Movie Review: Student of the Year (2012)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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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.

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28 thoughts on “Movie Review: Student of the Year (2012)

    1. Kathy Post author

      Is your review available online, or is it print only, Keyur? I’m dying to know why you found SOTY offensive. :-)

      Reply
      1. Keyur Seta

        My review is only available in print. But I haven’t mentioned anything about this offensive thing since it is my personal opinion. I have only mentioned the negative points I found in the story, script and the treatment.

        Well, there are a lot of things I found offensive. Such movies just give free license to youngsters to just throw away your culture and behave in a careless manner. Difficult to explain in detail over here. Due to this, the movie hasn’t got a good response over here. Many were put off by the promos, including me. Looking at the movies released in the last few years, I (along with my other friends and wellwishers) am just horrified at Bollywood’s definition of Indian youth :)

        Reply
        1. Kathy Post author

          This seems like a transitional period for Indian filmmakers and moviegoers, Keyur. Globalization by its nature dilutes strong traditional cultures, and Karan Johar certainly has an eye on audiences outside of India (as well as a depth of knowledge of Hollywood films). I think there’s a bit of a conflict, too, in audiences wanting to watch “aspirational” movies about rich people while expecting the characters to hold traditional values. Rich people — especially kids who grew up rich, as the characters in the film did — get away with stuff the rest of us would never dream of. The characters in SOTY seem pretty true to their economic class (for good or ill). You’re right that audiences will decide with their pocketbooks whether these are really the kinds of characters they want to watch.

          Personally, I found the kids in SOTY pretty tame. A little bit of underage drinking and smoking, but the language didn’t seem too bad and there was no sex apart from one kiss. The most uncomfortable parts of the film were the lingering shots of the moistened, shirtless torsos of Malhotra and Dhawan. The guys are in great shape, for sure, but a glimpse is enough!

          Reply
          1. Shah Shahid

            Kathy: I’ll disagree with you about the transitional period. (Also keep in mind I haven’t seen STOY, just commenting generally)

            I think we’re well beyond any transitional period in Bollywood. We had a surge of Hollywood rip offs, westernization of the Bollywood soundtrack, (even now there’s an obligatory ‘remix’ / hiphop track in every OST) shedding of inhibitions in subject matter, ballsy portrayals of characters, etc. These have all caused Bollywood to progress very much in the last 10, or maybe more, years.

            Right now, I feel like it’s a numbers game. The most successful commercial films are always ones which are geared more for the NRI demographics, and marketed accordingly. It’s not always the case, but I’m disappointed when films like GANGS OF WASSEYPUR, I AM, DHOBI GHAT, KHUDA KE LIYE, etc… don’t see as much success, or are even a blip outside of South Asia.

            Reply
            1. Kathy Post author

              I guess the transitional period I’m thinking of, Shah Shahid, has to do with mainstream Bollywood embracing graphic violence and frank discussions of sexuality, beyond basic Westernization. There’s no way a porn star like Sunny Leone would’ve been cast in a Bollywood film even five years ago, is there? The move toward “youth-oriented” films — Luv Ka the End, etc. — seems willing to acknowledge premarital sex or at least the reality of teenage sexual urges. (FWIW, the content in SOTY is no racier than anything in The Breakfast Club from 30 years ago.) Am I wrong in seeing a new trend here?

              As for films like Gangs of Wasseypur and Dhobi Ghat (I’ll add That Girl in Yellow Boots to the list), a savvy producer or distributor would seek to market this type of movie not just to NRIs but to a general international audience, regardless of ethnicity. Why shouldn’t these films be treated the same as “art films” from The Netherlands, Brazil, Japan, or anywhere else? My two favorite films of the year are Headhunters from Norway and Kahaani, and it ticks me off that Kahaani didn’t get promoted the same way that Headhunters did here in the U.S.

              Reply
          2. Keyur Seta

            @Kathy
            I agree it’s a transitional phase but that doesn’t mean you refrain from showing the real youth of India. Of course, there are people who have thrown aside our culture and who by no means appear Indian but they are nowhere near the majority. I am strongly against anything that poses a threat to Indian values and Bollywood films these days (SOTY) are glorifying and encouraging it. I have been staying in India all my life but I have hardly come across the type of youngsters that are portrayed as Indian youth in Bollywood films in the last few years.
            I disagree that globalization dilutes cultural values. One can easily adapt to globalization by keeping his/ her culture intact. For me, globalization is equal opportunity to all, justice, speaking on issues that have keep kept taboo, destroying differentiation on the basis of religion and caste, instead of what is shown in such films. I agree there was no sex but I found the overall behavior, attitude and mannerisms of the so-called Indian youth disturning. I have the same grudge for other such films like Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, Luv Ka The End, Mujhse Frandship Karoge, Cocktail, etc.
            My comment was only against such movies and not against you. Hope you don’t feel bad, Kathy.

            @ Shah Shahid
            Totally agree with you that it has gone way beyond harmless Govinda films and also on your point that progressive films lack mainstream budget. And I was annoyed at Ra.One’s cheap adult humour in a children’s film.

            Cheers!

            Reply
            1. Kathy Post author

              No offense taken, Keyur. :-) I think I see where you’re coming from. Correct me if I’m wrong, but is your main problem with the disrespectful attitudes of the younger characters in SOTY? That’s what stood out to me. I don’t think most kids are as rude as the characters in SOTY, wealthy or not. I didn’t like the way Alia Bhatt’s character was introduced: She’s rich! She’s stylish! She’s got “attitude!” Is “attitude” really an appealing trait, or is that just a polite way of saying she’s a mean snob?

              Also, your description of globalization as a force for social change is apt.

