Karan Johar is one of the most sought after directors in the Indian film industry and is also the most successful director of Indian films in the UK. All of his directorial ventures, so far, feature in the list of the top ten highest-grossing Bollywood films of all time in the United Kingdom. The director-producer is taking a risk of sorts with his new film, Student Of The Year.
The 40-year-old director is working with newcomers for the first time ever and his company, Dharma Productions is launching seven newcomers with this coming-of-age tale.
The leading male protagonists in Johar’s latest release, Student Of The Year, Varun Dhawan and Sidharth Malhotra have worked with the filmmaker as assistant directors on UK blockbuster My Name Is Khan starring Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol.
However, the leading lady of SOTY, Alia Bhatt, 19, had just finished school when she auditioned for the part and is now making her debut with a director, most established stars of the Indian film industry are vying to work with.
On a recent trip to London, Johar along with his ‘students’ spoke to Sunny Malik for BollyNewsUK about Student Of The Year and much more.
How do you feel to be in the UK for your first international promotional trip?
Varun: It’s really awesome because I studied here. I studied in Nottingham. It was just a PR error and papers printed that I was studying in Manchester.
Parineeti Chopra studied in Manchester.
Varun: I never met Parineeti there (laughs).
Karan: All talented people study in Nottingham and Manchester.
Varun: Very talented people study in Nottingham (laughs). I studied at Nottingham University and while I was there, whenever a Hindi film used to release, I would see how excited all the ‘desis’ would get. I was there when Om Shanti Om released. Cineworld was sold out in the city. It’s a strange feeling to be back in England and to come here for my own film. I am just wondering how the people from my University would react to this right now.
You three have become stars even before the release of your first film. How does it feel to have screaming fans everywhere you go?
Karan: Have they?
Sidharth: Have we? I think it’s too early to call us stars. Karan has just marketed us all really well (laughs). We’ll find that out on the 19th of October.
Varun: We just want to be accepted as actors.
Karan: So you don’t want to be known as a star at all?
Varun: That’s for the audience to decide right?
Karan: Everyone wants to be a movie star and while you are a movie star, it is important to be able to act. I want them to be movie stars. I don’t know what kind of actor he wants to be (laughs). I have not put in so much money for three soulful actors to emerge on celluloid. I have no interest in that.
Sidharth: But that is possible only once the film is out.
Tell me a little bit about your characters in the film.
Alia: My character’s name is Shanaya Singhania. She comes from a very affluent family. She is obsessed with dressing up. She loves clothes, bag and shoes and is all branded. She comes from a dysfunctional family as well. So she does tend to become a bit lonely. She is basically just like every teenage girl who wants that one guy who loves her unconditionally.
Varun: I play Rohan Nanda. He is the son of Ashok Nanda played by Ram Kapoor who is an industrial tycoon. Rohan is a bit of a rebel who does not see eye to eye with his father. There is some friction there even though for the outside world they seem like a perfectly close family. Rohan’s change in his behaviour and growth as a human being happens when he gets introduced to Abhimanyu Singh played by Sidharth. How that change happens, you will have to see in the film on 19th October.
Sidharth: I play Abhimanyu Singh in the film who is the new kid in college. He is not from an affluent background. He has come to St. Theresa on a scholarship which is a very elite school but he is very ambitious and he wants to win this competition called Student of The Year which gives him a further scholarship to get into a bigger college. He is very focused. He wants to be like Varun’s characters’ father and looks up to him.
When the trailer released on YouTube, there was a lot of criticism that came your way. A large number of fans disliked the trailer and were posting comments such as ‘Why is he (Karan) making this film’, and called it predictable etc. How did you all react to it since it’s your first film and Karan, you went back to something you enjoy after directing an emotional film like My Name Is Khan?
Karan: The fact that the film came with an unreal school world and an unreal atmosphere, was the initial criticism. But you would have noticed that after a period of time, everyone started getting used to that because that was the world of the film and we were honest to it. Honestly, I was unapologetic about the presentation of this film. I wanted the first promo to be a lot of razzmatazz because I wanted people to at least notice the scale of the film. I did not want anyone to feel that it is just a newcomer film and it has been made on a tight budget and that we have cut corners or costs. We actually put ourselves out there and extended each and every bit of ourselves into the film. I held back, purposely and consciously, the soul connect of the film in the first promo and from the rest of the promos. Everyone is now suddenly saying that they can’t stop listening to the music and that it is working really, really well. But we still have held back the soul of the film. I feel, when you should walk in to see the film, you should be pleasantly surprised with the film’s inherent connect. I am glad that we started with a question mark of what it is going to be, why did Karan make this movie and why did he need to do this? I feel all these questions will be addressed and answered when the film releases.
When the cast of the film was announced, nepotism in the Indian film industry was discussed widely by fans. How did you, Alia and Varun, feel about that when you perhaps read about it?
Varun: I will speak about my own experience because I did some acting classes. There were kids who were in that acting class, who were not from film families. There were people not just from India but different parts of the world like Dubai and England. When I made friends there, people told me you will get a launch because of your Dad. That is the mind-set. My Dad did not come from a film family and maybe he had that mind-set too before entering the industry. But what I did realise from the acting class and from my Dad’s experience was that when the director calls action and when you start performing, all that talk is out. The audience just wants to be entertained and they want to see a character. They want to see an actor perform and a story move forward. That is what is important. After our film releases, the audience has to decide why we are here, because of our talent or because of our background.
Alia: Honestly, it was weird in the beginning. Nobody wants to be disliked. Everybody wants to be liked. I was upset because I did not like the fact that people were saying that I have not done anything to get this opportunity. But then, I also agree and understand that, because my father is from the industry, it does come easier to me. I don’t deny that. But I don’t deny the fact that I never wanted this as much as anybody would and I have given it my five hundred per cent and I will continue to do so.
Sidharth: There is a lot of luck and destiny to thank for. Everyone else says they want new stars and talent in the country, but nobody casts anyone new in their film. He is the only one who has taken the risk.
Most production houses don’t bring new talent to the UK for promotions. Why did you decide to bring the three debutants to London?
Karan: I believe that building a market overseas is very difficult. The biggest of stars nationally are still in the process and it has taken them years to build an audience outside of the country. Even though it is Sidharth, Varun and Alia’s first film, people should know about the film and should have heard of the three. Then they have to grow to like them and then they have to grow to love them. That is a process and it will take time but we have to kick-start it somewhere. At the end of the day, I know how difficult this audience is in the UK having delivered many, many films here. I actually have had an exceptional run here. But I know, it is very difficult to penetrate and really do the numbers. Dharma Productions have been one of those rare cases where the national business has been equal to the diaspora business. The overseas business is as much as the national business for My Name Is Khan which is actually a first for any feature film.
Student Of The Year is out today on general release in UK cinemas.
Photos: Anjum Shabbir