Sunday, October 21, 2012

Student of the Year: Does that Answer Your Question?

Brian Johnson: Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong, but we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us ... in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain ...

Andrew Clark: ... an athlete ...

Allison Reynolds: ... a basket case ...

Claire Standish: ... a princess ...

John Bender: ... and a criminal.

Brian Johnson: Does that answer your question? ... Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.

(from The Breakfast Club, 1985)

I’m just going to lay all my cards out on the table: Student of the Year is the best teen film to come out since John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club in 1985. Working from a smart script and with a talented cast of youngsters (and some heavy-hitting veterans), director Karan Johar crafts one of the best Hindi films of the year, blending poignant emotional drama with just the right amount of Bollywood glitz.


Student of the Year takes place at the mythical St. Theresa’s High School in Dehradun. We meet a group of friends that includes “Pseudo” (Kayoze Irani), Jeet (Sahil Anand), Tanya (Sana Saeed), Dimpy (Manjot Singh), and Shruti (Manasi Rachh) and, through their stories, slowly uncover the main thread of the film - the friendship and rivalry between insecure rich boy Rohan “Ro” Nanda (Varun Dhawan) and emotionally repressed striver Abhimanyu “Abhi” Singh (Sidharth Malhotra).

Complicating things for our heroes are Ro’s girlfriend - who Abhi has a crush on - Shanaya Singhania (Alia Bhatt), Ro’s father - who Abhi looks up to - Ashok Nanda (Ram Kapoor), and Dean Yoginder Vasisht (Rishi Kapoor).

Though the film has been tagged as “glossy” and “a romantic-comedy” in a number of places, I think both of those labels are far too reductive. There is romance and there is gloss but the main themes of the film are deeper than that. In the best tradition of teen films like The Breakfast Club, Student of the Year is ultimately a story about identity and the desire to have our true selves recognized and to be loved. The actual Student of the Year competition rewards conformity to exterior set of standards, but what do students actually win? Very importantly, I think, the film goes out of its way to poke holes in the insular candyfloss world of St. Theresa’s, showing how little it actually means to win the trophy.

What really captured the tone of the film for me was not the slow motion Dostana style bathing suit sequences but a sequence early on when we meet the students’ parents. In a spectacular piece of filmcraft from Karan, he spends twenty minutes or so immersing us in the world of St. Theresa’s - the rivalries, the jealousies. He sets up Shanaya, Ahbi, and Rohan as these pinnacles of everything cool and then in a snap, reveals it all as a fantasy. We see Rohan, who had been so full of swagger not five minutes ago, desperately trying to win his father’s affection. We see Abhi’s blasé attitude fall away as he shares a loving smile with his Dadi (the magnificent Farida Jalal). And Shanaya, who tells Tanya she doesn’t want to be a cheerleader because the boys cheer for her, is ignored at home. All of a sudden, they aren’t cool at all - just troubled kids.

Which leads me to this: all three debutants are fantastic.

Alia Bhatt has a wonderful girlish quality to her that really suits the character. Through Alia, we can see through Shanaya’s confident exterior to the girl trying very hard to project that confidence. Alia has a real spark to her and it’s easy to see why, beyond her just her adorable pout and shapely legs, she would have the two heroes fighting over her. But her character is more than just a love interest, and it is really heartening to see Shanaya take charge of her life towards the end of the film.

Sidharth Malhotra is a bit of cipher as Abhi. He reminded me a bit of John Abraham - in a good way and with a much deeper voice (OH THAT VOICE!). Perhaps because of his troubled upbringing, Abhi is a person who keeps things to himself and, through most of the film, his motives aren’t quite clear. Does he really love Alia? Is he using Rohan to get to his father? Sid keeps us guessing but he has just enough flashes of real emotion to keep us (or at least kept me) rooting for him.

Quite unexpectedly, the real standout among the three was Varun Dhawan as Rohan. If Abhi is a cipher, Rohan is The Mumbai Mirror - you can read everything on his face. Varun’s tough task was to make the audience fall for a bratty rich playboy and he passes with flying colors. From his puppydog love for best friend Abhi to his anger and hatred of his parents to his frustration at the box life has put him in, Rohan emerges as a lovable, if flawed, person.

And, even better, the film doesn’t just focus on the three main characters. Unlike the world of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, referenced a number of times, naturally, or even a film like Main Hoon Na, the three main characters of Student of the Year are surrounded by well-rounded characters with personalities and problems of their own - to such an extent that Student of the Year passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.

As Pseudo, Kayoze Irani does a wonderful job at making what could have been a one-note “joke nerd” character into somebody much more poignant. Pseudo remains distant and acts as the group’s outside observer. We are left wondering to what extent he isolates himself out of fear. Completely unexpectedly, Pseudo is given one of the highest emotional peaks of the film, and even more unexpectedly, his big speech brought tears to my eyes.