              Reply
        2. Shah Shahid

          I agree with you, to a point. I think escapist Cinema in India has gone beyond the harmless Govinda film, to lengths which are awkward and utterly offensive in some ways. RA.ONE comes to mind: consisting of two completely inappropriate songs, with crude lyrics & choreography in a film supposedly for kids.

          There are progressive films coming out in the Industry, however they lack the mainstream budget, backing and appeal for the masses. Which I find sad.

          Reply
          1. Keyur Seta

            @Kathy
            Sorry for a late reply. Have been too tied up these days.
            Apart from their attitude, my problem was their way of living, speaking, mannerisms, clothes (oh that scene where a guy is trying to study while a minimally dressed girl lies near him and he ends up reading ‘cleavage’. Huh?), jealousy and lastly, the encouragement to consume alcohol at such young age (alcohol is against the law in India for people under 25). So, as I said before, I am just unable to categorize them as Indian youth. I find it more weird because the story is taking place in Dehradun, which is a small town in India :)
            Sorry I forgot to mention the main point last time. What made me most furious was the song ‘Radha On The Dance Floor’. Radha is considered God in India and people worship her. So how the hell can you label her with a ‘sexy body’???

            And thanks for appreciating that article, Kathy :). How did you find that one by the way? :)

            I read your latest post. Take care of your finger. Blog posts can wait :) Get well soon. Good to know you liked Chakravyuh. Also got to know about Sandy. Let’s hope it doesn’t affect much.

            @Shah Shahid
            You most welcome. Thanks for signing and spreading :)

            @Kathy and Shah Shahid
            This is a must read interview of Onir – http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-10-22/news-interviews/34652925_1_indie-cinema-bengali-film-onir

            Reply
            1. Kathy Post author

              Thanks for the link to the great interview with Onir, Keyur. And thanks for expanding on your thoughts about SOTY. I had no idea the drinking age in India is 25.

              I found your article when I was checking your site to see if you reviewed Luv Ka the End. My brother teaches a course on the sociology of pop culture at University of Massachusetts Boston, and to illustrate the concept of how people of different backgrounds perceive media differently, he showed his class Luv Ka the End. Then my brother had his students read my review of the movie as well as Taran Adarsh’s review, since he responded to the film very differently from the way I did. I recommended that my brother read your piece on the depiction of young people in contemporary Hindi films as background material.

              Time for me to go back to watching news coverage of Superstorm Sandy. I’ve never seen anything like it. The storm was large and powerful enough that, while the main storm was hitting New York last night, winds from Sandy were creating 20-foot waves on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago, 800 miles/1280 km away!

              Reply
              1. Keyur Seta

                You most welcome, Kathy :) Thanks for understanding my point of view. Some of my Indian friends are unable to do so :P
                So glad to know you made your brother read my piece for that. Thanks :)
                I was freelancing for some little known website (which has shut down now) when Luv Ka The End released. I didn’t put it on my blog. I just hated that film. Read your review of that film and liked it.

                Last night I saw the disturbing pictures of Sandy. Hope it stops soon. Be safe.

                I read your and Shah’s conversation about adapting a book into a film. Co-incidentally, last week I saw a Marathi movie which is based on a classic Marathi novel of the 70s. I read the book before watching the movie. I loved the film since it produced the same feeling which the book did. My view – http://haltichitre.blogspot.in/2012/10/direction-sameer-ramesh-surve.html

                Cheers :)

                Reply
  1. Shah Shahid

    Being a Karan Johar movie, I wasn’t going to pass on SOTY, however your comparison of this to John Hughes ventures in the 1st line of your review… just shot it to the top of my ‘must watch’ list.
    Bold claim… I’ll hold you to it. ;)

    Great Review by the way, spoiler-free and not a scene by scene commentary of what happens… which annoys me.

    From all the trailers and intense marketing hype (which I get to experience in dollops being in South Asia, unlike North America) I picked out Dhawan to be the stronger actor among the two male debuts. Malhotra has this, eye squinting quality which seems irritating. I’m glad you happen to agree… however, mine is all pre-lim prejudices until I actually watch the movie and the roles as intended.

    Again… great review!

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Thanks for the compliments, Shah Shahid! With all the recent hubbub about plagiarism, SOTY showcases how to incorporate influences and acknowledge earlier films without copying anything directly. Johar distilled the spirit of a John Hughes movie into a Karan Johar movie.

      Reply
      1. Shah Shahid

        I think that’s key. Bollywood has this stigma of ‘plagiarizing’ films from Hollywood, however true ‘inspirations’ are have happened.

        Take a look at GHAJINI (from MEMENTO) or BLUFFMASTER (from MATCHSTICK MEN)… movies ‘inspired’ by Hollywood, however the Indian versions were tweaked so much, that they look on a life of their own with original concepts, not portrayed in the source film.

        There’re a lot of counterparts between Hollywood & Bollywood. I’ve always felt Ram Gopal Varma was an Indian Quentin Tarantino (with a lower commercial success rate, of course.

        Reply
        1. Kathy Post author

          Good examples. Look at the trade off that’s happening now between Hollywood and South Korea. Contemporary Korean thrillers influenced by old Hollywood thrillers are inspiring new Hollywood thrillers. Inspiration and influence are good for the industry, while direct plagiarism is bad. Knowing the difference is vital.

          Reply
          1. Shah Shahid

            Completely agree. I think any film maker should read and watch both the film and novel versions of THE PRESTIGE.

            That is the truest form of adapting a story from one medium to the other, seamlessly while keeping the soul intact, that I’ve ever experienced. There is no order to follow, as the stories and sequence of events in both vary, however the essence of the story is true in both versions.

            Reply
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