If John Hughes had made a Bollywood movie, it would be Student of the Year (SOTY henceforth). Writer-director Karan Johar incorporates some of the best elements of ’80s teen romantic comedies into a film that feels current but familiar.
The film begins with some direct-to-camera monologues — a la Ferris Bueller — that I wasn’t initially in love with. The technique allows Sudo (Kayoz Irani, son of Boman Irani, who steals the show in a brief cameo) to introduce present-day circumstances and explain how past events influenced them.
The “present-day” I’m referring to is actually ten years in the future. The film isn’t especially clear on when “now” is, though there is a flashback to 2011 within the main flashbacks, so “now” is 2022 and “then” is 2012. Hang on to those ripped jeans, fellas, because they’ll be stylish again in ten years.
Sudo sets the stage as he and several of his former classmates gather at the hospital to attend to the ailing former dean of their prep school (played by Rishi Kapoor). The dean left the school in disgrace, and Sudo and his classmates feel responsible.
As in many Hughes films, economic class has a huge influence on the lives of the teens at the heart of the story. St. Theresa’s High School in India populated by the wealthy offspring of business tycoons and academically gifted scholarship students.
Chief among the rich kids is Rohan Nanda (Varun Dhawan), the younger son of one of India’s richest men. Friendship with Rohan is seen as the surest path to future wealth. The most popular girl in school, Shanaya (Alia Bhatt), is rich herself, yet her parents push her to date Rohan, just to be safe.
Little do the other students know that Rohan is the black sheep of his family. His musical ambitions embarrass his father, who doesn’t hide his feelings from his son.
The tension within the Nanda family becomes more pronounced when Rohan befriends the new kid in school. Abhi (Siddharth Malhotra) is a scholarship student who is academically and athletically every bit Rohan’s match, and Rohan likes having a real peer among a sea of suck-ups.
Ambitious Abhi knows just what to say to impress Mr. Nanda, who seems to wish that Abhi was his son instead of Rohan. When Abhi suggests to Shanaya that the way to cure Rohan of his wandering eye is to make him jealous — using Abhi as the new object of her affection — it becomes clear that his ambition may be more important than his loyalty to his friend.
Rounding out the Breakfast-Club-like motley crew are nerdy Sudo, Shanaya’s tomboy best friend Shruti, slutty Tanya, and Rohan’s right-hand-man Jeet. While they are peripheral players to the main love triangle, they all compete in the titular “Student of the Year” competition that takes up the second half of the film.
The competition itself is inherently unfair, which the film acknowledges. Given that the final stage of a four-part competition is a triathlon, one might as well skip the preliminaries and hand the trophy to Abhi, who’s about a foot taller than everyone else. Nevertheless, the second half of the film contains some entertaining interpersonal drama and a great dance competition, which Kajol crashes for no apparent reason.
Though the film unapolagetically uses its youthful cast of unknowns as eye candy — the lingering pans of Malhotra’s manscaped torso are practically pornographic — the actors show some real promise. Malhotra is able to pull off emotional scenes as easily as he pulls off his shirt. Bhatt does a fine job as her character grows beyond her spoiled rich-girl beginnings.
Of the three leads, Dhawan seems the most capable of establishing a real career as an actor. He’s a tremendous dancer, which is a plus. His character is arguably the hardest to execute in that he needs to become more than just a snobby a-hole. Rohan is Steff from Pretty in Pink, but with a conscience. It’s easy to root for a poor, orphaned underdog like Abhi, but by the end of the film, I was on Team Rohan.
Teenage struggles with developing friendships, a sense of identity, and self-worth have been around forever, and Johar is beholden to use those plot triggers. In another nod to Hughes, Johar includes an array of catchy song-and-dance numbers in the film. Apart from some continuity issues and the questionable direct-to-camera monologues, Student of the Year is a really successful film.