Manasi Rachh, who won my heart as Hacky’s hilariously sarcastic twin sister in Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge, does a great job as Shanaya’s best friend. Shruti is struggling for an identity and we see her define herself as the polar opposite of Shanaya - seeds of jealousy that will bloom later. Shruti has a real competitive streak, which was really fun to watch play out in the post-interval section of the film. I have to admit I was cheering for her during the final part of the competition.

Not only did the heroine’s best friend have her own identity but Rohan’s lackey did, too! Jeet is the guy you always see in 1990s films fetching things and providing backup for Ajay Devgn or whoever. In Student of the Year, Sahil Anand (who was apparently on MTV’s Roadies?) gets more to work with. His initial jealousy of Abhi at usurping his place as Rohan’s right hand man morphs into character growth - stepping out from the shadow of the two big men on campus. It doesn’t hurt that Sahil is just really charming, either. He has a nice, light touch with comedy that producers should take notice of.

Finally, there is Rishi Kapoor as the Dean, the most interesting and complex character in the whole film. And, Rishi Kapoor does a superb job. It’s been widely reported that the Dean is a gay character and, indeed, he is. But the Dean isn’t one of your Anupam Kher-style offensive comedy uncles. Rishi-sir plays the Dean as a real person - somewhat “fussy” at times (to use the codeword historians pull out for President James Buchanan) but also possessing dignity and authority. The Dean’s crush on the coach (Ronit Roy) is handled with a sympathetic eye. Not only did the two have some very real chemistry but there was more than one occasion I was cheering for the two to actually kiss!!

In some ways, I can’t help but wonder if the Dean isn’t a stand-in for Karan Johar himself. Here is man overseeing the Student of the Year competition, which rewards conformity to strict set of societal standards, and yet he exists outside of them. And, worse, the Dean is so caught up in himself and the drama that he doesn’t realize the damage he is doing to his students by promoting these standards. With its focus on friendship, rather than romance, and on finding a path that suits you, rather than appeasing your father, is Karan making up for years of spinning patriarchal, heteronormative dreams? I don’t know and, certainly, nobody in the media is going to ask him. (Unless I get the chance - what about it, Karan?!)

All in all, I was really very taken with Student of the Year. There are so many wonderful small moments and scenes I didn’t get into - Rishi Kapoor’s facial expressions while standing behind Ram Kapoor giving a “Greed is Good” type speech; the reveal of Pseudo’s eventual date to prom; Alia Bhatt pretending to barf when she sees Varun; Sid’s introduction song; a special guest appearance by Kajol. Films like Student of the Year prove that smart and socially aware can go hand in hand with glamorous and entertaining. In fact, I would argue that films like this do more good than 100 dour “indie” films on the same topics. I am definitely planning on buying this on DVD when it comes out. The triple disc special edition with extras, if there is one. (There will be one, right, Karan?)

3 comments:

Picturetalk321 said...

Okay, I cannot WAIT to see this film. I am a sucker for Karan Johar anyway, and KJ plus student-teen film? Can't wait!

Sal said...

I am really happy to read some intelligent analysis on this film. There is so much that is subversive beneath its endlessly shiny surface that everybody else seems to have focused on. Karan highlights the arbitrariness of academic standards, the isolation of LGBTQ kids due to the heteronormative practices at the institutions that govern their life, the increasing pressure on kids to be "grow up already", without ever letting the fun lag. And what really struck me was that this man can really make a film. I don't think any mainstream film in recent times has popped visually on the big screen quite like SOTY. Everyone's a;ready talked about Varun (who is a STAR) and Sid (whose confidence is something else), but I was really charmed by Alia. She went way beyond mini-Poo with her role and imbued it with a a desperation that killed me. I might go again and watch this in the coming week.

Filmi Girl said...

@sal I'm glad somebody was looking for analysis of the film!! Seriously, I was so annoyed when I saw Rajeev Masand trashing the film because there was no garbage in the school hallways!!! Really, Rajeev? THAT is what you're picking up on?

And what really struck me was that this man can really make a film. I don't think any mainstream film in recent times has popped visually on the big screen quite like SOTY.

I agree with this completely. The color schemes, the framing, and the editing really worked. Karan has an eye for detail and it served him well. The film looked wonderful on the big screen.

What struck me most when I came home and read some of the reviews is how deliberately the critics seemed to overlook the subversive narrative in order to either rag on or praise the "glossy fantasy." The whole point of the film was that the fantasy was just fantasy!!

And, yes, Alia was really good. I liked that she had this vulnerability behind the "Poo" act - it made her character really feel like a real teenage girl instead of just a barbie doll.

I hope Karan continues to make films like this instead of contorting his talents to make "serious" films like MNIK. From what I've read of his next, it should be another teen film... so fingers crossed!

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl