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"I am Johar’s ‘most accomplished student'"

As he steps into the shoes of his mentor, Karan Johar, to take the Student Of The Year franchise forward, director Punit Malhotra talks about the young energy that he worked with on the film, the scripting process and how he looks at box-office numbers, in conversation with Bhakti Mehta


What has been going through your mind this past week before the film’s release?

There was a lot of work still going on last week. My mind was completely preoccupied with that but there was also a lot of excitement. Usually, there would be a lot of fear and that fear is there, but I have tried to channelise it into excitement and be as fearless as I could be.

Were you also apprehensive about having stepped into the shoes of Karan Johar?

This film was like his baby. On the first day of our shoot, he gave me the clap that was used in his Student Of The Year and he wrote on it that he was giving it to his most accomplished ‘student’. He was very kind to me throughout this process and he said that if anyone was going to make the second instalment of Student Of The Year, it was going to be me.

In fact, I had a different script that I wanted to make but he was very clear that I should be a part of this film. We didn’t have a script at that time, we didn’t have any of that but he said, ‘Punit, this is the film we need to put out, so put your energies into that.’

What was it like to be mentored by him while taking his franchise forward?

I was 19 years old when I started working with him on Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. I don’t know any other office apart from Dharma Productions. I have grown up here; this has always been home (Smiles). Karan has always been very kind to me. He has been with me through thick and thin, and earlier there was a lot of thick and a lot of thin (Laughs). Hopefully, those days are behind us now.

He is the best mentor, sounding board and guide that you can find. I can call him in the middle of the night to discuss any problem that I have, both personal and professional. He is the best go-to person there is.

Coming back to SOTY 2, we heard that Tiger Shroff was the first choice for the role.

Right from the beginning, Tiger (Shroff) was on board and that meant that you have a big star with you who has a skill set that is unmatchable.

And a fan-following that is increasing by the day.

Oh yes! Tiger has a crazy fan-following. I had no idea. I knew he was a big star but I did not know just how large his fan base was. When we were being mobbed on the sets and it became ridiculously impossible to shoot at certain places, the magnitude of his fan-following started hitting us. So, when we were shooting at the FRI (Forest Research Institute) in Dehradun, there were 5,000 people who had assembled to watch the shoot every day. I am neither exaggerating nor joking. And we needed to call 20 extra security guards from Mumbai because we needed to shoot and were not being able to do that. But he does that, especially with the kids, he plays to that demographic. It is insanity.

It is good to see the stardom trend in this generation too. We get to know that there are still ‘stars’. And Tiger is a true star. When I met him… in the first three to four days, I told him, “I didn’t realise this about you but you are modelled to be a star.” He is very humble, very nice, he’s a lovely boy but even in the way he talks or sits off camera, he is star.

But you called him the ‘diva’ of your film.

(Laughs) No, no. I was just pulling his leg. He is a star and a macho star, at that. I think he is inherently Baaghi, he is inherently that guy.

And what about the girls? There was a lot of new energy on the set.

It was really great fun shooting the film. Both Ananya (Panday) and Tara Sutaria were a lot of work but they were the least of the bothers. The good thing was that since they were newbies, they came with no baggage. They were as keen to work as anyone else was, more so. I could wake them up at 5 am and they would be all ready to get going. They would not be late. That’s a great thing. They were as enthusiastic as I was and I worked really hard with them.

Before the outdoor shoot, I took them to the location 10 days before we started the shoot. I took them all over Dehradun, Mussorie and places around because these are Mumbai girls, who had not seen that world. It was important for them to get a feel of that place, get accustomed to it, and I would tell them that this is how your house will be, this is your dad, your chacha, things like that. I went through an entire journey with them and I am very happy with how they pulled it off. I was really excited when both of them signed their first brands and their next films. It was good to see that there is progress.

Even though you were a part of the film before the script was finalised, this is the first film you have directed that you have not written yourself. Was it challenging to translate someone else’s vision onto celluloid?

I have been a part of the scripting process like a sounding board. But it’s not difficult. Yes, it is someone else’s vision but I have been involved very closely with them. It was not like every time a draft came to me, I would go ahead and shoot. When the draft came, we discussed it way too much for me to be disassociated from it.

And it all started right from the story stage. First, we were making a different film, a different Student Of The Year 2 but then we pulled the plug on it at the last minute. And I thought, no, we need to get our act together. Then we came back with this one, which has now materialised into something that is out there on the big screen.

Sometimes, there are a lot of connotations attached to larger-than-life, masala, commercial films that we make. People think it’s very easy.

It is very easy to look at a film and say it’s easy but it’s not. When you watch the film, you will realise just how much hard work went into it. I have done two previous films, and I can tell you that this one was tougher than both of them combined. The film has sports, it has dance, both of which require a lot of practice from the actors and a lot of prep by us. Kabbadi is the main sport in the film, too much….

The writing came with its own challenges. If you ask a writer to pen the script for SOTY, they approach it very casually. I went through around 10 writers before we locked one. No one could crack it because their perception of the film is very simple. That perception is wrong.

Planning it is one thing and putting it together is another. And both are equally tough. If you ask someone what is the story of SOTY 2, you won’t find another person who will be able to write this story as well. I have met writers who tried but it just did not work out.

There is a relatability factor in the film, especially with the young stars and the audience. Is there something that they need in order to connect with their characters?

The film is written for the youth. It also has some substance, where we hope the older audience will be able to connect with it. But here’s the thing, the youth wants a feel-good factor and that is why it is larger than life. I think the world has seen in St Teresa’s which was great; I am dying to see what their reaction will be when I show them Pishorilal Chamandas College.

You also said you were very keen to add the sports factor to the film. Comment.

It would have been very stupid to have Tiger Shroff and not explore that angle. There was a draft where he was not dancing, that was the earlier film. When I look back, I think how stupid I would have been if I had made that film because you cannot have Tiger and not have him play kabbadi or not have him compete. I am so happy I took that one because he really takes it to the next level. In addition, I got an antagonist, Aditya Seal, who was also really good. So the two of them together… you see their action, you see their sport, it is real fun. We have upped our game.

You upped your game where cameos are concerned too. Shooting with a Hollywood star like Will Smith must have been an experience.

I don’t know how it happened. If you had woken me up one day last June and told me that Will Smith was coming to Mumbai in July and that he would be a part of my film, I would not have believed it. But it happened.

Was it on your bucket list?

Not at all. It was on his bucket list (Laughs). I told him, can you believe this is on your bucket list and not on mine? He started laughing. I said, very honestly it would not have been on my bucket list. I would never think that I would direct Will Smith. But it was fun.

The dynamic between the actors seems very cohesive, they are very friendly. Does that help on the sets?

They have no egos. For me, it was good fun to tell a star like Tiger to shut up, or what the hell are you doing… and he would do what I told him to do. It was the same with the girls. I made sure I broke the ice among us first. Ananya was very timid in the beginning and she called me a jerk. It was fun to get them to be a part of our gang. That chemistry shows on screen. Ananya and Tara are better friends with my ADs than with me. They bonded with everybody. It was a great shoot.

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