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Film Review: 3 Idiots

Posted by anandrr on January 17, 2010

3 Idiots starts swimmingly, a gentleman on an Air India flight gets a call that his friend Rancho whom he has not seen for almost 10 years has recently been found, this new information causes him to fake a heart attack thus forcing the plane to head back and he then scurries away from the emergency personnel as soon as he is on solid ground. It ends quite beautifully, set against the shore of a clear blue lake with the Himalayas for a backdrop, it seems like cinematographer heaven. Between these bookends, the film is filled with such fetid garbage that one wonders what the film makers were thinking. It reminded me of those not-so-rare piles of garbage on Indian streets that one walks past and struck by the sudden stench of the situation, one walks past again wondering if it really stank as much as it did, and yes it stank, in fact it stank worse than it just did a moment ago. Every successive scene in 3 Idiots is like that: can it really stink any worse, why yes it can, just wait for them to serve it up to you.

Superficially, it is a movie about one Rancho a smart student at ICE, India’s best engineering college, and his two friends who are less smart but at the same premier engineering college, trying to get through their four years as best as they can while at the same time having fun. It is supposedly a jolly ride through college, nostalgic scenes about hostels and dorm rooms abound, but it is also a vain attempt to take the education system to task for taking some of our best people and turning them into something they would never have wanted to be.

Spoilers after the jump!

It is hard to find many redeeming qualities in the movie. It starts with the premise of the movie. This movie is one of the following:

  • Slapstick comedy in an Indian college: In which case, give me a couple hours of slapstick and send me home happy. Enough with the preaching, stop with the aimless tear-jerking, and why have the romantic side-story that adds nothing to the movie?
  • A critique of the Indian education system: In which case, why is it that the two characters in the movie who are contending for “success” (and find it in different ways) are actually products of that system? It’s not as if they went outside the system to find success. It’s not as if the system failed them and they rose despite the system.
  • An exhortation to follow your passion: Really? In India? How many people in India have that luxury? One of the main characters in the movie comes from a family that is so dirt poor they have to be depicted in ironic black and white. And yet, the sole hope of the family, their son studying at India’s top engineering school is exhorted to drop this engineering shit and follow his dream. I mean, What The Fuck? Really? Really? He should follow his stupid dream to do whatever it is he wants to do instead of helping his family get out of the poverty rut they are in by studying well and getting an engineering degree and getting himself a good job?

So much for the ill-thought premise, what of the story? See the first half of the story deals with the characters and their time spent at ICE. The second half suddenly turns into a story of filling the pieces of the puzzle in a whodunit-style impersonation caper. Mostly, the story is supposed to be about Rancho, a super-smart guy who is at engineering school but believes that an education has to be less about teaching students book-knowledge and more about teaching them to I’m-really-not-sure-what. Unfortunately, this is never really explored, perhaps it is that an education should teach students to think for themselves, perhaps it is to be good engineers, perhaps it is to have fun and not waste those important years of their lives, I’m not sure, because while we’re told what the system should not be, we’re rarely told what it should be. We get a glimpse of what it could be like: little Buddhist monk kids creating their own biomass power generator mounted on a cheap bicycle, that might be it, I’m not sure. Our whip-smart hero is accompanied by his two best friends who are apparent misfits in the world of engineering and would rather be doing something else, but here they are. The obligatory nerd who focuses on studies and hard work at the expense of all else and has no life or spirit of fun is the butt of many jokes because he, well, he works hard at whatever he does, and as we all know that defeats the point of college. The nerd (Chatur Ramalingam, if you wondered how creative the writers were), shows up in the movie as having eventually immigrated to the States, earned millions of dollars, and is now found owning a Lamborghini and other such crass symbols of extreme wealth, but none of this counts as success because, I kid you not, he is prone to silent farts. At the risk of repeating myself, WTF?

Now the thing is: most good stories need their main characters to have an arc. The Ramayana? Arc! Mahabharata? Arc! Shakespeare: Oh so arcy! Sholay? Arc! Godfather? Citizen Kane? R.K. Narayan? Vikram Seth? Salman Rushdie? This is not to claim that you can’t tell a good story without the arc. But you have to be an exceptionally good story teller to pull it off. The conventional way is usually safest, stick an arc in there, and it’ll work out. Look for the arc here: Exceptionally brilliant, whip-smart guy comes to college, buddies up with 2 other “idiots” to have a gala time at school, while there teaches the school authorities a little something about the education system, the nerd about not being so nerdy, and his friends about chasing their dreams, then leaves for the Himalayas to invent stuff. Um! Let’s try variations:

  • Whip-smart but lazy guy comes to college, discovers that competition abounds, yet insists on having fun. Through four years of college, and initially failing at the college thing, he learns the value of hard work while teaching the rest of the establishment the value of a real education and having fun at the same time.
  • Super smart, talented guy comes to college but finds that college kills more minds than it nurtures. Fails to come to grips with the rat-race, but works to overcome the institutional lethargy and resistance to change, finally succeeding at showing them what really matters
  • Super smart, talented guy comes to college only to find that he and others like him do not have conventional smarts, but are really good at seeing the world through creative eyes. With the help of a benevolent teacher, they rewrite what it means to succeed at college, and at the end come together with their conventionally smart contemporaries to create things of amazing beauty.

