Student of the Year: Film Review

Student of the Year Film Still - H 2012

Student of the Year Film Still - H 2012

Nepotism and an immature approach to homosexuality doom this Bollywood college love triangle.

Two students battle it out for the love of a girl in Karan Johar's film.

EMERYVILLE, Calif. — Homoerotic, yet — like one of its frustrated characters — too timid to just come out and own its fabulousness, Student of the Year is a lie from beginning to end.

Filmmaker Karan Johar is known for his turgid love stories and huge, crowd-pleasing dance numbers. His formula up till now, though not taken very seriously by critics, has been hugely successful with audiences; his last four films have starred Bollywood’s top megastar, Shah Rukh Khan, and though his last film with the star, My Name Is Khan (2010), explored the serious issue of racial discrimination, Johar is still largely known as a frothy filmmaker.

Released Oct. 19,Student of the Year capitalized on Johar’s marquee value to overcome shaky performances, derivative, sub-par music and blatant emotional fakery to woo a respectable audience.

With this film, Johar has taken the unusual step of casting all unknowns in the three major roles in what is ultimately a coming-of-age story.

Rohan (Varun Dhawan) and Abhimanyu (Siddharth Malhotra), students at St. Teresa’s College in the hills of Dehra Dun, battle it out for the love of Shanaya (Alia Bhatt) and success, and their rivalry reaches a climax at a grueling “Student of the Year” competition in which they not only have to ace a difficult academic test but also compete in a triathlon.

Dhawan and Bhatt are related to filmmakers known for pleasing the masses and infuriating critics (Varun is the son of comedy king David Dhawan, while Alia is the daughter of Jism 2 producer Mahesh Bhatt). Siddharth Malhotra is a former assistant director to Johar.

Nepotism, a practice set in stone in Hindi cinema, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some of the best talent in Hindi cinema is represented by the sons and daughters (and increasingly, nieces, nephews and grandchildren) of industry stalwarts, with celebrities such as Hrithik Roshan, Salman Khan, Sonakshi Sinha, Ajay Devgn, Kajol, Saif Ali Khan, Ranbir Kapoor, Imran Khan, Shahid Kapoor, Vivek Oberoi, Kajol, Karisma Kapoor and Aamir Khan genuinely deserving of their fame and success.

But although Student of the Year’s production values and story are solid, the film’s lead performances are uneven.

Malhotra has a lithe sex appeal and Dhawan shows promise as a dancer. But Bhatt is a washout. Not only is she inelegant in the dance numbers, but her expressions are limited; and the digital retouching of her face throughout the film is a distraction. In fact, her entire character — ostensibly the reason for the boys’ love triangle — is really superfluous, since the boys will work out their battle on the sports field anyway.

Which leads to the real problem with this film: Johar coyly skates around the topic, but this bi-curious film doesn’t have the pride to just come out.

The women in the film are either catty, ruthless or vacuous. The men hug and ask each other, “You aren’t gay, are you?” “You aren’t going to kiss me, are you?”

There are innumerable, loving close-up shots of so much male eye-candy here that it borders on parody: rippling abs, shaved chests and armpits; men hoisting their taut, wet bodies out of swimming pools or working out in a gym in a slow-motion montage.

One scene, shot on location in Koh Samui, Thailand, shows Malhotra and Bhatt emerging from the ocean in ultra-slow motion, Johar’s camera capturing every drop of seawater as it courses slowly down their smooth, brown skin: queer Bollywood’s version of a Bond Girl.

Rishi Kapoor is a talented actor of great range, but here he embarrasses himself in the role of college headmaster Vashisht, overplaying a simpering “unmarried” man with a penchant for wearing pink and purple polka-dotted neckties and rhinestone lapel pins. Vashist’s unrequited crush for a buff (but married) 40-something college coach (Ronit Roy) is a subplot with a sad ending: Vashisht dies alone.

Regarding homosexuality onscreen, this of all times is the most promising era for queer themes in Indian cinema. The government in 2009 decriminalized homosexuality for the first time; HIV/AIDS issues are finally being discussed onscreen; and for the past two years the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival has grown in prestige and reach.

But mainstream Bollywood is still in the dark ages when it comes to showing mature, loving same-sex relationships. Not only is Student of the Year cinematically stale, but it’s also politically dishonest.

Opened: Oct. 19, 2012
Cast: Siddharth Malhotra, Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Rishi Kapoor, Ronit Roy
Director: Karan Johar
Screenwriters: Rensil DeSilva, Niranjan Iyengar
Producers: Hiroo Johar, Gauri Khan
Executive producer: Marijke deSouza
Director of photography: Ayananka Bose
Production designer: Amrita Mahal Nakai
Costume designer: Manish Malhotra
Choreographers: Farah Khan, Vaibhavi Merchant, Remo D’Souza
Editor: Deepa Bhatia
Music: Vishal-Shekhar
Not rated, 146 minutes.