Monday, September 21, 2015

Some thoughts on re-watching Student of the Year

At the very end of Student of the Year (2012), Rishi Kapoor’s character, Dean Yoginder Vasisht, says he started the Student of the Year competition to fill an emotional void in his life, to stave off the social isolation that came with his (heavily implied) closeted homosexuality. Sir Ian McKellen said something very similar on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast a few weeks ago, that when he began acting, it was a release for emotions he wasn’t allowed to have in public life, because of his (at the time) closeted homosexuality. Perhaps this is a reason that so many homosexual men (and women) have been attracted to a life in show business. The performative nature of hiding a double life is already second nature, so why not put those talents to good use?

Perhaps it was the fact that glossy hair and dripping wet abs dominated the advertising campaign or just typical critical snobbery towards films not aiming at “realism” but most of the conversation around the film has been pretty superficial. That’s a shame because Student of the Year has so much more to offer than the admittedly good looks of the three debutants: Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan, and Sidharth Malhotra. It’s a story about modern relationships, about the emotional vapidity of the nouveau riche, about the price of success in this highly competitive world. These themes shouldn’t be taken less seriously because they come dressed in a gorgeous frock.

The story of Student of the Year is the story of two best friends, Abhi (Sidharth Malhotra) and Rohan (Varun Dhawan). Although the boys both attend a fancy English-style boarding school named St. Teresa’s, Abhi from the middle class, he’s attending St. T’s on scholarship in order to chase his dreams of success. Rohan, on the other hand, is the second son of a wealthy industrialist and is at St. T’s because it’s the best, it’s classy, as Donald Trump might say. With his wealth, good looks, and dickish attitude, Rohan is king of the campus. He’s used to getting things his own way and is initially frustrated with Abhi’s refusal to kowtow to his wealth. But soon enough Rohan comes to admire Abhi’s straightforward personality and Abhi begins to appreciate Rohan’s open emotionality and the two become fast friends.

Enter Shanaya (Alia Bhatt), the third spoke on the friendship wheel. She’s Rohan’s girlfriend, although these days it’s in name only as he spends his time catting around with every lovely lady who crosses his path. What Rohan, Abhi, and Shanaya all have in common is a lack of parental love and it manifests in different ways in each of them. Rohan’s father sees him as a disappointment and Rohan’s mother is too weak to stand up for him. Fueled by this disdain, he is driven to become a rock star and a womanizer, seeking love from as many people who will give it to him. Abhi, whose parents have passed away, has been living with his auntie and uncle. They treat him like an unwanted burden and Abhi has shut down emotionally, for survival. Before Rohan, the only person he opened up to was his grandmother (the lovely Farida Jalal). He keeps others away because he doesn’t want to suffer the pain of losing anybody else. And Shanaya has it worst of all. Rohan and Abhi’s parental figures may be giant dicks but at least they acknowledge the boys’ respective presences. Shanaya’s parents are so wrapped up in themselves that she may as well not exist. Her bratty behavior is a cry for attention, any kind of attention.

To add insult to injury for Rohan, Rohan’s industrialist father sees something of himself in the ambitious Abhi and takes a liking to him, inviting the boy to come along with the family to Rohan’s brother’s destination wedding in Thailand. It’s in Thailand that Shanaya puts a plan into action to get Rohan’s attention by flirting with Abhi. Rohan does get jealous and Shanaya stays his girlfriend (for the time being) but the unintended consequence of all that time spent together is that Abhi and Shanaya develop feelings for each other.

Everything comes to a head during the Student of the Year competition. Abhi’s beloved grandmother passes away and he’s left utterly alone. Shanaya wants to comfort him, as a friend, but their feelings for each other come out in the process and Rohan catches the two kissing. Rohan and Abhi have a knockout, dragdown brawl over Shanaya, who is horrified at their response and scolds the two of them saying she’s not a piece of meat to be fought over. She’s her own person, thank you very much, and will love whoever she chooses. And with that the relationship between Rohan, Abhi, and Shanaya is shattered. They’re each going all in to win this competition, not just to prove they’re the best but to beat the others.

Along for the ride are a handful of other students. There’s the affable Jeet (Sahil Anand), who was Rohan’s right hand man/toadie/best friend until Abhi came along. Chubby, bespectacled “Sudo” (Kayoze Irani) wants to be loved so badly he’s almost vibrating off the screen with the need for affirmation. Shruti (Mansi Rachh), Shanaya’s best friend, has adopted a tough persona in order to stand out in the sea of glamorous girls. And then there’s the vamp, Tanya (Sana Saeed). Tanya’s goal in life, strongly encouraged by her mother, is to land a rich husband.

