Take the college romance of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the hilarious bromance of Kal Ho Na Ho and Kareena’s outrageous wardrobe from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham; mix it all up and there you have it: Student of the Year (SOTY). Another candy floss extravaganza from the master confectioner we know as Karan Johar.
This time he whisks us off to a posh boarding school set amidst rolling green hills, where the girls wear mini-skirts and the boys drive Ferraris (no, we’re not talking about Mohabbatein). There we meet Rohan (Varun Dhawan), the spoilt son of a wealthy businessman; Abhimanyuv (Sidhart Malhotra), the honest hardworking, scholarship student and Shanaya (Alia Bhatt), the poor little rich girl who buys every designer handbag because “there’s no counter that sells love.”
The stage seems set for a good old-fashioned rich boy vs poor boy tussle but with a typical Johar twist, the two guys wind up becoming best friends and we get to sit back and enjoy some great song and dance. Unfortunately, the eponymous Student of the Year competition kicks off right about half time and turns friends into bitter rivals.
The plot may be as skimpy as Sana Saeed’s bikini — that’s the sweet little Anjali of KKHH now playing Tanya the temptress — but SOTY gets full marks for cheeky exuberance. Johar’s one-liners are as witty as ever and his trademark humour finds perfect outlet in the character of Dean Yoginder, played with ‘gay’ abandon by the evergreen Rishi Kapoor. Indeed, the Dean’s infatuation with the football coach, played by Ronit Roy, makes for some of the best lines — “Coach Coach hota hai...” — and Rishi’s brief re-enactment of his famous Dafli Walay is a perfect high point to Radha’s saucy lyrics. These lyrics got Johar slapped with a legal notice but the result was probably well worth it as the song totally captures the mood of the film.
Most of the songs are hummable, especially Ratta Maar and Vele and the remixes (Gulabi Ankhay and Yeh Chand Sa Roshan Chehra) add just the right touch of pastiche without making a hash of the song. Unfortunately, Nazia Hasan’s Disco Deewanay would have been better left alone.
As befits a story showcasing all the agony and ecstasy of adolescence, the film is the perfect vehicle for Bollywood’s next crop of superstars, many of whom hail from filmy backgrounds. David Dhawan’s son pulls your heartstrings as the rich brat who craves his father’s love while Boman Irani’s son, Kayoze, has inherited his father’s flair for comedy. Mahesh Bhatt’s daughter, Alia, unfortunately, has nothing much to do except look pretty; Sidhart Malhotra, too, is a feast for the eyes but at least he has an actual role in the story.
Aah, the story. The Rohan-Shanaya-Abhi love triangle never seems completely believable, but then it is not romance that lies at the heart of this frothy junket — it’s friendship. Johar reverts to a popular theme in Bollywood these days — that an excessively competitive academic life can be hazardous to your happiness. The Student of the Year competition in all its inanity (the clues to the treasure hunt are drawn from Bachchan’s films) underlines the message that the shiny trophy you are pursuing may not be worth losing a friendship over. As Abhi sums up at the end “the friends we make at school know us better than our parents.”
The theme is not new: Aamir Khan said it in Taare Zameen Par and again in Three Idiots; Aditya Chopra said it in Mohabbatein. The difference is that Johar uses a lighter touch, a joke instead of a sermon. Unlike the others, SOTY refuses to take itself seriously and thus escapes being a pompous pain. Quite an achievement for a Bollywood film in this day and age.