Ten years ago, the head of St. Theresa University resigned from his post following the Student of the Year competition, which he had organized for a quarter of a century. He condition is now worst and is alone in a hospital. Sudo (Kayoze Irani), a former student is in charge of warning some comrades of the last promotion to go to his bedside. They are all there except Abhimanyu (Sidharth Malhotra), Rohan (Varun Dhawan) and Shanaya (Alia Bhatt). The friends then recall the dramatic events that led to the headmaster's withdrawal.
Shanaya was a fashonista who maintained an affair with Rohan, son of a very high profile businessman. Rohan, instead, allowed himself to be seduced by Tanya (Sana Saeed), who is hungry for relations for benefit. At the beginning of the year, the beautiful Abhimanyu, from a very modest family, joined the university. The rich brat Rohan tries to humiliate him, but Abhi does not let himself be counted and it ends inevitably in the office of the headmaster (Rishi Kapoor).
The latter is openly gay, which does not prevent him from leading the university with energy. He is about to launch the 25th edition of the Student of the Year competition where the best students will compete for a major prize of a scholarship at an international university.
Student of the Year is the fifth film by Karan Johar as a screenwriter-director. Some of his previous achievements have been good successes and some, like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai are still unavoidable references. He is also a major personality, whose every appearance, whether in a social evening, on a television set or in his own shows, is always very noticeable. This man, who at 40 years old has his whole life ahead, offers us at the end of 2012 a strange film.
At first sight, he presents us here with a traditional love triangle with two young men tearing each other for the favours of a young lady. Only, we notice from the first minutes that something goes wrong with the object of their student of desire. Alia Bhatt in the role of Shanaya is not very pretty and not of a classic beauty, which would not have been unacceptable if she had presence or strong personality. Unfortunately, she is very little expressive and the role given to her is particularly poor.
To make matters worse, she is rather young and to grow, she is adorned with accouterments all more hideous than the other with shoes with interminable heels, very short dresses with the belt worn very high to lengthen the legs artificially but which shortens the bust etc. Finally, her character should be about twenty year old. Alia is not the girl next door.
If the idea was to make Shanaya an object of quasi-mute desire, Bollywood was not lacking starlets all more attractive to each other to give credibility to the interest carried by the two males. But no. And this is a first source of astonishment. This surprise is accentuated by the other female character, Tanya, interpreted by Sana Saeed who was the little Anjali in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.
This little girl who has touched millions of spectators in 1998, plays here for her first adult role, an unbearable cagole, a chatty and ultimately vulgar version of the starlet mentioned just before. If Shanaya has no interest, Tanya is a foil. When we add the cowardly mother of Rohan, one comes to think that Student of the Year really does not put value to women. The only positive female figure is Abhi's grandmother, interpreted by the adorable Farida Jalal.
Yet the film presents itself at first glance as a comedy as one would have expected of Karan Johar. A small group of young people, idle and wealthy for some, savor the easy life in a crested university. The same starting point was recognized as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, St. Theresa having replaced St. Xavier.
But even more than in its illustrious predecessor, the situations shown are very excessive and one tries awkwardly to make us believe that it is to a film than life that we are invited. The stakes are yet simultaneously weak and infantile, like the treasure hunt supposed to demonstrate the general culture of the students.
Abhimanyu remains the whirlwind of feelings, touted as the strong point of the film. Two ephebes thus clash for the heart of a beautiful lady. But what strikes at the outset is the cinematographic treatment of the two heroes. They are detailed under all seams and their extreme virility is put forward rarely. One then comes to notice the innumerable allusions to homosexuality. This of course begins with the headmaster played by the formidable Rishi Kapoor.
He plays a crazy role like never before in the Indian cinema. He goes very far, for example, when he spills a cup of tea on his suit in front of the gymnastics teacher's and says, Oh my God, I'm all wet! I'm all wet! Of course the comic spring is there, but it's finally more touching than funny, and light years of the usual fat jokes like those that Bodyguard makes us suffer for example.
Beyond the suggestive slowdowns, the glances exchanged, the male couple during the dance test, or the explicit mimicry of Vaibhavi Merchant in this same ordeal, the question is openly asked between the two men: Are you gay?
The film then takes on a different dimension, far removed from a Dostana where homosexuality was only a lure.
Student of the Year offers two superimposed stories of a naïve, traditional and unimportant storytelling and an evocation of masculine homosexuality that excludes women. She is ill-assumed, as when Abhi asks Rohan, Are you not going to kiss me, are you? And that finally, after a final denial, he merely embraces him in all honour.
The film even takes on a moving twist when we realize the number of autobiographical elements that Karan Johar has disseminated there. He is the flamboyant principal of course, but also Sudo formidably interpreted by Kayoze Irani, and certainly a little Rohan who has very difficult relations with his father and who does not know if he really likes women.
Student of the Year becomes touching and understandable. However, it did not dare to take the step as Ang Lee in The Secret of Brokeback Mountain had been able to do. Karan Johar is just scratching the surface and his subliminal message of tolerance and suffering remains obscure.
In order to evoke his own story, newcomers were needed to make this film entirely his own and thus assume full responsibility for it. They are doing well in a modest way, if not perhaps Sidharth Malhotra, on whom rumors of relationship with Karan Johar circulated two years ago. The secondary roles are better even though they sometimes have almost no text like Rohit Roy.
The music by the duo Vishal-Shekhar leaves no more memory than choreographies carried by actors whose dances are mediocre. It may be necessary to save Disco Deewane, which is a rearranged cover of a huge disco number dating from 1981 by the Pakistani singer Nazia Hassan. Its little inventive staging can be seen with pleasure and the song tends to stay in the ear.
Student of the Year leaves a mixed impression. The love triangle of which Alia Bhatt constitutes one of the summits is neither credible nor moving. It may, however, be considered in the first degree. Unfortunately, disappointment could then prevail because it suffers strongly from the comparison with previous works of Karan Johar.
The film was co-produced by Red Chillies, the production company of Gauri Khan and her husband, Shah Rukh Khan, and is based on the name of her screenwriter-director. The many autobiographical aspects it contains is on the emphasis on male homosexuality. The fantasized love story depicted in filigree in the film is actually between the two men. This aspect is visibly so taboo in India that it was largely erased by the cinematic press.
Conversely, it was able to shock in the West by its hidden sides and in the end was quite shameful. One could also be embarrassed by the misogyny displayed.