Just three months before principal photography was set to begin, director Punit Malhotra hit the brakes on Student of the Year 2. He had Tiger Shroff and he had a story, he had producer Karan Johar’s encouragement, but Malhotra’s instinct was that the script needed reworking.

The six years between making his sophomore film Gori Tere Pyaar Mein in 2013 and being handed the baton on the sequel to Student of the Year (2012) had given Malhotra plenty of pause to reflect and re-evaluate, and he knew he needed to get this right. Only when the script was where he wanted it was when Malhotra regrouped with Shroff and newbies Tara Sutaria and Ananya Panday to make Student of the Year 2.

The window dressing remains frothy and candy-coloured with an emphasis on style, but Malhotra hopes that once the audience peels off the designer wrapping, there is substance in the high school musical drama. Excerpts from an interview.

Describe the experience of making your third film, the second in this franchise?
When we pulled the plug just three months before shooting, we did so because we felt it was not the right film. We went back to the drawing board to rewrite. Not only did we want to do justice to Tiger, but also to the franchise. We wanted to make a film that was entertaining and not preachy.

In the time off between my movies, I got clarity on a lot of things and yes, the insecurity of needing to do this right, was one of the reasons. It was hard to make that decision after working on the script for a year, but I think it was the smarter move.

Student of the Year 2 (2019).

And now, days before the film’s release, how you feel?
I am very excited. We have worked really hard on this one, and I want it to be successful. There is a perception that Student is fun and froth, but I believe it has a lot more meaning. St Theresa is bubble-gum and candyfloss but the other side, that comes from Pishorilal Chamandas college, that is the real film. When you see the film in totality, there is far more than what you might expect. The message is universal: follow your dreams and do what it takes to achieve them.

Many filmmakers have hits and flops, so why did the fate of ‘Gori Tere Pyaar Mein’ affect you so greatly?
Maybe it was because it was my second film, but also we didn’t expect it to go down the way it did. It was disheartening to see that no one took to it. We were not prepared for that. I was very depressed and not ready to jump back into work for a while.

Along with the heartbreak that followed came re-evaluation. When you hit rock bottom, the only way to go is up. You have to go through the beats of the journey, and that’s what I did. And then Karan offered me Student of the Year.

Chingam Chabeke, Gori Tere Pyaar Mein (2014).

On the one hand, you have Tiger Shroff, a star with his action and dance skills, and on the other, you have two first-timers. What was it like working with freshers Ananya and Tara?
I knew I had a job to do. We did go through the beats of grooming – dance, diction and costume trials. I did mollycoddle them on set. We went ahead to Mussoorie 10 days before shooting to acclimatise them to a set – teach them how to face the lights etc. The biggest thing was that we were friends and there was no hierarchy on set.

Was it easy connecting with millennials?
It was very tricky. I had to really work on that and hang out with younger people. I hung out with Ananya to get into her head, to understand how she talks, what are her likes and dislikes. It helped me tweak body language and reactions.

I had a major issue with the costumes and clothes till Manish [Malhotra] sent me pictures of how young people dress today. That’s when I realised that I am a generation older and needed to adapt.

The Jawaani Song, Student of the Year 2 (2019).

Tiger Shroff and Aditya Seal look a bit old to be in these educational establishments.
The girls are first years, but the boys are closer to graduation and they are athletes, which means they are bulkier.

That response suggests you were ready for this question.
Student of the Year is the kind of film people enjoy criticising, so we had to have our bases covered. It’s true that when you start to write a breezy high school film, it can become very frivolous, but it needs to be fun. People say that none of these students ever seems to study, but we are not promoting one kind of education alone. We are promoting sport, in this case kabaddi, and the competition we show is outside the classroom.

Having said that, if a third film happens, I hope we can change perceptions – maybe set it in a new school altogether.