None of this presupposes a medium. This could fit into a comedy, an uplifting-feel-good story, a coming of age story, anything at all depending on how it is told. (That last plot I wrote up is from one Taare Zameen Par, Aamir Khan might remember it) But the arc is what keeps the viewer’s attention. When a smart guy comes to college, decries the education system, but nevertheless tops the exams every year of college, graduates at the top of his class, and goes on to invent 400 things over the course of the next 10 years, all the while being this unconventional guy who thinks outside the box, what exactly grabs you? Why do we care what happens in the next act, when we know nothing will change?

Speaking of Rancho, did he really have to be super-smart? Would it have killed the movie if he was an outside-the-box thinker, fun to be with but couldn’t succeed in a conventional education system? At least that makes the character relatable to a mass audience. Take the four main characters: boy from a poor family who is in India’s best college because that’s his family’s way out of poverty yet on arrival there he finds that he’s not really sure what he wants to do; boy from middle class family whose parents want him to go to engineering school but who himself would rather be a photographer; boy from another middle class family who is super-nerdy, socially ill-equipped yet driven to “succeed” in the “conventional way” by studying hard, mugging his books, and making lots of money; lucky boy who could solve 10th-grade math problems at the age of 10, thus taken under the wing of a rich industrialist who pays for the boy’s education, needs no textbooks to tell him what to do, able to create things at a moment’s notice, and eventual holder of 400 patents. Now, which of these is a relatable main character for a story that decries the Indian education system? Or a relatable character to encourage people to chase their dreams? Or a relatable character, period! And guess which one is the main character of this movie. Even Superman had a bumbling alter-ego. Our hero Rancho brooks no imperfections.

Some people in this world are very very talented. The rest of us just have to work hard at whatever we do. That’s just the way things work. No prizes for guessing the film’s opinion of hard work or people who work hard. It’s important to follow your passion. Even if you’re dirt poor, don’t bother with the working-hard stuff. Indeed one of the episodes in the movie deals with the poor guy going off to hang with the nerd because he wants to work hard for his family’s sake. What does our main man Rancho do? He extracts the guy from there because working hard is so lame and over-rated. Let’s party instead. And oh yeah, I’ll kick your ass when finals come around. And get this, apparently that’s what Lata Mangeshkar and Sachin Tendulkar did, follow their passion and not work hard at what their dad picked for them. Leave aside for the moment that Mangeshkar started her singing career because after her father’s death there was no other way to earn money, that very few of us are as talented as Mangeshkar, are we really about to argue that Mangeshkar spends all her time partying and just shows up at the studio to record and score one hit after another?

One of the recurring themes in 3 Idiots is a praise for slacker morals. We are told that the morals of the people working in the system are suspect. Why, the nerd slips porn magazines under the doors of his dorm-mates the night before the exam to guarantee himself top grade. In similar fashion, other insiders reveal their dubious morals also, presumably this is how we are forced to act by our corrupt education system. Which is all well until the main characters start making some ethically dubious choices also. Then it’s either all fun and games, and who but the most uptight among us could be against fun and games, or it’s vital for the characters to work the system which is all well also. It is thus that Rancho humiliates the nerd and also how our man Rancho justifies stealing the questions to the final exam.

My final quibble with the movie has to do with the awful story-telling style. Almost all of the movie is told in flashback. Not that there is anything wrong with that, in the hands of a skilful story teller that could be an asset, in the hands of the film makers in this case it’s a liability. The way they tell it robs it of all dramatic tension, most of the time we already know how things will work out, and in a 2.5+ hour movie that can get quickly get tiring.

There is still a movie to be made about the fun to be had in college. There is still a movie to be made about India’s woeful education system, and at the Blandings Media Empire, we’ve written before about how the system screws over the very people it is meant to serve, however 3 Idiots is neither of those movies. What it is instead is a poorly made movie, low on creativity, slapped together with very little forethought for what the real outcome should be, mediocre in every respect and eventually resting for its laurels on how much money it can make from the rate of admission, promising one thing delivering quite nothing at all, in so doing able to generate huge returns for its promoters. Resembling thus the very education system it seeks to pillory, it only makes sense that it evokes such strong feelings of nostalgia among its audience.


2 Responses to “Film Review: 3 Idiots”

  1. Rancho said

    Geez..Why you need to be so pessimistic/Negative abt everything?

    I LOVED the movie , every bit of it and i’ve seen people who didn’t even undestand hindi/indian language falling in love with the movie.

  2. […] Fetid garbage […]

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