3 IDIOTS is one of the funniest Hindi movies I’ve seen since MUNNABHAI MBBS. So it comes as no surprise to find that it was written and directed by Rajkumar Hirani, the guy behind that smash-hit. 3 IDIOTS also has certain plot similarities to the first MUNNABHAI movie. Once again we find ourselves in an Indian university, with students under pressure from their adoring parents to do well and get a great job. Once again we have an iconoclastic rebel who goes against the faculty head and argues for less learning by rote and more actual education. And once again, there’s a romance between the rebel and the Dean’s daughter. But there the resulting is far more raucous, far more consistently witty, and genuinely laugh-out loud funny.
Aamir Khan plays Rancho, an iconoclastic student who transforms the lives of his two best friends Raja (Sharman Joshi) and Farhan (Madhavan). Together, they are the 3 idiots of the title, who fight financial and social pressure to have pursue their passions. They come up against the tyrannical and uncaring university dean, nicknamed Virus, and played by the typically hilarious, but here more modulated, Boman Irani. Lisp and comical haircut aside, Irani’s Virus is less funny than terrible, because until tragedy strikes his own family, he does not change. The 3 idiots also come up against the university swot, a Ugandan NRI nicknamed Silencer, played with a pitch-perfect East African gujurati accent by Omi Vaidya. Silencer is also a tragic figure, but equally one of the funniest, with a hilarious comic set-piece revolving around a formal speech in front of the education minister which the fluent Hindi 3 idiots have doctored replacing the word “serve” with “screwed”. Silencer is also the best exponent of the movie’s full and up-front exploration of fart jokes! Naturally, this being a Hindi film, there has to be a love interest, and so we have Kareena Kapoor, also superb at the comdy, playing Pia, the dean’s daughter.
The bulk of the movie takes place a decade ago, and sees Rancho befriending the other idiots, confronting the dean and falling in love. The movie’s framing device takes place in the present day, with Raju, Farhan and Silencer trying to track down Rancho after ten years of radio silence.
The perfectionist Aamir Khan, aged 44, undergoes an impressive physical transformation to play Rancho, a university student. He has lost weight, and the combination of baggy clothes, make-up (unfairly – botox?!), posture and physicality make him more convincing in the role than you might imagine. It was even more suprising to see how far this actor, famed for his serious political films, could do pure physical comedy. His acting in the song “Aal eez well” is superb, and genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.
So, 3 IDIOTS is utterly hilarious. But the great thing is that it is also politically provocative. The key argument in the film is that Indian parents are too strict with their kids, picking out their careers for them, and putting too much pressure on them succeed. Worse still, success is measured purely by salary, with which you can buy flashy branded clothes and attract a pretty wife. The price of this pressure is extreme – suicide. Rancho argues that real learning isn’t learning by rote to come first in an exam. And that, rather than trying to come top in an exam, if you “pursue excellence, and success will follow, pants down.” Most of all, if you love engineering, be an engineer. Don’t become a banker in a foreign land. It’s a wonderful ethos and the argument sorely needs to be made. It’s great to see a populist movie taking such a stance.
Of course, with Hindi cinema you have to expect a big dollop of melodrama and implausibility. For instance, the framing device see the “two idiots” go in search of Rancho by driving from Delhi to Shimla via Ladakh – a massive road trip that seemingly happens in a day! And the single most ludicrous set-piece is the scene where Rancho and the students help the dean’s daughter to give birth despite heavy rains, a lack of electricity, and any medical equipment. Just when you think the scene can’t get more schmaltzy and melodramatic, Hirani pushes it one step further, with the movie’s motto, “Aal eez well” playing a key part. It’s ludicrous. But then again, you have to assume that a writer-director who has pastiched Hindi cinema tropes in the song “Zoobi Doobi” knows perfectly well what he’s doing. He’s both pandering to our expectations of what a Bollywood movie should do, and simultaneously sending them up. It takes a very assured director to create a scene that’s both moving and hilarious.
3 IDIOTS was released on Christmas Day 2009.