Film industries have made careers out of our nostalgia. We typically yearn for bygone eras (the 80's in Stranger Things) or childhood experiences (Stanley ka Dabba, Rockford), but for a lot of us, college occupies the fondest of memory spaces. In these rose-tinted glints of the past, the future is open to us, we can become anything we want — papa kehte hain bada naam karega. The newest college-themed movie is Chhichhore, opens on 6th September. Honestly, I don't like college flicks very much (as you will soon discover), but the trailer for this one had me chortling throughout. Fingers crossed?
In Hollywood, this trend began in 1978 with the release of Animal House; this one has everything — horny kids + misfits + sexual dalliances + hateable authority figures. On the other hand, India's first properly-college movie, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992), is a class satire that pits spoilt brats against the undeniable underdogs. Six years later, the explosive success of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai established the genre in India.
However, our college cinema landscape started morphing following the release of the superhit American Pie (1999), a pseudo-pornographic dramatisation of the teenage need to discard their virginity. Indian cinema began to lean more towards the traditional American threesome: sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Or in Bollywood: maal, masti aur mohabbat. Alliteration aside, Indian campus movies are sternly formulaic, cycling and recycling the same bunch of tropes. Allow me to dissect some of them for you.
In the 90s, the wealthy were considered the cause of economic inequality and treated as antagonists. In Dil (1990), Madhuri rejects her fat cat father to live a penniless life with her one true love. Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander has an inordinate share of trust-fund babies, but they are hated more because they flaunt their wealth distastefully. At the end, they are forced to submit to the working class hero (even with their fancy foreign maal).
Newer films like Student of the Year (2012) look at prosperity as a benign symptom: the kids are all somehow super rich — except Sidharth Malhotra, but he is not precluded from the fancy parties and Thailand trips enjoyed by his peers. It's interesting how audience perceptions have changed. An extension of this trope can also be in their opulent campuses: St. Teresa's in Student of the Year and St. Paul's in Main Hoon Na (2004) are set in venerable hill station schools, and Gurukul in Mohabbatein (2000) is literally a 16th century English mansion.
Some films like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander furnish their female characters with multifaceted roles, but even they fail the Bechdel test; the women exist only in the context of the male lead's narrative. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Main Hoon Na, Kajol and Amrita Rao are practically invisible because they are tomboys, noticed only when they feminise their appearances (like a sanskari nari should).
At the more extreme end, we have blatant misogyny: in Dil, there is a horrifying scene in which Aamir Khan is "punished" for losing a boxing match by being forced to make out with an overweight, dark-skinned classmate. In Dil Dosti Etc. (2007) rich boy Imaad Shah attempts to evade ennui by hooking up with everyone in sight. Shah Rukh Khan in Mohabbatein waxes eloquent about the lack of romance at Gurukul, instigating three lovelorn boys to relentlessly pursue the women of their desires (their consent notwithstanding) as an exercise in male-bonding.
Well, actually no, studying is, but that isn't screenworthy, really. All competitions require antagonist peers, inside or outside college. Jo Jeeta is all about the excitement of the cycle race (and its anti-capitalist undercurrents). Dil Dosti Etc deals with the intricacies of college elections, although any sympathy for their plight is neutralised by the misogynistic bet between the two male protagonists: one has to win the presidency, the other has to sleep with three women in one day.
Yaariyan (2014) takes it to another level with a mega-contest. There is music, chess, cycling, cross-country and rock climbing. The opponents are Australian — their embarrassing loss, I suspect, is a transparent reference to the 2011 ICC World Cup. And then we have Student of the Year, whose name itself is the tournament. Student of the Year 2 (2019) scales it down a notch, but it's the Inter-College Dignity Cup that frames the climax. But what happens when the kids decide that they want to take down fish bigger (and older) than their peers?
Contrary to popular opinion, rules are not meant to be broken. And that's exactly why it can be comic gold. In Munnabhai MBBS (2003), Sanjay Dutt overwhelms the medical institution by endorsing empathy over red tape ("jadoo ki jhappi"). His defiant antics drive the dean, Boman Irani, to near-neurosis — the absurdity is hilarious.
Sometimes the status quo is just draconian, and flouting it becomes a matter of social justice. For instance, the Dead Poets Society-esque drivel spewed by Shah Rukh in Mohabbatein may be problematic, but he's right about one thing: the folly of blind obedience. Under his guidance, the student group revolts against the iron hand of the principal. Shah Rukh does the same thing in Main Hoon Na, where he and his step-half-sibling wrest the college out of a hostage situation precipitated by a corrupt army leader disguised as a teacher.
In 3 Idiots (2009), the villain is the college director, responsible for two successful and one attempted student suicides. Boman Irani (yes, again) is maliciously whimsical. At least he embraces defeat with dignity when the heroes save his pregnant daughter. In summary, this trope celebrates a rite of passage, the victory over the real antagonist of teenagers everywhere: authority.
As Madhuri puts it so well in Devdas, "Pyaar aatma ki parchhai hoti hai, ishq Eeshwar ki ibaadat, aur mohabbat zindagi ka maqsad". The difference is not subtle: Pyaar and Ishq are intangible and sacred, but Mohabbat is the purpose of life itself, the nitty and the gritty, a contradictory melding of sex and romance. It describes teenagers perfectly — one can never be sure if their driving forces are burning hearts or burning loins. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai claims to be wholesome, totally non-lusty (except for a cryptic rain dance). Jo Jeeta shows us an unexpected liplock between Aamir Khan and Pooja Bedi, but in general refuses to acknowledge their hormones. We also have sterile movies like Ishk Vishk (2003), in which Amrita Rao boasts that her love doesn't need to be proved by "aisi giri hui harkat" aka kissing (she has the moral high ground here, though).
However, recent movies have become a lot less prudish than their predecessors — no more are incompetent metaphors (birds pecking, flowers frotting) substituted for intimacy. In Grand Masti (2013), most of the plot and jokes revolve around a college alumni meet where the protagonists cheat on their wives and go to every extent to hide it. Sex is second-nature to Students of the Year 1 & 2; I strongly doubt any of them are virgins. But at the end, all the havas must climax in a grand wedding, because god forbid our desi traditions are tainted by the western evil of free love.
Beauty is a given in Bollywood. It wasn't always (I lay the blame on the internet). Photoshopped faces, Insta filters, all of these spawn a counterfeit aura of perfection: Men must have rippling bodies, women must expose their skin. And so must it be in cinema. Yes, heroes and heroines are incredibly gorgeous, but nowadays even extras in the background sport bloated pecs and Victoria's Secret. Find me one non-sexy character in either Student of the Year, I dare you. Same goes for Yaariyan. Nothing is wrong with attractiveness per se, but when movies conflate beauty with love — as if someone without the first does not deserve the second — you see the problem. We already have a colossal body image crisis on our hands. Bollywood needs to stop making it worse.