It must be a special feeling to inhabit the fantasized world of excess conjured up by Karan Johar. In all of his directorial films (yes, even the more "real" My Name Is Khan), behind the glossy, sparkly, perfectly manicured, unfairly good looking, singing-dancing, extravagant and loud setups, there lurk stories that actually say something honest about relationships and life. Or they at least try to. Johar's films have never been boring, and his latest Student Of The Year (SOTY) is no exception. But where his previous films at least offered a certain freshness and half-decent storylines to keep you interested, SOTY lacks in both those qualities.
In several interviews, Johar has called SOTY his quintessential holiday film, a statement that essentially excuses him from being responsible for the content he's offering. So, you know what's coming. And this is blatantly evident as the rich and polished milieu of St. Teresa's high school is introduced. It's a high school, mind you, not a college (as in his directorial debut Kuch Kuch Hota Hai). But these high schoolers show up the collegiate Raj and Anjali by leaps and bounds.
Within the pristine grounds, these high schoolers drive Ferraris, BMWs, and Lamborghinis. They dine in a cafeteria that will put any Michelin-starred restaurant to shame. They live in dorm rooms decked out with designer furniture. And on a bad day, they throw on their Dolce & Gabbana shirts, swing on their Louis Vuitton bags and slip on their Jimmy Choo shoes. Compared to this, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was art-house realism.
In this world, we are introduced to Rohan (Varun Dhawan), the rich spoilt brat with a disapproving tycoon father. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Abhimanyu (Sidharth Malhotra), the middle-class parentless scholarship student who wants to climb the ladder. And then there's Rohan's girlfriend Shanaya (Alia Bhatt). She shops.
The beach-toned triad is surrounded by a platter of supporting actors that actually give the film some warmth and dynamism. There's Sana Saeed (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai's little Anjali back in seductress avatar), Kayoze Irani (Boman Irani's son), Manjot Singh, Manasi Rachh and Sahil Anand. Together with the three leads, this group of students forms a love-hate dynamic with enough misplaced feelings (sexual orientation being no barrier) that keep the film trundling along.
The cherry on the cake (ahem) is their gay, feisty, elegant and chatty high school principal, played by Rishi Kapoor, who has a crush on the married school coach (Ronit Roy).
The plot, which is as superficial as the school, meanders from a vague setup about a competition, to awkward bromance, to half-naked games of jealousy on Thai beaches, back to awkward bromance, to threesome romancing in the snow of Kashmir, to threatened bromance, and eventually back to the vague competition where you get to see the pretty people pant and sweat and where apparently clothing is optional.
The script is designed specifically around high-octane set pieces. Every ten minutes or so, the vacuous storyline leads right into another opportunity for the students to sing and dance. There are remixes of old hits aplenty as well as the film's original soundtrack. Johar does have a knack for making the musical numbers fun and frothy. The young cast ooze plenty of energy to keep things lively. If nothing else, you'll get through the film waiting for the next song.
Unlike his previous films, Johar struggles with the overarching point of SOTY. It's not about true love stemming from friendship, or about loving your parents. In fact, almost every parent in SOTY is vilified and blamed for the kids being so dysfunctional. And there's definitely no Khan who is also not a terrorist (that's right, no SRK cameo either, despite being a producer on this film).
The story of SOTY is bookended by a present day reunion, which is five years after the school competition that is now legend. The students are called to a hospital to visit their dying principal, who has apparently been guilt-ridden for destroying their friendships through the competition. Therefore, the assumption is that Johar is pointing at the importance of friendship over competition.
But then the flashbacks turn into a predictable love triangle, which leads to Rohan and Abhimanyu fracturing their friendship. So, it wasn't really the competition that ended their friendship. It was their hormones and a girl. And even if the competition is a metaphor for their fight to win the girl, is the film saying that she wasn't worth destroying their friendship over in the end? Perhaps I can't handle a Johar film leaving me confused as to what its main take-home message is supposed to be. But that's okay, there's another song coming up.
SOTY launches three new faces, a first for Johar. To their credit, Varun Dhawan, Sidharth Malhotra, and Alia Bhatt put in their best efforts and plenty of energy. It can't be easy bearing the pressure of carrying a Karan Johar film as a debut.
While Bhatt's character exists only to pout and be tossed from one guy to the other, Dhawan and Malhotra shoulder almost the entire film. They deliver for the most part, and their equation works enough to keep you interested. Malhotra handles the emotional scenes with more comfort while Dhawan displays a budding ability for comic timing.
A film as exorbitant as SOTY could have easily become painful and embarrassing in the hands of another director. Yet Karan Johar handles it with his usual flair for entertainment, which doesn't make it an exhausting or infuriating experience. However, he misses out on a decent storyline and any originality this time around, leaving an empty shell of film that is merely a display of gloss. That, and lots of oiled or sweaty bodies.