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Half Girlfriend: Arjun Kapoor may play ‘Bihari boy’ Madhav Jha, but doesn’t sound like one

Somewhere along the line, Bihar has become Bollywood’s shorthand for colorful thuggery or rustic idiocy. If Hindi films are anything to go by, the only stories about Bihar worth telling highlight its lawlessness and penury.

In Apaharan, director Prakash Jha attempted to expose the thriving kidnapping industry in Bihar while his Gangajaal was spun around the infamous Bhagalpur blinding case. The badlands of Bihar were the backdrop of the blood-soaked rivalry between generations of gangsters in Anurag Kashyap’s two-part Gangs of Wasseypur. And then there was the extremely cringe-inducing Padmashree Laloo Prasad Yadav that ends with the politician addressing the lead characters.

Biharis have been living with this stereotype, for better and for worse, for a few decades now. So, it’s a relief to see a basketball-playing Stephenian from Patna in Mohit Suri’s Half Girlfriend. In case you haven’t read the Chetan Bhagat novel the film is based on, Half Girlfriend is about Madhav Jha, a bumbling Bihari boy (Arjun Kapoor) who falls in love with a rich Delhi girl Riya Somani (Shraddha Kapoor).

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Thankfully, Madhav will not join the long list of gun toting, gaali giving Bihari characters the Bollywood audience has come to know. While there might not be a crime in the film, if the promos are anything to go by, the collective Bhojpuri accent in the film could qualify as an assault (Arjun’s “Ee haph girlphriend hota kya hai?” in the teaser was enough to make my ears bleed).

Peppering dialogues with chiradiya and kahe; replacing ‘z’ with ‘jh’ so ‘zindagi’ becomes ‘jindagi’; or, saying ‘hum’ instead of ‘main’ and kijiyega and lijiyega instead of karo/lo is not enough to sound Bihari. The ‘kaa’ in ‘kaa ho’ isn’t just a ‘ka’ or a ‘kaa’ but a sonorous ‘kaa’ with unique glottal articulation. Even after all these decades of Bihari characters, Bollywood mostly seems unable to decipher the nuances of intonation that go with getting the accent right. It’s not easy to put a finger on it but it’s probably the correct pitch levels while handling vowels that let most of our actors down.

A recent offender was Alia Bhatt in Udta Punjab. As the nameless Bihari hockey-player-turned-migrant-labourer, the actress was in top form. Subjected to rape and drugs, she brought out the vulnerability and resilience that had me rooting for her. But only after I made a conscious effort to not hear her accent. Though Alia had actor Pankaj Tripathi (Gangs of Wasseypur, Nil Bateye Sannata and more recently, Anarkali of Aarah) as a dialect coach for the film, her accent rang false. Aside from Alia, everyone else in the film sounded 100 percent real. “She sounds like a Juhu girl trying to talk like her Bihari maid. It’s all wrong,” scoffed a fellow Bihari who I watched the film with.

There’s a thin line between sounding like a caricature and realistic. On the other end of the spectrum is director Avinash Das’s debut film Anarkali of Aarah. Swara Bhaskar’s Anarkali sounds so authentic; I could close my eyes and be instantly transported to Gopali Chowk in the heart of Aarah. A half Bihari in real life, Swara might have never lived in the state, but she knows how to lean-in just so on the last word of a sentence.

What actors and directors don’t understand is that there isn’t one Bihari accent but hundreds of them, dialect-by-dialect, town-by-town. I am told the only time my Bhojpuri accent surfaces is when I speak with my parents. During those conversations, to some non-Bihari friends I sounded like Amitabh Bachchan (from Namak Halal and Don). He spoke Hindi with an Awadhi accent in those films and not Bhojpuri but I am nitpicking. After the release of Gangs of Wasseypur, I got a lot of “but you don’t sound like a Faisal, sorry Phaijhal”.

With accents that are as tuneful as Bihari, if you get the pitch wrong people really notice. Dialects and accents have very rarely been the focus of a performance in Bollywood. In the last few years, actors like Kangana Ranaut and Aamir Khan have successfully sounded like their Haryanvi characters in Tanu Weds Manu Returns and Dangal with the help of diction coaches. It’s not very tough to sound Bihari if you really want to.

Everybody loves a bad boy like Salman Khan who makes a good ‘Sultan’

Then comes along a film magnificently titled Sultan, with him being both a good and a bad human, and the fans couldn’t care less about who the real Salman Khan is. What harm can it do to go spend a few hundred bucks to watch him in a langot, rub Bharat mata ki mitti with his hands to literally show what a great son of the soil can do. Except, he does this not for the country but for his love.

This son of the soil is an overgrown middle aged superstar playing a thirty something buffoon jumping across terraces and trees to chase kites (not skirts—brownie point). While at it, he crashes into a helmet covered girl on a bike and her tight slap makes him grin like an idiot and sit on a donkey. Because the grand dilwala is in love with a feisty girl (who is half his age).

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Then to woo her, he crashes into a wedding (but, of course what’s a blockbuster without weddings) and slaps his butt and sings, “baby ko bass pasand hai”.  All right, he’s got some moves there. Why doesn’t he just stick to just that?

But that’s not enough for the Haryanvi ‘baby’ who is a wrestling champion herself and wants someone worthy of her. Finally something makes sense here, but our nonsense man will have none of it.

He will do anything to win her over. Even take off his pants since he has to evolve from the shirtless Dabangg character he has been. He will bare his beefed up torso and his shapely waxed legs, get into a langot, and he will slap his muscled arm and thigh like a true blue desi, Haryanvi wrestler. Since he has never done much beyond driving a few tractors on his father’s farm, he’ll need some kind of a magic wand.

With love is in his mind and heart, and the precious soil on his hands, it takes barely a few weeks for him to become that champion and change the way the Haryanvi baby looks at him. He finally does get her, though. End of story.

Oh but wait. At one point in the film, Sultan alludes to the fact that he wasn’t knocking off big, strong wrestlers for Aarfa. He was wrestling with himself. We soon realise that it’s a story of Sultan vs. Sultan on screen, and a story of Salman vs Bhai, off screen.

But don’t the fans love both really? Somewhere, deep down everyone loves this bad boy who refuses to grow up as he constantly finds a way to redeem himself with his Being Human social work activities and the good son of the soil image on screen. The bad boy paves the way for the good boy on screen. Without one, there can’t be the other.

Salman, with his history of getting into trouble with cars and girlfriends and a few knocks in the court, may just be fighting his own spoilt, brash boy image, and may be constantly trying to fit into a real 50 year old self, the professional that delivers blockbusters after blockbusters. For all we know.

But maybe Salman’s character on screen and off screen needn’t fight. He is doing just fine, creating controversies and ringing in Eid with big box office numbers. It’s a unique duality, but one that is laughing all the way to the box office. Some soil-rubbing, a taut body and kushti/MMA fight scenesand a dance with a pat on the butt does the work for the most part.