Morality and Madness

3 idiots proves that a simple story, well told with an underlying social message, will always find an audience

01 February, 2010

3 IDIOTS has already become the highest grossing film in the history of Hindi cinema, without adjusting for inflation, that is. With the adjustment, Sholay still holds the title. The film has been embroiled in controversy for multiple reasons—Chetan Bhagat demanding ‘due credit’ when it’s amply clear from his contract that he has, in fact, been duly credited; ragging in a Mumbai medical college that is supposedly ‘inspired’ by the ragging scenes in the film; the Tamil and Telugu remake rights having been sold for an astounding 100 million rupees; and the suicide of a 12-year-old Mumbai boy with failing grades who saw the film twice just before he took his own life. In short, since its release over the Christmas holidays, Rajkumar Hirani’s film has constantly been in the news, for reasons good and bad. It had also made headlines before the release when star Aamir Khan decided to don disguises and show up in various mofussil towns in a lame bid for publicity.

Amid such bombardment it is easy to forget that whichever way we look at it, 3 Idiots has become a cultural phenomenon—one  that has consumed legions of Indians and non-Indians abroad in a way few films have done in recent memory. Does the all-pervasive reaction come from the fact that a nation fed on a surfeit of cricket and some truly dire Bollywood product was looking for some more feel-good fare? Or is it simply that Hirani is that rare beast – an unsung master of the mainstream who spends time understanding what works for his audience rather than blowing hot air up media fundaments to cover the holes in the product like his contemporaries? Clearly, the latter is the case. Hirani has demonstrated time and again, from his Munnabhai films to Idiots, that the virtue of a simple story well told, with an underlying social message to boot, will find takers in millions.

3 Idiots could well have been titled ‘3 Suicides’ for its connection to one off-screen and two on-screen (one successful and one unsuccessful)  students’ attempts at killing themselves due to academic pressure. In spite of such a grim backdrop, the fact that the film still manages to leave the viewer walking out of the theatre with a goofy grin is testimony to Hirani’s command over his craft.

Loosely based on Bhagat’s bestselling novel Five Point Someone, 3 Idiots goes beyond the tale of the travails of three IITans (in the film: the Imperial College of Engineering, shot in the hallowed precincts of IIM, Bangalore) and picks up their lives 10 years after graduation. Farhan Qureshi (R Madhavan) and Raju Rastogi (Sharman Joshi) are summoned by Chatur Ramalingam (Omi Vaidya), who is back to declare that he has won a long forgotten bet he had struck with their star classmate, the splendidly named Rancchoddas Shyamaldas Chanchad (Aamir Khan), or Rancho. He had challenged Rancho to beat him in the race to success, claiming that 10 years after graduation, he would be the most successful of the lot. When Rancho does not turn up at the appointed meeting place exactly 10 years later, Farhan, Raju and Chatur go on a road trip to the hills to track down the elusive Rancho, who had vanished on their graduation day.

As they travel, the film cuts back to their college days. Farhan and Raju are average students, and Chatur is a nerd who excels solely by rote learning.  Rancho is a non-conformist genius who believes in enjoying education. This carefree approach earns Rancho the ire of Principal Viru Sahastrabudhhe (Boman Irani) – pejoratively called ViruS, who, nevertheless, cannot stop Rancho from coming first in every examination. Rancho wins the heart of ViruS’ daughter Pia (Kareena Kapoor) and manages to make a significant change in the lives of everyone he comes in contact with.

Back in the present day, no one has a clue about Rancho’s whereabouts or his identity.  Who was he? Where did he come from? Why did he leave? Finally, in the scenic mountains and valleys of Ladakh, the friends find the key to the secret. It involves Rancho and a scientist named Phunsuk Wangdu.

