagat and his many imitators. But Bhagat’s own forceful affirmation of a kind of homespun anti-intellectualism is what makes such assessment of his literary worth meaningless; you cannot judge him on criteria he does not aspire to fulfill. You might as well just enjoy what he does have to offer.
What is obvious is that while he does lack a sense of history or literary flourish or even unobvious insight, his undeniable appeal lies in his proud championing of the average Indian Joe, or Jai, if you will. His characters have the ring of authenticity, reflecting the hopes and aspirations of India’s burgeoning young middle classes, an often contradictory, mercurial, infuriating and yet inspiring demographic. And this emphasis on story over style is what makes him such an excellent candidate for adaptation to Bollywood’s glitzy screen – Bombay’s purveyors of dreams have enough tashan for the both of them.
Continuing on the spectacular run of Bhagat adaptations, TWO STATES, adapted from Bhagat’s eponymous novel (and my personal favorite of all his works), tells the story of Krish and Ananya, students at IIM-A, as they fall in love and struggle to make their parents agree to their union in blessed matrimony. For those of you who are sniggering into your croissants at this point, I suppose you’d have laughed in 1995 as well when I told you the insipid premise of a film called Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.
The screenplay is one of the strongest points of this film, and that is always an encouraging sign. Bitingly funny, impeccably observed, and rarely crass – impressive considering the film deals with cultural differences, an-always dependable repository of knee-slapping Sardarji and Madrassi jokes – the film is chock-full of quirky little Indian-isms and moments which had the whole theatre in splits quite often. It is hard not to draw parallels between the debutante writer-director Abhishek Varman and the young Aditya Chopra. The style is perhaps a little different, the characters may have skipped a generation later, the language and the setting may have changed a little, but the vision remains the same – an unabashed paean to young love, family values and the cohesive multicultural idea of India. It’s very hard to argue against such wide-eyed earnestness.
The film is also enormously well-served by its lead pair, Arjun Kapoor and Alia Bhatt. Again the comparison to DDLJ. Like that film, here too the protagonists walk a tight line between having their own individuality, which would ensure the respect of the youngsters in the audience, as well as being more or less in tune with bharatiya sanskriti (premarital sex scenes notwithstanding), which would keep the older, perhaps more traditional, audience members from walking off in a huff. Likability is key, and both Arjun and Alia shine in star-making turns. Arjun’s gawky boyishness is perfect for the film, and he’s the kind of solidly charming bloke you can imagine winning over strict Tam-Brahm parents. As for Alia Bhatt, I cannot be the only one who’s lost his heart to her dimples. It is rare to see such extraordinary poise, grace, skill and sheer screen presence from an actress who’s barely drinking age, but since Jennifer Lawrence, we have come to almost expect such things. This woman has a wonderful future ahead of her, that’s for sure. That closeup of her face after she’s just said yes to Krish’s proposal of marriage, and still tries to carry on with her interview pokerfaced as if nothing has happened, alone is worth the price of admission. A star is born.
All four parents are pitch-perfect, be it Amrita Singh’s scene-stealing performance as the loud, aggressive, ostentatious Punjabi mother, or Shiv Kumar Subramaniam’s stoic but endearing Tamil father. Revathi, as usual, is stunningly effective in the little screen time she has. And is it me or has Ronit Roy made the character stereotype of the angry boozy father all his own since UDAAN?
Abhishek Varman does not quite have Swiss mountains and yellow mustard fields to weave magic with, but he does have an impeccable sense of mise en scene. Whether it be the streets of Chennai or the student hostels of IIM-A, he captures it all tremendously well, aided by a wonderful production design team. SEL rarely disappoint when it comes to music, and you’re bound to walk out of the theatre with a grin plastered on your face, humming Offo.
A wonderful film very much in the tradition of young Bollywood romance, making good use of its storied cinematic heritage, featuring two fantastic performances from future stars of the Indian film fraternity as well as heralding a new and yet vaguely familiar directorial voice from Abhishek Varman. Come, fall in modern love.