I am so excited to write this review! This is one of those films that is structured so well, summarizing it is a joy. You shouldn’t read this review if you plan to see the film in theaters, there are some nice little flourishes that are fun to be surprised by. Read this no spoiler review instead. But on the other hand, if you are on the fence, this review might actually reassure you? The plot is more interesting than you think.
This film, like Student of the Year 1, really uses the unique high school/college setting to do things that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. We have characters of different classes thrown together, and an artificial world where a new class hierarchy is enforced. We have small goals that are more important for the affect they have on the students than as anything on their own, that in fact are designed that way, school competitions are about children learning about themselves and what they can accomplish. And we have the fertile ground of young people crossing from childhood to adulthood and the shift that brings about allowing for a natural dramatic momentum. This narrative juggles 3 characters going through that transition (and a steady increasing reveal of what motivates them for the audience), and a local class conflict, and some faint hint of inter-school politics, building them up brick by brick and step by step in a way that is unpredictable and was definitely NOT revealed by the trailers.
Now, SPOILERS! Last chance to decide not to read on! SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILER SPOILERS
Whole plot in two paragraphs:
Tiger is a local Mussoorrie boy. He grew up going to school with Tara Sutaria, a local Mussoorrie girl whose family is a little wealthier than his (his uncle is a Priest who cons the tourists into paying for mantras). Tara and Tiger were a couple since grammar school, but now Tara’s wealthy parents have sent her as a day student to St. Teresa’s, and they are sadly separated. Tiger is happy with his life and his slumpy local school, but decides to apply for an athletic scholarship to St. Teresa’s just to be with Tara. She is friendly to him but gently tells him that she wants to start fresh at St. Teresa’s, and he should too, they are just friends and not dating any more. But that changes when he sets a new record in track and is a bit of a school hero, suddenly Tara is ready to get back together. At the same time, Tiger becomes friends with Aditya Seal, the big hero of the school, seemingly a really nice grounded guy. And he becomes enemies with Ananya Panday, Aditya’s nasty mean sister that no one likes. Aditya and Ananya, and Tara and Tiger, enter the school dance competition as two couples. Tiger tries his best, but drops Tara in the big finish. And Aditya and Ananya win. Later that night Tiger sneaks over to Tara’s house to comfort her and finds her making out with Aditya. It was all a plan, Tara has been cheating on him with Aditya and Aditya convinced her to lose just so Aditya could win. Tiger is furious and punches Aditya. Because Aditya’s rich father is the chairman of the board, Tiger is expelled. And then Aditya and his friends find Tiger and beat him up and throw him out for being “uppity” despite being just a local poor boy. INTERVAL
Tiger returns to his local school where the teachers are happy to have him back but his friends resent him. Ananya tracks him down at the local school and apologizes, says she didn’t know that her brother was cheating and she feels cheated too because she didn’t win for real. Ananya also lectures his friends about what true loyalty is, and that they should forgive Tiger for going to another school since he did it for love. Tiger is won over by her words, and agrees to join a local city dance competition with her so she can prove to herself she can really win. They rehearse together, and become friends. Tiger accepts her, and so do his friends, and Ananya softens as she begins to feel acceptance. They win the dance competition. But just as it looks like they might be falling in love (Ananya even half-jokingly tells him she is in love with him), Tara reappears. She broke up with Aditya, was confused, never really loved him. Tiger is the only one she truly loved. He takes her back, because they have so much history and he has to be loyal. At the same time, Tiger has inspired his local school. They always enter the 6 school competition, but never plan to win. Tiger convinces them that they could be the best if they just tried a little harder. They do, and they start winning (little Breaking Away/Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander thing here). Aditya and his team catch Tiger’s team alone without teachers and beat them up, Tiger saves them. Ananya and Tara both come to the hospital and Ananya reveals without saying it straight out that she truly loves Tiger, Tiger chases after her and hugs her and Tara sees and understands they are in love. Right before the final match, Tara talks to Tiger and acknowledges that she loves him, but he has moved on. He talks to Ananya and they confess their love. Then he wins the Kabaddi match, and the Student of the Year trophy, and End Credits Song with Alia.
What I admire about this film is how carefully each of our 3 central characters is built as the events propel them forward. We start with Tiger, a sweet stable local boy, not that smart and not really ambitious, just wants to be with the girl he loves. And he loves her without ambition too, it’s not because she is the prettiest or the richest or anything, but just because she is the regular girl he grew up with. His journey starts once he is accepted to St. Teresa’s, and learns that Tara isn’t ready to jump back into “just like before” with him. She challenges him to appreciate the St. Teresa’s experience, as she is, and to think about his goals in life besides just loving her. It opens his mind and he begins to challenge himself to be the best in sports, to join the Kabaddi team, and so on. He gets Tara back and his life seems on the way to a good place, success romantically and success in other areas (sports, dance competition, etc.). It is this new confidence he has found through being in this high flying school that leads him to feel even more betrayed when Tara cheats on him. His heart is broken, but also his new pride and sense of value in himself. And when he is beaten out of St. Teresa’s, it is that pride that he takes with him. Aditya taunts him that he was supposed to be just the “sidekick” and he reached too high. But Tiger isn’t happy being the simple local boy sidekick any more, he wants more than that.
