While most producers have steered clear of releasing their films in the middle of the ongoing elections, it perhaps makes sense that director Abhishek Varman’s debut film 2 States still arrives at this moment. The context of the film, adapted from Chetan Bhagat’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, is inherently political. It taps into the longstanding cultural dichotomy of India — north vs. south. However, being a Dharma Productions film, the cultural politics are diluted down, the drama is amped up, and the whole thing all packaged into a colorful, glossy and melodious offering.
Punjabi boy Krish Malhotra (Arjun Kapoor, in a non-violent role for the first time) meets Tamilian girl Ananya Swaminathan (Aalia Bhatt, who simply glows) at IIM Ahmedabad where they are both studying for their MBA. What starts as a platonic co-studying friendship quickly evolves into sex and then a very serious relationship, mostly over the course of two catchy song numbers. When graduation dawns on them, they realize they must introduce their families to one another if their relationship has any chance of surviving.
Thus begins the updated and elongated version of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge where Raj attempts to woo Simran’s parents. Except here, this wooing happens in several combinations: Krish with Ananya’s parents, Ananya with Krish’s parents, and the two sets of parents with each other. Then, more wooing in all directions when it all falls apart repeatedly.
The film has a fresh feel to it and Krish and Ananya’s relationship has a comfortable layer of companionship, which makes them seem real. The director works hard to show that the two leads are the opposite of what their cultural stereotypes are supposed to be. The Punjabi munda Krish is very straight-laced and reserved, while the Tamilian Brahmin girl Ananya eats meat, drinks hard liquor and wears short skirts. So when the families are thrown into the mix, the stereotypes are highlighted and flung in all directions.
In a rare change for most mainstream Hindi films, 2 States doesn’t fall prey to the curse of the second half. In fact, the first half drags quite a bit. The intermission point was a surprise because it felt like the film had already been going on for so long. The second half, however, is much more layered and really digs into the complexities involved in the various relationships. The drama is heightened but Varman handles several emotional moments with gentleness, enough to put a lump in your throat in a few scenes.
In terms of using stereotypes to create comedy, Varman doesn’t hold back. Krish’s melodramatic Punjabi mother (Amrita Singh, equal parts genuine and caricaturish), is overbearing and believes she knows the absolute best for her son, even when it means not listening to her son’s wishes at all. The Punjabi family has an extra dose of drama thrown in with Krish’s father (Ronit Roy, in yet another strict, angry father role), who has both a drinking and anger management problem. On the Tamilian side, Ananya’s mother (Revathy, very adorable) is quiet and reserved and her father (Shiv Kumar Subramanium, effective), is always very serious and doesn’t believe in smiling.
There are plenty of scenes of cultural misunderstandings and jokes at the expense of the other. It’s nowhere near the dizzyingly stereotyped standards of Rohit Shetty films but still awkward and unnecessary enough for you to want the film to just move on to the next scene.
There are, however, some good moments of acting and writing, where the film keeps you engaged. While there are plenty of stereotypes, Varman also shows us the hypocrisy involved in them. For example, a Punjabi mother’s insistence on her son only marrying a Punjabi girl is rebuked by pointing out that her own marriage is falling apart.
The music of the film, marking a much welcome resurgence by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, is peppy and very hummable. ‘Locha-E-Ulfat’ and ‘Chaandaniya’ both stand out.
Aalia Bhatt looks beautiful as Ananya and is very charming and confident. She performs her role with ease and displays great potential as an actress who is only three films old. We may just forgive her for Student of the Year.
Arjun Kapoor brings an earnestness to Krish, a slight naïveté, but at times it’s hard to tell if he’s being genuinely endearing or somewhat sarcastic. He tries so hard to be innocent that he carries a puppy-dog look almost throughout. His best moments, however, are in the scenes with the various parents, especially a very clever and funny scene where he makes his case to Ananya’s family.
The film is also narrated by him, with scenes of him speaking to a therapist interspersed throughout the film. But in a strange turn at the end, the therapist (whose back of the head is regularly seen) simply vanishes. It makes you question who he was talking to the whole time and why they vanished. But then again, 2 States is not meant to be a thriller.
Of the parents, Revathy is simply a delight. She brings a softness to her role. She emotes wonderfully in some scenes with just her eyes and no dialogue, especially when she struggles to pursue her own personal dream of becoming a singer. Amrita Singh is fun in places but often tries too hard to be the overbearing Punjabi mother. Ronit Roy needs to be cast in more diverse roles and not just the angry father. And Shiv Kumar Subramanium shines in one particular scene where he is drinking with Krish and lets his guard down.
Overall, 2 States is a film with promise but unfortunately doesn’t rise beyond that. The film could have been a good way to address cultural politics within India, especially since it was released during the elections. Instead, it ends up as a film that reiterates what we’ve already seen but in newer packaging. It has moments of sparkle but keeps falling into traps it should have avoided. 2 States is not a bad film, but it’s not great either.
Pulkit Datta is a writer and filmmaker based in New York City. He has written extensively on cinema and culture, and also independently writes and produces feature films, documentaries and shorts. Follow him on Twitter @PulkitDatta.