Student of the Year

Bollywood has made significant inroads into the Western market over the past fifteen years, but on the whole, white western audiences still don’t tend to consider a Bollywood film as a viable option when planning their trips to the cinema. That’s an attitude that films like Student of the Year are likely to help change, as Karan Johar (or KJo) – one of the highest grossing Bollywood directors in India and abroad – does a wonderful job of bridging the gap between Holly and Bolly.

[Note: The trailer is not subtitled, but it doesn’t need to be. It gives you a good enough flavour of the film using music and image alone.]

The plot concerns a group of students at St. Teresa’s, a prestigious and very Westernised school for India’s young elite. When their former Dean is taken ill, the group of former friends reunite at hospital to bid their farewells, and in doing so, recount their final year to camera, in which the Student of the Year competition eventually fractured and destroyed their friendship. The framing device is perhaps unnecessary, but the film is primarily concerned with flashbacks to the gang’s final year, in which a rivalry-friendship-back-to-rivalry dynamic develops between alpha male Rohan and newcomer Abhi (Varun Dhawanand and Siddharth Malhotra). And of course, there’s a girl in between them, in Alia Bhatt’s Shanaya.

Student of the Year is – and forgive me for this – like a Bollywood version of Glee. Incredibly, I don’t even mean that as an insult. If anything, it’s more an example of Bollywood reappropriating what was initially stolen from them, given the undeniable influence that the Bollywood musical style had on Glee, High School Musical etc.

While the plot of Student of the Year is almost entirely predictable, what makes it succeed are the characters. Aside from the Dean whose overt homosexuality is the the most obvious example of the film’s modernity – there’s also “Sudo”, the roly-poly intelligent one; Jeet, the nice-but-dim one; the tomboy; the slut; the outcast; etc. They may be stock types, but the accomplished young cast give them real warmth, and they’re written intelligently enough to subvert those simple tags. But those are just the ancillary characters; the real meat comes from the relationship between Abhi, Rohan and Shanaya. The masterstroke of KJo’s script is that it doesn’t paint either of the men as the hero. They’re different, and they’re opposing but neither of them is the ‘bad guy’. Rohan has daddy issues in that he cannot impress his dismissive father, while Abhi doesn’t even have one. They’re two sides of the same coin, and as a result, you want to root for both of them – which, not coincidentally, is the unfortunate position that Shanaya finds herself in.

There are problems with the film. As mentioned, the framing device adds little, and the run-time is – almost inevitably for a Bollywood flick – far too long to support what is actually a fairly flimsy story. A certain amount of time spent establishing and developing the relationships between the friends is great, and is necessary to ensure that come the climax, the audience is suitably invested, but here KJo takes far too long to cut to the chase. The Student of the Year competition is exciting and tense, and makes for a thrilling climax, as the simmering tensions between the gang come to a head, but the film takes far too long to get there. Thankfully, the intermission after an hour or so is a real godsend, and lessens the impact of this issue.

KJo directs with accomplished skill. From a treasure hunt, to a dance-off, to an intense triathlon, the competition sequences are slick and polished, and are as fun as they are exciting. Being a Bollywood film, Student of the Year is of course peppered with musical numbers, but they’re not the laughable, cringe-inducing affairs that many probably think of. These are ace; the songs catchy and lively, the choreography vibrant and modern and the sequences play as music videos that wouldn’t look out of place on MTV (or wherever it is the youth of today watch music videos.)

In fact, the entire film is a gorgeous affair. The costumes, sets and soundtrack are all decidedly contemporary, and the dialogue lapses curiously between English and Hindi almost to the extent that you could probably follow it without the subtitles. On that note, the subtitles let the film down badly, with the translation into English reading awfully clunky, and at times, just making no sense at all. Even objectively, putting aside our natural grammar-Nazi instincts, it’s a real hash job, and – judging by the reactions of native Hindi speakers in the audience – there are plenty of funny lines where the funny gets lost in translation.

On the whole, though, Student of the Year is a bright and breezy comedy drama, populated with likable and believable characters, and filled with catchy songs, vivid dance routines and enough self-awareness to work as both a genuine Bollywood film, whilst also serving as a western-infused evolution of one. Despite being too long, and lacking in surprises – and there is still the issue of those subtitles – Student of the Year remains a great amount of fun.

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