Just as Tiger’s growth hits a plateau, returning to his local school with a stronger surer sense of self, we move on to Ananya’s story. She was the nasty girl in the background in the first half, showing up to sew chaos. She had a small part in Tiger’s journey in that she was a person who challenged him to do and be better, by being just plain nasty to him. Like spray painting his bike bright pink. Which drove Tiger to stand up for himself, in a way he didn’t with Aditya’s “nice” behavior (revealed to really be charity to a poor kid) or Tara’s pretend love turned to cheating. But Ananya’s story starts to kick into high gear when her father is called in about her painting Tiger’s bike and he responds by slapping her, hard, in front of Tiger and the dean. A nice small touch is that the dean is visibly shaken and unhappy with this as well. It’s not that the system is broken exactly, the teachers do care about their students, but they can only do so much. Ananya refuses Tiger’s pity and sympathy. When her brother is revealed to be as much of a jerk as her father, we start to understand that Ananya acts out because she sees surface politeness (like her brother uses) as lies, she would rather be honest and nasty and drive people away.
The second half brings her story together with what we know of Tiger. Ananya goes to him and asks him to help her win the dance competition without cheating. Tiger has learned to respect honest ambition and pride and appreciates that in her and agrees. On the other hand, Ananya has no softness and loyalty and love in her life, her father and brother both despise her and no one else seems able to appreciate her either. Tiger’s basic quality is loyalty, he went to St. Teresa’s purely for love, and he returned to his regular school loyal to his old friends. Tiger’s respect for her turns into friendship and loyalty, and him being there lets her be seen and appreciated by others as well. There’s a nice small moment at the beginning of their love song, Ananya has come to his house to rehearse and strips off her jacket to dance in a sports bra and tights on the roof, in full view of the neighbors. They come out to stare, she dances resentfully like “I don’t care that you are looking!”, and then Tiger jumps in and joins her, blocking her a little bit so she is less on display and shocking, but also kind of inviting the neighbors to watch and enjoy the dancing. They end up applauding, and Ananya smiles. She just needed one person to see her and break through her reserve, and the whole world would be able to see her as a real person too. And then on her birthday, after having cake with her dog because no one else in her family remembered, she goes to Tiger’s house and finds the whole neighborhood and his school friends there to celebrate with her. In another movie it would feel like “Tiger forced them to come and that made her happy”, but in this move it feels like “Tiger’s respect for her helped her relax and let other people in and they sincerely like her for herself now”. Yes, it is fast and it is contrived, but the basic idea of an angry young woman who just needs to get to a new place with new people who can appreciate her, that is really good and kind of original. We are used to seeing the reformed gunda, but how often do we get to see the reformed Spoiled Rich Girl, not “taught” the error of her ways, but simply placed in a new environment where she can learn for herself?
By golly, the movie got me to care about Ananya and Tiger! I wanted him to have a difficult young woman who could appreciate the value of his simple honest love, and I wanted her to have someone who could appreciate her good parts and forgive her bad. I even liked their little conversations about it, Ananya coming close to outright saying she is in love, because she has no pretense to her, and Tiger being oblivious because he is bad at understanding love. And then Tara reappears.
Here’s where they start to run out of time. Tara’s character has as good an arch and a backstory as any of them. She is a local girl too, and not from a super rich family, from a family that is just barely rich enough for St. Teresa’s. She isn’t comfortable with herself, she is trying to be something else and leave Tiger and what he represents behind. But at the same time, we can see in flashbacks of them together before St. Teresa’s, and some of their conversations now, that he does sincerely make her happy. She is fighting within herself, denying what she really wants for what she thinks she should want. We get a couple of moments post-Tiger break-up where she talks with Aditya and starts to seem regretful, to put it together that he just wanted her in order to “win” in his own mind, not for herself. And then she shows up at just the right time to stop the Tiger-Ananya romance in its track and admit that she has realized her mistake, it’s not just that she was wrong to cheat on Tiger with Aditya, she was wrong to pick Aditya at all, Tiger was the right one for her. And she sticks with that, she is loyal and good and happy with Tiger through to the end of the film, when she proves her love by setting him free to be with Ananya. It’s a good character, the social climber who realizes her mistake too late. But her character is missing maybe two scenes in the second half to really make it work. We don’t get a final scene between her and Aditya, and we don’t really get a scene of her with Tiger again after getting back together, that would have helped to make her story feel full instead of just jumping from big moment of change to the next big moment of change.
This is where the missing song comes in. I THINK that there is supposed to be a wedding song for one of Tiger’s older local friends, that’s what “Mumbai Dilli di Kudiyaan” is supposed to be. And it would show Ananya being a supportive friend to Tiger and his local friends even after he picked Tara over her. And it would show Tara and Tiger being happy-not-happy together. That’s all that is needed to make their stories feel just a little more complete.
But overall, this is a very tight narrative. And a tight love triangle, based on three clear types in high school movies. The character who doesn’t want to feel anything, is aggressively outside the high school scene. The sweet innocent who cares too much. And the striver, the one who doesn’t know what she should care about. What makes it special is that all of those characters move on and grow into a wholer human being. The character who is afraid to feel opens up a little and stops posturing and driving people away. The sweet innocent learns to stand up for himself and have confidence within himself. And the striver learns the error of her ways and what the real values are.
I can give you the broad strokes of the story, but what I can’t convey is the little things around the edges. The funny inside jokes in the soundtrack (the flashback love story with li’l Tiger and li’l Tara is set to “Ishq Wala Love” rewritten as “School Wala Love”), the crazy costumes (nice scene showing Tiger going to a 50% off sale at a cool store and then decorating his own clothes to explain why he dresses “cool” even though he is a poor boy), even little character things like Ananya showing up to a costume party dressed as Catwoman, while Tara is Wonder Woman (the bad girl versus the good girl, but those are just the masks they wear, not who they really are). Trust me, it is a very well-built film. It knows what it wants to be and it sets out to be the best possible version of that.