Abhimanyu Singh a.k.a Abhi (Sidharth Malhotra) comes from a middle-class family and wants to achieve great heights of success and prosperity, the first step to which will be the Student of the Year trophy. Rohan Nanda a.k.a Ro (Varun Dhawan) is the son of a business tycoon who grapples with a complex relationship with his father and knows that winning the trophy will bag him the approval that he subconsciously craves for...

School rivalry lacks rights tone.

This is a Bollywood high school movie. Still, it starts off a bit like The Big Chill, except the cast are twenty-somethings and what they’ve been doing since they left school, and exactly how they feel about it, hardly intrudes on the main action, which is very familiar and it has to be said, fertile ground. Using a technique where characters directly address the camera (and us), we’re invited from the start to witness Student of the Year as a kind of fantasy/modern fairytale. And it sets up a nice tension: Can we rely on our storytellers? Is what we’re seeing their own memories"¦ or are they speaking for not only themselves but their comrades too?

Competition is an evil toxin here

Alas director Karan Johar, a major hit maker in Hindi cinema who has a deserved reputation for glamour and a light fluffy touch, doesn’t make too much of these tanatalising narrative possibilities. Mainland reviewers have called this director a purveyor of brand-name porn and I see no evidence here to contradict them. There are more accessories, high-end consumer goods and boutique cars and bikes on view in Student of the Year than in a world trade show. But the movie, at least for a while, is fun and it has an allure that transcends its singin’ and dancin’ glossy surface and moments of gross-out comedy. Like most coming of age sagas, it’s a tale of a sentimental education; the hard facts of school life, the boredom, and the scholarship are subordinate to the heat and excitement of being part of a gang, and the sweet agony of romance. But what soils the good humour is that Johar never really finds a tone that’s convincing.

The story is organised around a series of lengthy flashbacks. The action moves between a hospital in the present day – where are a group of old high school pals have gathered around a dying man who’s influence had a profound impact on their friendships and futures – before moving back in time to the group’s school days spent at an impossibly beautiful and very posh college in Dehradun called St. Teresa’s. The drama revolves around those tiny 'tribal’ codes of behavior and internecine warfare, here between city rich kids and poor village kids, between the 'cool’ kids and the nerdy ones, between the 'beautiful’ and the not so beautiful, and perhaps most interestingly of all, between the 'straight’ and 'gay’. Competition is an evil toxin here; it leads inevitably and without question to rivalry and that kind of thing murders friendships.

At first I thought the plot would actually follow the trajectory of a group of students. But it quickly devolves into a much simpler (and more predictable, and I have to say, much less interesting) narrative about two boys and their rivalry over, well, everything, including the school princess Shanaya, played by Alia Bhatt. She is the girlfriend of Rohan Nanda (Varun Dhawan). Handsome, a bit bitter, he’s the richest kid in school and the son of a tycoon Ashok (Ram Kapoor, excellent in the film’s most low-key performance), who, we are led to believe, bankrolls much of the school’s budget.

Dad doesn’t like son, we think mostly because Ro wants to be a rock star (as opposed to what, work in"¦ finance?). This enmity between father and son is convenient to the plot; Ro’s rival and ultimately best pal is a poor orphan, Abhimanyu 'Abi’ Singh (Sidharth Malhotra), who has ended up at St. T’s on a sports scholarship. Ro’s Dad has no shame in declaring that Abi is the kind of son he wished he had. Like Ro, he’s handsome, proud"¦ but a little warmer. He’s also wildly ambitious and desperate to leave his poverty-laden background behind. The plot is therefore rigged so that Ro will eventually see Abi as his doppelganger; ready to replace him in all aspects of his life.

The film finds its climax in the Student of the Year competition, which is set up as a springboard to university and a bright future as a prize. This is the pet project of St. T’s Dean (Rishi Kapoor). He’s cheerful, chubby and very gay. There are a lot of gags about this; the Dean hits on the handsome coach, played by a very good Ronit Roy. His lavish suits are loud. He has a collection of kitsch broaches. I couldn’t quite tell whether these jokes were exactly 'good natured’ – but let’s just say he seemed less a figure of some dignity and more a plaything to poke at. The school prize brings long held but deeply suppressed feelings of resentment to the surface from our characters. They end up hating each other, because here the desire to win trumps loyalty and compassion (which makes you wonder how deep their feelings were in the first place!).

To write any more details about the plot would be a spoiler. There’s a particularly moving beat, which I think was designed to take the heat off any disquiet over the film’s tasteless gay stereotyping where one of the kids, Sodo (Kayoze Irani), talks about his sexuality and the need to belong, and the stupidity of closeting one’s feelings. The words are directed at the Dean, but also the 'culture’ of the school, too (and by implication the audience’s). It’s angry, genuine and uplifting. It’s a strange, emotionally naked moment that has wandered on in from a darker, harder movie.