3 Idiots is very similar to Chetan Bhagat’s books, but we won’t get into a book versus film discussion here.  That horse has been flogged dead by the media in the wake of the so-called controversy that, interestingly, has seen both the film’s box office figures and the author’s book sales soar. The film is similar to Bhagat’s output in that it is a mass-market and accessible product. Bhagat achieves this with a combination of cheap pricing and layman English. He clearly does not have the erudition of a Seth or a Rushdie, far from it. Rather, his very dumbing down of the Queen’s English has become his unique selling point. The biggest similarity Hirani shares with Bhagat is the ability to create a simplistic plot. Hirani, however, takes it one further, and along with co-writer Abhijat Joshi, throws in many hilarious situations that provoke paroxysms of laughter. Taking pride of place is the Teacher’s Day sequence where Chatur, an NRI from Uganda with shaky Hindi, is due to deliver the keynote speech in front of the students, faculty and the education minister. Rancho replaces the word ‘chamatkar’ (miracle) with ‘balatkar’ (rape) in Chatur’s speech. Chatur learns it by rote, of course, and his delivery of this speech will go down in the annals of Indian cinema as an instant comedy classic. Of course, the perils of rote learning are what Hirani is targeting, using it as a minor example to expose the general problem with the Indian education system.

The defining performance of the film comes indubitably from Omi Vaidya, who internalises the role of Chaturand as he shifts between humour and pathos effortlessly. Vaidya is an Indian-American actor who has played small parts on American television in ArrestedDevelopment, The Office and CSI, amongst others. 3 Idiots is his big break and he has made the most of it. While the rest of the ensemble cast is uniformly good, for Vaidya to make a mark in a film that is dominated by Aamir Khan, even when he is off-screen, takes some doing. Which brings us to the man himself.

It is remarkable how Khan manages to reinvent himself with every new film, playing the respective character rather than just being the star. The charisma and impish charm are all very much there, but it is commendable how, with correct body language, he turns in a convincing performance of a young engineering student who must be half his real age. The actor is no stranger to this process; at 27, playing a schoolboy in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992); at 36, playing a fresh graduate in Dil Chahta Hai (2001); and at 41, again a college kid in Rang De Basanti (2006). The actor’s sheer energy, well complemented by the vivacity of Madhavan and Sharman Joshi, makes the All Is Well number one of the most rambunctious ones we’ve seen in a while. Kareena joins Khan gamely in the affectionate Bollywood send-up number Zoobi Zoobi, but the song feels a bit dated because this parody of various eras of the Hindi film industry has already been done—Woh ladki hai kahaan (Dil Chahta Hai) and Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte ( Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi).

The biggest similarity Hirani shares with Bhagat is the ability to create a simplistic plot. {{name}}

If one were to find fault with what is otherwise a thoroughly delightful film, it would be Hirani’s regurgitating the Munnabhai formula: The protagonist is a non-conformist do-gooder who changes lives and wants to reform some aspect of Indian society. The catchphrase ‘All is well’ is but a threequel to ‘Jadoo ki jhappi’ and ‘Gandhigiri.’ Boman Irani plays an extension of the caricatured authority figure he played in the Munnabhai films, and hams it up as much, as if not more. And there is that overarching belief that good always begets good. While taking nothing away from Hirani, one becomes curious and wonders what would happen if he were to move out of his comfort zone and take up something in an entirely different genre. In the meantime, we would do well to bask in 3 Idiots’ delights. With great success comes accompanying criticism, and it has already become fashionable to take pot-shots at the film. It is being called preachy, manipulative, contrived, filmi and the like by the self-appointed intelligentsia. What these informed beings forget is that 3 Idiots is a commercial Hindi film, makes no bones about being such and is one of the finest recent examples of the brand.

Directed by Rajkumar Hirani; written by Hirani and Abhijit Joshi; edited by Hirani and Ranjeet Bahadur; music by Shantanu Moitra; lyrics by Swanand Kirkire; cinematography by C K Muraleedharan, choreography by Bosco Martis and Caesar Gonsalves; produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra; released by Vidhu Vinod Chopra Productions. With: Aamir Khan (Rancho), Kareena Kapoor (Pia), R Madhavan (Farhan Qureshi), Sharman Joshi (Raju Rastogi), Boman Irani (Viru Sahastrabudhhe) and Mona Singh (Mona).