What makes the Varun Dhawan - Alia Bhatt - Sidharth Malhotra-starrer Student of the Year so Iconic

From giving us a powerhouse of talent to cute-ifying cusswords, SOTY is a gift that keeps giving
What makes the Varun Dhawan - Alia Bhatt - Sidharth Malhotra-starrer Student of the Year so Iconic

It’s 2012. Director and producer Karan Johar has made his first movie since the debacle of My Name is Khan and instead of filling his cast with established stars as he usually does, this one has three new faces: Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan and Sidharth Malhotra. Few would have guessed that 10 years later, the biggest star and most respected actor from this trio would be Alia Bhatt.

When it was released, Student of the Year (SOTY) was loved and hated with equal passion. Its aspirational elitism, high-school politics and age-old romance tropes made it seem like Bollywood had been granted its very own Disney show. The film was also called out for its paper-thin characters and shallow writing. After Bhatt, Dhawan and Malhotra graced the couch on season 4 of Koffee With Karan with Karan Johar, all three — particularly Bhatt — seemed like an extension of the characters they played in SOTY. Jokes about Bhatt being an empty-headed bimbo would be cracked for years. At the time, a lot of people rolled their eyes at how two out of the three debutantes that Johar chose for SOTY were star kids. As it turned out, all three have stayed in the limelight and their debut film, against all odds, remains memorable. Here’s why.

The advent of Alia Bhatt

With ‘Gulabi Aankhen’ marking her arrival, Shanaya from SOTY provided little indication of who Bhatt would grow to become. The then 19-year-old played the wine-throwing, understated Regina George of Bollywood, who realises there is more at stake in her school life than winning an intra-school competition. By which we mean she finds herself in a love triangle. Today, with films like Raazi (2018) and Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022) to her name, Bhatt has not just proved herself to be a skilled, versatile actor, but she’s also a star who headlines blockbuster films.

Bollywood’s new batch

Along with Bhatt, the other debutants of SOTY were Varun Dhawan, Sidharth Malhotra and Kayoze Irani (he’s Boman Irani’s son). Johar also relaunched Sana Saeed, who had last been seen as eight-year-old Anjali in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and now delivered a culture shock as the boyfriend-stealing Tanya. Of the cast of characters in SOTY, the one who is perhaps most memorable is Irani as Kaizad "Sudo" Sodabottleopenerwala. He has a monologue towards the end of the film that many Indian students will find easy to recall. In real life, Dhawan and Malhotra went on to join the ranks of Hindi cinema’s bankable stars. Coincidentally, Malhotra has a release this week — Thank God — and it’s a far cry from what you’d expect from his Abhi in SOTY.

Absolved by abs

There’s a scene in SOTY that has Bhatt sauntering on a beach in a bikini, which makes Dhawan’s Ro drop his sunglasses to ogle her better and Malhotra’s Abhi gape. However, if this was a scene for the male gaze, there were many scenes for the female (and queer) gaze in which Dhawan and Malhotra’s lost their shirts so that their abs dominated the screen. The abs added about as much to the men’s character as the bikini did for Bhatt — and no one complained.

The Impact of Ishq Wala Love

This was more than a simple love song. ‘Ishq Wala Love’ inspired its own sub-culture of memes back in 2012 and yet, like most of SOTY’s songs, this gaana-waala song was terribly catchy. We urge you to listen to it once and bet you will hum it for the rest of the day. It’s a classic love song and despite its lyrics technically making about as much sense as ‘chai tea latte’, there’s something oddly poetic about the Hinglish words.

The SRK connection

SOTY was Johar’s first film in which Shah Rukh Khan didn’t play a leading role, though he was a co-producer. Johar had originally written the dean’s role for Khan, but both realised he wasn’t the right fit. Ultimately, Rishi Kapoor was offered the role and he was a joy to watch (more on that later). Coincidentally, Khan made his debut in Raj Kanwar’s Deewana (1992) opposite Kapoor, so it felt rather poetic for the Khan to step aside to make way for the veteran actor in SOTY.

A Gay Man In A Position Of Power

Taking the Dostana route, Johar took homosexuality and gave it a pulpy, delicious, politically misbehaved shape by casting Rishi Kapoor as the bow-tied, gay principal in SOTY. Despite being given a character that was a caricature, Kapoor imbued his performance with charm and never seemed to cancel out the principal-ness of the role. Even at his silliest, he was unmistakably a character in a position of power. His queerness also had this aching longing that kept peeking out of the histrionics.

Meme-wala Movie

Long before Bhatt became a meme fixture — from Raazi (2018) to Gully Boy (2019) to Brahmastra Part One: Shiva (2022), practically every film of hers has a wealth of memeworthy moments — she first went viral thanks to her appearance on Koffee With Karan. The interview took place as part of SOTY promotions. Asked to name the president of India, Bhatt enthusiastically said the name of Maharashtra's former chief minister instead. Net result: Memes that pointed out Bhatt was far from being a 'student of the year'. (We’d just like to point out, no one made memes about Dhawan, who said “Manmohan Singh”.) That wasn’t all. 'Ishq Wala Love' served up its own bounty, of which this remains a favourite.

Cute-ified cusswords

Not that we’re defending bad language, but when Malhotra’s uber-cool Abhi said, “Cha pe oo ki matra, tuh pe ee ki matra, yuh pe aa ki maatra”, it became a sensation. It also stripped this abuse of much of its sting, turning it instead into something that was giggle-worthy. For months afterwards, kids and adults used this phrase for its tongue-in-cheek humour, delighting in the crafty spin it puts on a well-known abuse.

Remix-wala hit

Who didn’t dance to ‘Disco Deewane’ in 2012? Composers Vishal-Shekhar have given us memorable remixes of songs from the Eighties, the most popular one being ‘The Disco Song’, which was originally sung by Pakistani singer Nazia Hassan in 1981. Portions of Hassan’s voice were retained and blended into the new song, giving the track its retro charm. Bhatt’s debut on-screen had ‘Gulabi Aankhein’ as its soundtrack, with her character using the song as as an ode to her own self (“Gulabi aakhein jo meri dekhi, deewana har dil ho gaya”). There’s also a re-purposed version of ‘Tareef Karu Kya Uski’ and Udit Narayan’s ‘Papa Kehte Hai’ peppered across SOTY.

Marx vs Ashok Nanda

Bad dads are dime a dozen in Bollywood, but in Ram Kapoor's Ashok Nanda, SOTY seemed to fold a critique of capitalist excess into the standard, villainous father figure. Ashok has no time for his son Rohan's artistic aspirations because business is all that matters to the older man. Instead, he showers attention upon Abhi, who dreams of being rich and equates success with wealth. With his leather jacket and (relatively) cheap bike, Abhi embodies what passes as the working class in the SOTY universe. Would Karl Marx have cheered for Abhi when he decides to lose the climactic race and foil the evil capitalist patriarch Ashok's plans? We'd like to think so.

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