“Student of the Year”… Couture couture hota hai

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.”Hosted by imgur.com

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.

17 thoughts on ““Student of the Year”… Couture couture hota hai

  1. Clearly none of your readers care about SOTY. Please watch and write about Argo!

    P.S. Received your book from Flipkart. Can’t wait to start reading. :-)

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  2. “..but how can you take them seriously when even their tears seem to have been flown in from the ramps of Milan?”

    Words stringed well..!

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  3. There is no way I am going to venture into theater to watch a KJo film after that drivel called MNIK, but I have a question – is any character in the film a non-punjabi?

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  4. I liked that too. And I couldn’t help laughing at this one: “…and the poorer – to the extent that impoverishment is allowed to peek through a Karan Johar production – Abhimanyu…” :)

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  5. Do they have proms in Indian schools or is it just that KJ watches too many American movies and soaps?

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  6. The movie is fresh and all 3 newcomers are immensely charming. Its a fun watch. The movie would not disappoint you even a bit.!!

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  7. Nidhi: I swear :-) I seriously thought this film would evoke more response. Even my “Aiyyaa” review got more comments. :-)

    oneWithTheH: OMG, that was funny! Thanks.

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  8. Pingback: External Reviews: Student Of The Year | theW14.com

  9. I usually share similar opinions to yours for most movies. So, reading your review made me feel that my brain cells probably need re-testing, because I was touched in parts by the movie when I looked beyond the coutures, the prom dances and private jets and ferrari, but that was a little difficult to do. I just feel that this was targeted at a different age group, and I was wayyyyy past that age, but even then, I felt that Karan Johar still holds the reins strongly, and he balanced the entertainment like an expert. Felt like I was watching a movie by an experienced director who knows how to blend the masala well. After a few thought-provoking and/or thrillers and character-driven-plots that has sparked so many discussions, I thought this was one movie where I was not repelled by the goriness, unlike Rowdy Rathore, or bored by secret agents trying to show that they are in love as in ‘Ek Tha Tiger’…mainly once I stopped rolling my eyes over the gloss, this was an easy movie to like, especially given that the music was well intertwined, and though it sagged a bit at parts, it sort of pushed it through at the end.
    If my assumptions about the target age is correct, then this movie hits the spot right on. And just once a year (no more), I would rather have a movie where the darkest problems of the 18 year old is revolting against a super-rich father, rather than drugs and murder and politics. The latter is probably the ‘reality’ but sometimes the former is required to give some of us a moment of escapism.
    Ah well, seems like I am defending why I liked it :D…and I am feeling a little ashamed about that.

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  10. “Man,There is nothing more I hate than paying 150 bucks and having to deal with some new plot “- Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes

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  11. Apu: “And just once a year (no more), I would rather have a movie where the darkest problems of the 18 year old is revolting against a super-rich father, rather than drugs and murder and politics.”

    Of course. I just would have like these issues to have affected me at some point. It was almost as if they felt that dwelling on characters would be detrimental to the film. Look at “Bobby,” today, for instance — a teen movie that’s fun and frothy and yet gets you to care about the characters, even though it’s the same old rich-boy-poor-girl stuff.

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  12. Brangan, yes, I agree, the movie could have had a little more dwelling and depth of characterization, at least exploring those questions that it throws up about acceptance, friendship, competition. I am at least happy that it does not try to do a pseudo-analysis like ‘Main Hoon Na’ , and I enjoyed that movie too.

    I guess I am being patronizing to the 16-20 age group when I say that maybe it was made to serve froth and gloss to that group, and I am way too old to fit in there, but I felt that’s where the heart of the movie was. Are the 16-20 year olds really looking for a movie with only froth and gloss? No idea. Would I have enjoyed it when I was at that age? Well, at that age I would have probably been banned by my parents from watching a movie that spreads ‘hedonism and western (non) culture’ :D, and that would have really made this movie very very attractive to a rebelling teenager.

    ‘Bobby’ has a few layers, yes.

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  13. “Do they have proms in Indian schools or is it just that KJ watches too many American movies and soaps?”

    If K-Jo had learned anything from American movies, chances are the protagonists would have been more normal looking, and the rich, model-y students would be the asshole jocks and bitchy girl who get a major comeuppance at the end!

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  14. Here’s my theory on Karan Johar (based, as usual, on little or no data): He knows exactly what he is aiming for in all his movies. That doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t look back on it and regret that he made them a certain way.

    I think he wanted to cut out the melodrama and go for a slightly more matter-of-fact tone, but didn’t quite figure out a way of having that matter-of-factness coexist with the lamborghinis and the Pradas.

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  15. Ever since the first look of the film and trailers….things certainly looked too much like American girl soap operas. I can just imagine Johar at night, laying on his bed, wrapped in a silk robe, watching a whole season of Gossip Girl while munching on chocolate dipped strawberries… God…

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