Look beyond the fruit-candy palette of Student of the Year and you may sense the darkening of the Karan Johar universe. Sana Saeed – the sweet little girl from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, who wanted nothing more than a lifelong mate for her father – has grown into the school slut, listening carefully as her mother doles out advice about push-up bras. (The film is set in an elite Dehra Dun institution named St. Teresa). The chubby boy from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham no longer gets a fairy-tale makeover, transforming into a swanning Hrithik Roshan. He’s now the paunchy Soto (Kayoze Irani, Boman’s son), whose date for the prom is Dimpy (Manjot Singh). And what will he become in the evening of his life? Perhaps the lonely – and equally paunchy – Dean Vashisht (Rishi Kapoor), whose only meaningful relationship, apart from an unrequited crush on the sports coach (Ronit Roy), is with his bonsai tree. At other times, he’s content to caress John Abraham’s shirtless picture on the cover of GQ. Even Johar’s trademark sitting-on-the-park-bench shot, hitherto a repository of wholesome emotion, now contains former students filled with pettiness and rancour, whining about a “forced reunion.”
What might have been had these streaks of grey been allowed to flower to their fullest? A somber drama and a box-office flop, perhaps – but certainly something far more interesting than this bland film which unfurls as if the traditional Bollywood love triangle were grafted onto Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. (And that’s where we glimpsed the darkening of the JK Rowling universe). The first aspect plays out through the couture-crazy Shanaya (Alia Bhatt), who is torn between two fellow-students, the super-rich Rohan (Varun Dhawan) and the poorer – to the extent that impoverishment is allowed to peek through a Karan Johar production – Abhimanyu (Siddharth Malhotra). I think it’s safe to say that no three newcomers, in the history of cinema, have been so lovingly made up, coiffed, attired and photographed. This trio, along with classmates, competes for the titular trophy, the road to which, as in Goblet of Fire, is paved with a hunt filled with mysterious clues, a formal dance, and a triathlon (which even sounds like the Triwizard tournament).
How can such a lively premise result in such dullness? The blame may lie with characters who are as clichéd as they come. In an early scene, Rohan, who dreams of becoming a musician (his father, naturally, wants him to join the family business), strums his guitar and sings Papa kehte hain… Just as we begin to roll our eyes, he amps up the chords and snarls, “Who gives a f—!” In that moment, Johar seems to be promising us a new-generation youth, only too willing to shuck off decades of sentimental baggage. But soon, these promising characters are reduced to mothballed archetypes. Take Abhimanyu, for instance. At first, he’s an orphan, a striver – he wants it all. And he seems self-serving enough to get what he wants. But soon after, he becomes friends with Rohan, and his sharp edges get smoothed over. All he seems to be doing for entire stretches, thereon, is treat the camera like his bedroom mirror and say, “You handsome devil, you.” The clichés quickly pile up. Rohan and Abhimanyu are enemies before becoming cigarette-sharing buddies. Abhimanyu, at home, is saddled with a chiding aunt who takes her cues from Bindu, as he takes a cue from Rajendra Kumar and moons wordlessly over Shanaya’s earring.
The earlier Karan Johar would have played these melodramatic constructs at the pitch they are meant to be played, and the story would have sizzled. But now he wants to be a more genteel filmmaker – and a more experimental filmmaker, who’ll break the fourth wall by having characters speak to the camera – and, at this muted volume, these contrivances come off looking more than a little ridiculous. Even the melodrama, when it meanders into the story, feels unearned. The competition alluded to by the title is barely acknowledged in the first half, and then, post interval, we’re suddenly faced with friends turning cutthroat competitors, and a bizarre turnaround involving Dean Vashisht. We may have bought this latter development had he been shown as a sympathetic figure, but Johar reduces him to a simpering cartoon who simply does not have the stature to support all this dramatic weight. The newcomers are earnest (though Alia Bhatt looks alarmingly young; you want to avert your eyes when she shows up in a bikini), but how can you take them seriously when even their tears seem to have been flown in from the ramps of Milan?
Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.