All of these students want to win the trophy. All of these students want to be loved. The Dean starts the Student of the Year competition seeking some sort of emotional fulfilment but the competition is untenable with so many students facing the same emotional void. This final year, 2012, is the tipping point and the competition collapses in on itself, leading to a big scene at the awards ceremony in which the winner refuses the trophy out of spite and “Sudo”, drunk off his nut, gives a big speech about how much the Dean sucks for taking all these broken kids and breaking them further for his own stupid amusement. The Dean is shocked by the accusations but comes to see that “Sudo” is correct… he’s become a terrible person, selling a terrible ideology.

And this terrible ideology is the winner-take-all, every-man-for-himself, outside success is the most important thing ideology that goes hand in hand with the worship of marketplace capitalism. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the emotionally stunted students are all coming from nouveau riche families. Success in this marketplace means money and to earn money like that mean selling out everything. Even your daughter, like Tanya’s mother is trying to do. Rohan’s desire to become a rockstar can be seen as the idle daydream of a kid rich enough to afford to not have a “real” job but it also represents a break from the money-driven ideology of his father. And, importantly, Rohan is shown working towards his goal. He doesn’t just pose in front of a mirror with a guitar and talk about getting famous, we hear him practicing.

The kids will ultimately be alright in Student of the Year but their parents have a lot to answer for. It’s a big change of message from the Karan Johar films of years past. It may be all about loving your parents but what happens when your parents don’t love you? There is no reconciliation between Rohan and his father but Rohan, Abhi, and Shanaya all find their own ways to happiness, away from their poisonous parental figures. That message is a long way from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham...

Student of the Year was also notable, at the time, for marking Karan Johar’s break from the Shahrukh Khan camp. And in my initial review I wasn’t the only one who mapped Karan onto the figure of the Dean. The Dean is a confirmed bachelor who has a close relationship with his mother, as is Karan, and the Dean is implied to be homosexual, which has been a long-lasting rumors attached to Karan. But on re-watching, from the distance of a few years, I no longer think that’s the case. There may be some element of Karan in the Dean but the Dean is not the author-director stand-in character. The real character at the heart of Student of the Year, the author-director stand-in, is “Sudo.” “Sudo” who wants to be loved. “Sudo” who feels overlooked. “Sudo” who tries and tries his best and it still isn’t enough. “Sudo” who watches the other students have romantic relationships when he doesn’t even know how to begin. "Sudo" the truth teller. Time and time again the film hits on “Sudo” for reaction shots to events and they’re always heartbreakingly sympathetic. The glossy trio at the center may be the stars but Student of the Year has a lot of sympathy for those of us watching from the sidelines.

But it is the glossy trio who are at the center and for good reason. We “Sudo”s on the sidelines aren’t all that glamorous and escapist cinema requires a bit of razzle-dazzle and washboard abs. Thankfully, Alia, Varun, and Sidharth offer much, much more than their good looks and starry connections.

Alia, in particular, is fabulous as Shanaya. I thought so at the time, as well. She hits on all the right notes as an awkward teenaged girl putting on a bratty Gossip Girl act. She may be bitchy at times but it’s only to cover her vulnerabilities. In a role that could easily have been ultra-annoying and reductive, Alia gives Shanaya some hidden depths. She’s pretty but she’s nobody’s doll.

Varun has a cocky charm and fabulous dance skills that by all rights should have him snatching up masala hero roles left and right. It’s to the industry’s detriment that they aren’t making more of the type of films that would showcase his skills. (And in the ones they are making, they’re casting boring, mannequin faced heroes like Arjun Kapoor, among others, and then wondering why the films don’t do well. Um… hello! You can’t have a hero-giri film with a BORING HERO! Audiences aren’t stupid, Bollywood, despite your snobbery, you can’t just slot any star son into any film.)

Sidharth has proven himself to be a solid performer over the last few years and the seeds are definitely on display in Student of the Year. He doesn’t have the molten charm (or dance skills) of Varun but he has a quiet appeal on screen, perhaps drawn from his modeling days. Where Varun is always in motion, Sid is still, reserved. Some of that is the characterization of the two friends but I think some of it is also just Sid’s screen presence. Even in Brothers, his latest, Sid had a quietness at his center.

I returned to Student of the Year because I was craving a John Hughes-type high school film and it’s been one of the best to come out in recent years. The genre is one that doesn’t command much respect and I think that’s a shame. I adore the world of St. T’s and the students who live there. Thank you, Karan, for sharing them with us.

1 comment:

Movie Maven Gal said...

Love this! I too love Student of the Year, and have watched it more than once. I didn't watch it when it first came out. I think there is more there than most people give credit. I agree with almost all of what you wrote.

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