Review: 3 Idiots

Posted on December 26, 2009


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Rajkumar Hirani’s assault on our apathetic education system is funny, timely, heartfelt – but also terribly pushy and preachy.

DEC 27, 2009 – EXITING LAGE RAHO MUNNABHAI, I WAS STRUCK by how Rajkumar Hirani had transformed the earlier film’s formula into a sequel that felt utterly non-formulaic. I wrote, “The easiest thing [they] could have done is to dust off the characters from the first outing and merely give them a bunch of new jokes to mouth, a set of new comic routines to execute. They could have dumped on us Munnabhai LLB or Munnabhai BEd or Munnabhai MSc.” That’s precisely what Hirani has done with 3 Idiots (adapted from Chetan Bhagat’s bestseller) – he recycles the Munnabhai MBBS formula into an utterly formulaic entertainment. The specialty under scrutiny may have switched from medicine to education, but little else has been tampered with: the catchword phrase (along the lines of “jadoo ki jhappi” and “Gandhigiri”) is now “all is well,” Boman Irani still plays the dictatorial overseer of the Evil Establishment whose doctor-daughter falls for the nominal hero, the wisecracking Circuit is bifurcated into the characters portrayed by Farhan (Madhavan) and Raju (Sharman Joshi), and most of all, the motivating maxim is still that the universe can be bettered by nothing more than the good thought, the kind word, the noble deed.

Ignore his primitive staging, and Hirani is our Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the Gallic charmer who, through the winsome whimsies of Amélie, set about ameliorating the world’s ills with a hop in the step and a gleam in the eye. Whimsy is Hirani’s currency as well, with which he makes us buy into setups that we’d otherwise mock as trivial melodrama. (The sight gag of an eccentric oldster being barbered to the strains of the opera is pure Jeunet.) Hirani devices old-fashioned David-Goliath fables of humble men toppling giant institutions, but because he coats his conceits with a just-this-side-of-surreal sheen, his films don’t lumber on screen. The grimness is alleviated by the goofiness. Hirani is a wise storyteller who understands that a relentlessly tearjerking narrative can be endlessly happy too – with, say, the visual of a paralysed father sandwiched between hero and heroine on a scooter, or the image of an impoverished household being reduced to a black-and-white stereotype of a shack from a 1950s weepie, with a consumptive Leela Chitnis armed with a roomful of medicine bottles. This isn’t the trick employed by earlier filmmakers, who would shoehorn a comedy track into their narratives, at periodic intervals, to provide relief. Hirani’s methods are organic – his sequences bustle, simultaneously, with the apparently contradictory impulses to make you smile and reduce you to a sobbing heap.

He demonstrates this in a joyous stretch where Chatur Ramalingam (played by Omi Vaidya, an excellent newcomer) addresses an audience during a function at Delhi’s Imperial College of Engineering. The very name of the institution suggests an autocracy at odds with the democratic give-and-take necessary for an ideal education, but Chatur is content to scrape and bow. All he wants is a degree in hand that will make him a marketable commodity, and if rote learning is what his instructors want – they frown upon original thought – then he’ll learn by rote. Chatur is a Tamilian from Uganda, so he’s twice removed from the North Indians around him – a stranger to the nation as well as the national language. We’ve all seen misfits like him, who compensate for their alienation from people by trouncing those very people in class. This one time, however, Chatur wants to fit in, and he decides the way to go about this is by memorising and delivering a speech in chaste Hindi.

But the puckish Rancho (Aamir Khan) sees an opportunity and tweaks a few words in the address so that it’s now borderline pornographic. Poor Chatur launches into his impassioned speech, and he cannot see why every single person in the hall (on both sides of the screen) is rolling in the aisles. The scene is sidesplitting, and yet, it underscores the message – without underlining it, the way the rest of the film does – that learning by rote may fetch you marks but not mastery. At this point, Chatur is clearly the clown of the circus we call our educational system – and yet, in the scene that follows, Hirani allows this character to recover his dignity. Plastered out of his skull, he accosts Rancho and partner-in-crime Farhan and asks them why they did what they did, why he deserves to be punished so. And that instant, your sympathies shift to this outsider, who has been humiliated simply for following the system the way millions still do. The camera trains its focus on Chatur for the most part, but had it rested on Rancho, we might have seen a head hung with remorse.

But outside of this stretch, the typically generous Hirani doesn’t seem particularly sympathetic towards Chatur, who’s rendered (like everyone else) in broad swaths of black and white. He’s introduced as an obnoxious NRI with a shining $3.5mn nest, replete with heated swimming pool and Lamborghini-stocked garage. To a great many students, this is the destination of their dreams – and education is merely the expensive ticket. They endure school and college so they can enjoy life. They willingly enroll themselves in these “factories” – as Hirani castigates our academic institutions – so they can be perceived a worthwhile “product” in the job market. To pick on Chatur, therefore, is to mock anyone who isn’t especially interested in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. (And that number would run into the millions.) The more accessible aspect of 3 Idiots is its emphasis that we need to follow our dreams, even if that means pursuing photography when your father sees you as an engineer, and even if that father has opted to swelter in his sleep because he could afford only one air-conditioning unit, the one he installed in your room so you could pore over your engineering books without breaking into a sweat.

