Karan is 44 years old today! Not married, no kids, but it doesn’t matter because his legacy is going to be everything he has done for Indian film for the past 18 years. And Student of the Year is a big part of that.
Student of the Year is not a deep movie. It doesn’t have a lot of themes and statements and huge social claims. The characters don’t have complex relationships and subtle conflicts. The actors don’t, well, “act”. And yet, it is the future of and the past of Indian cinema. And that is a good thing!
Indian film, really film everywhere, started with the idea of moving pictures. That’s it. Stories, acting, dialogue, that all came later. The first film that actually had any kind of characters was “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” by the Lumiere Brothers in 1895. It had a “story”, as in they planned something they wanted people to do for the camera; and “characters”, as in people who were doing something planned, not spontaneous and natural to themselves.
This was after the Lumieres and others had experimented for years with some form of moving image, usually being trains arriving at stations, crowds leaving factories, stuff like that. But with the huge burst of interest in 1895, following the perfection of the movie camera and the projector, the Lumieres started cranking out dozens of short films, and eventually ran out of “interesting” natural visuals, and had to cook up an unnatural one. And thus film fiction was born!
The early years of film were less about “acting”, and more about the idea of a picture book come to life. There would be specific visuals that needed to be included, and they just need a pretty girl and a handsome boy to stand around in costume to help provide the visuals. In India, this was a natural fit with the early mythological (Raja Harischandra) and fantastical (Alam Ara) films. People didn’t come to see the actors, they came to see the stories they already knew brought to life.
As the years went by, both in America and in India, filmmakers discovered that certain performers worked better on camera than others. Not because of an “acting” skill, at least not the kind that we are used to on the stage, but because of particular skills and talents and inborn something that only comes through on camera. Lillian Gish in America, for instance, was a discovery of DW Griffith because of the way her face looked in close-up, and the kind of raw performance she could give in one take. These are not skills that could translate to the stage, where no one can see your face close-up, and you can’t give that kind of emotionally draining performance over and over again.
The same thing was true in India, Ashok Kumar, the first real Star, had no acting training at all. But something about his face just came across onscreen. And continued to come across long after he was past the age of being a handsome young matinee hero. It’s not about regular features and symmetrical faces (although that is part of it), it’s about a certain something that makes you love them on camera.
In America, slowly, the star system fell apart, and was replaced by a greater value on scripts, special effects, directing, blah blah blah. But in India, the star system has lasted through to today, just as it was at the beginning. Training is nice, Jaya Bhadhuri is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Film and Television and her acting does have a certain something; Shahrukh spent years training with Barry John in Delhi. But it isn’t necessary, Amitabh Bachchan worked with a few acting troops and got some tips, but never took a formal class, and it’s impossible to deny his acting ability. At least, his ability ON SCREEN.
There is a particular kind of person who can be a real Movie Star. Not an Actor, not a Television Star, not a Singing Star, not a Dancer, but a Movie Star. They are a vital element of the Indian film system, and it is almost impossible to find them.
Most of the time, they appear by accident. Like Ashok Kumar being pulled out of the editing room. Or Shahrukh being plucked from television. Or Ranveer Singh meeting a casting director at a party. But sometimes, they can be hunted out and cultivated, like Madhuri Dixit was “discovered” first by Rajshri, and then by the Kapoor brothers, or how FilmFare magazine found Rajesh Khanna.
Okay, finally, I have arrived at Student of the Year! This is why what Karan is doing is so interesting. He is formalizing the process of finding these stars. It’s not a random coincidence of meeting someone at a party, it’s not a one off of finding someone you think is really talented and giving them a launch, it is a whole system! He finds promising newcomers, works with them for months, if not years, crafting their perfect onscreen persona. Then, he builds a film around that.
The lightness of Student of the Year isn’t a flaw, it is a feature. This is essentially a demo real for stardom. The point isn’t to show the depth of the star’s acting, or any other particular talent or skill. It is just an elaborate screen test, to prove they have that Star Quality. Because Karan knows that is all that really matters. The rest of it can be filled in later.
(Look at them, practicing their on camera faces!)
And he was right! Alia was little more than a walking talking mannequin in Student of the Year. But she was so cute! You remembered her face, you worried about her character, and when it was over there was a sort of lingering interest in seeing her in another movie, or in an interview, or something. And then she did Highway, actually learned how to act on that set, and combined it with her essential Star Quality to make a hit of 2 States and Humpty Sharma ki Dulhania, and be outstanding in Kapoor & Sons.
Siddharth, for me, was the real high light of Student of the Year. He was soooooooooo handsome! And he had the best character, the smart wise noble perfect one. But he’s been kind of a disappointment since then. He has Star Quality, sure, but he hasn’t learned the acting ability, or dancing ability, or any of the other skills that really need to go along with it. But I don’t think is a flaw in Karan’s system, or in Student of the Year the film. All Karan was looking for was raw clay that could be molded into a Star. He wasn’t trying to guarantee that the clay would also be talented and skilled. And that’s all the film needed too, just someone pretty to look at that the camera loves, no acting required.
And then there’s Varun. The proof of the Karan Johar system. I barely noticed him in Student of the Year. He was fine, but not that memorable. But since then, he has honed and refined his acting, found a couple of really great roles, and now looks like the most promising out of all of them. Karan may not have written him a role that forced him to show his acting abilities, or his higher level of film understanding, but he was still able to see that essential quality that cannot be counterfeited, which makes an actor into a Star. That was there already, the rest would (or would not) appear with time.
Think of Student of the Year as a thought experiment, “What would happen if we made a movie, and removed everything from it that wasn’t strictly necessary to make it a hit?” You are left with songs and stars. No plot, no dialogue, no themes, no meaning, no acting, none of that! And then Karan offers it to the world, and the rest of the film industry, saying “See! This is what we need to do to insure the future of film! This is all that is needed! We knew it in 1933, and it is still true today! Stop trying to re-invent the wheel and learn from this!”
(They should show this in film classes)
And just in case they didn’t hear his lesson, he is doing it again! Taking another batch of untried newcomers, putting together another film to show their Star potential, and (I hope) once again proving that what worked in the past will still work today, all you need is Stars and Songs, everything else is extra.