Director: Punit Malhotra
Cast: Tiger Shroff, Ananya Panday, Tara Sutaria
At one point in Student of the Year 2, a character breaks the film's character by saying something genuinely ponderous. My weary 33-year-old ears perked up in a theatre full of giggly teenagers. "I don't want to see the world; I want the world to see me," declares a starry-eyed girl to the dewy-eyed man (boy?) who aims to make her dreams come true. Finally, I could meet the gaze of my young fellow moviegoers and look at them the way they looked at me – with utter derision – near the matinee ticket-counter. This is a nice line. An adult line. One would imagine that the circumstances accommodating the dialogue are tailor-made: The starry night sky of Dehradun can force even the most superficial of kids to sound like a deep Instagram caption.
But note the scene designed by the makers in order to brandish the line: On a late-night stroll, in the middle of nowhere, the two chance upon a street with wooden, hipster Texan-style thrift studios lining up its side. You almost expect Clint Eastwood's silhouette to show up – or even Will Smith's (remember Wild Wild West? Neither does he), given that he is thanked in the opening credits. One of the random shops (a travel agency?) has global postcards pasted all over its walls. This is what prompts the boy to promise the girl that he will show her the world. An elaborately artificial set seems to have been constructed solely to coax this thought out of her. Much like the way lavish, pop-up songs are constructed to voice life's more complex feelings. This prosthetic escapism – where entirely derivative universes are manufactured to convey the most universal emotions – pretty much defines any Bollywood high-school drama's launchpad personality. SOTY2 is the ultimate poster-child of cosmetic coolness. It's not just the environments, but the characters, too, that are randomly teleported into scenes: Debutant Ananya Pandey, in particular, might have been penned into the script as "Shreya appears." She is everywhere in a film that goes nowhere.
The plot, for us '90s kids, reads thus: Model College's Sanju wants to follow Anjali to fancy Rajput college on a sports scholarship. Once he does, he discovers that Anjali likes stud Shekhar, while posh but good-hearted Devika falls for Sanju instead. Ratan, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found. The film becomes one giant dance contest. There's a lot of Kabaddi too, but it's mostly hard to tell the difference. There are a lot of clothes, and sometimes, there are humans in them. There is a token gay character, a token goofy principal, and protagonists that can be explained as millennial hashtags: Devika is loneliness goals (she cuts her own cake at midnight with her dog), Sanju is gym goals, Anjali is cheater goals. At one point, Sanju, torn between both the girls, sincerely holds both their hands. This is nothing like Rahul hugging Anjali while urging Tina to stay. Everyone here is well aware of the situation. The ladies smile, and I wonder: Could this be mainstream Hindi cinema's first acknowledgement of polyamory?
The problem with the SOTY franchise is not so much its frothy form, though. Sure, let today's kids dream of a non-existent education system and unrealistic all-round talent like we did. But at least we had Shah Rukh, Kajol, Rani, Madhuri and Karishma lying to us in the most charming way possible. They had bodies, but they had words too. They had music, but they had lyrics too. They didn't have villains (Aditya Seal, who was once the kid in Ek Chhottisi Love Story) that purred "I love that small-town insecure girl in you" to heroines. Deepak Tijori, for instance, infused enough classist disdain in the way he muttered "Champ"; he didn't have to resort to such strange terms of endearment.
It's easy to dismiss teenybopper movies with the usual "Elementary, my dear Watson" piece of critique: Do students ever study in these schools? How does Tiger Shroff alternate between Mussoorie and Dehradun so quickly? Why don't they have acting classes to go with the sports and dance classes? Does the curriculum include actual books? But SOTY2 is no ordinary vanity vehicle. It has the subject of geometry at its core. Everything is a triangle here: Two other Tiger Shroff movie titles at the other ends of the spectrum (Heropanti, A Flying Jatt) are referenced. Shreya falls for Rohan, who has loved Mridula for 12 years (12 Years A Slave?). SOTY2 can be described as a parody of Main Hoon Na, which itself was a parody of every desi college-campus movie ever made; a parody of a parody is called…reality. The movies that SOTY2 openly canonizes – the hill-station rivalry of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, the Riverdale texture of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the hybrid dance passions of Dil Toh Pagal Hai and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, the Kabaddi moves of Pardes, even Kal Ho Naa Ho (Rohan becomes "Ro" with a twang) – are also classic love triangles. The rich school (incidentally named after a saint who stood for none of the excesses this film does) has its name plastered all over the campus – in libraries, canteens, gardens, corridors – in those bold "I love Lokhandwala" fonts, which in turn is derived from the iconic "I love Amsterdam" letters. The poor school, Pishorilal Chamandas, might encourage students to look up the unabbreviated names of two famous Mumbai colleges that are identified by their initials (HR, KC).
But most of all, there's another triangle the Rohan-Mridula-Shreya one reflects: Shreya is human and imperfect like the average moviegoer, Rohan is muscular and big and glorious like a big-budget Bollywood potboiler, and Mridula is opportunistic and conflicted like commerce. The math is simple. I love the movies, but is it too much to ask for the movies to love me back? After all, as was evident in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, "ek tarfa pyaar" is romantic only if cancer cuts it short.