In that respect, 3 Idiots is an embryonic Rock On – a slightly impractical (and implausible) fantasy about following your heart, except at a much earlier point in life, during college. Then again, we do not watch our movies because they are towering edifices of logical reasoning. And even formula can be fun with the right cast and in the hands of the right craftsmen. The problem, however, is that Hirani never aims for just “fun” – his mission is to entertain a mass audience while also empowering them. With a bludgeon in hand, he charges at us, daring us not to cry, or laugh, or (preferably) both – and to this end, he stages his material as broadly as possible, without the disarming delicacy, the relaxedness, of the Munnabhai movies. At two different moments, two different men actually have their eyes roll back in their heads as they droop into a faint. Boman Irani overacts as he’s never done before, and Kareena Kapoor (as Pia) keeps him company in the scene where she plays drunk. (After this and Main Aurr Mrs. Khanna, this actress will hopefully be kept away from alcohol – at least on screen.) Madhavan and Sharman Joshi pitch their histrionics several notches higher than their scenes warrant, and even Aamir, at first, goes overboard with twinkling eyes and smacking lips and busy hands perpetually wrapped around a Rubik’s Cube. (He’s much easier to watch as he eventually relaxes into the skin of his character.)

There’s a surfeit of remarkably observant writing on display here, but an equal number of scenes are so shapeless and graceless that, at places, 3 Idiots seems little more than the run up to an amateur skit with cartoon characters like Pia’s label-obsessed fiancé. (And she consents to marry him a second time?) Even the relatively normal characters are required to service burlesque bits like urinating at someone’s doorstep. (I couldn’t decide if my problem was the urination itself or the silliness of these overage actors pretending to be impish collegians. Aamir and Madhavan and Sharman do not share the on-screen camaraderie of the boys of Dil Chahta Hai or Rang De Basanti – we buy their “close friendship” not because we sense it but because we’re told endlessly about it. I wonder: Would I have bought the same routines with, say, Imran Khan and Arjun Mathur and Prateik Babbar?) And when they get caught, we’re expected to empathise with them – talk about loaded dice! – and not with the householder whose doorstep has been urinated on, or the professor whose question paper has been stolen. In the case of the latter, it’s hard to swallow that Rancho would abet cheating in the first place – even if only for a friend – given his high-minded homilies about education in general.

And it isn’t as if these attitudes are silently tucked away into the screen’s recesses – Rancho constantly mouths off about what should be fixed in our educational system, what’s the best way to learn, how teachers should act, how students need to be set free… This is a condition that’s named, I believe, TZP-itis. Take a very worthwhile subject, talk ceaselessly about it, add tons of tears, and laugh all the way to the bank (and the awards shows). Raju refuses to compromise on his principles? Cue tears. Farhan and Raju realise how right, all along, Rancho has been? Cue tears. Pia sees that Rancho isn’t really a goofball, that he’s got a heart of gold, that he’ll do anything for his friends? Cue tears. Her father sees that Rancho isn’t really a goofball, that he’s got a heart of gold, that he’ll do anything for a fellow-man? Cue tears. Farhan confesses to his father that he’s miserable being an engineer? Cue tears. The Munnabhai films were hardly subtle, and they teetered as much between merriment and message and melodrama, but the emotions there felt earned. Here, befitting the college, the emotions feel engineered.

Part of my disappointment, I admit, has to do with my expectations from both Hirani as well as Aamir – that birthing scene? Really? – and yet, it’s these very decisions that may make 3 Idiots the toast of this holiday season. It speaks to parents, it speaks to children, it speaks to students (both new and old), it even speaks to teachers (a key event loops back to September 5). More than a few scenes carry a thrillingly mad charge, especially the ones that dare to be irreverent. Hirani may be an old-school director in the most honourable sense of the phrase – it rains during a funeral, recalling a few thousand earlier instances of pathetic fallacy; the interval “twist” is one of the best in recent times – but he isn’t above knocking our hallowed tradition of mother-made food as “khujli wali roti,” or understanding that it’s all very okay to sympathise with a friend’s sister who isn’t getting married, but the sympathy cannot extend so far as to marry her yourself. Hirani’s ear for humour is golden. It’s worth a trip to the theatre just to hear some of the funniest one-liners committed to the screen. But for all the entertainment he serves up, I seriously hope that, next time, he doesn’t take on the story of unfeeling banking officials made to see the error of their ways and cancelling all farming loans. It would be a terrible tragedy if Hirani ended up the Madhur Bhandarkar of the feel-good genre, saving the world one profession at a time.

Star Ratings

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi