3 Idiots (2009)


Despite being an Indian-American, I am not really a fan of Bollywood movies. However, I had to see the movie that everyone, Indian or otherwise, was talking about, 2009’s 3 Idiots.

3 Idiots follows engineering alumni of the prestigious (fictional) Imperial College of Engineering, Farhan (Madhavan) and Raju (Sharman Joshi) as they search for their friend Rancho (Aamir Khan). In their search, Farhan and Raju recound how the nonconforming Rancho inspired people to think differently in a society obsessed with grades, which would lead to getting a good job, which would lead to settling in America.

3 Idiots does little to change the concept of Bollywood movies, where it even came complete with grandiose song-and-dance numbers; however, 3 Idiots is the first time I’ve seen an Indian movie that really tried to challenge Indian societal values when it comes to education and career paths. Nodame Cantabile was an anime series that was very critical of Japanese values, but it didn’t spit in the eye of Japanese values in the way 3 Idiots did that of Indian ones, and for that reason I really praise 3 Idiots.

Granted, there are a lot of differences between Cornell University and Indian engineering schools, but I had little trouble relating to what the characters were dealing with when it came to the pressures of grades and parental expectations. Indian movies generally tend to go the safer route also taken by my oft-cited example Fashion. That is to say, they’re more likely to depict why it’s awesome to live in a homophobic, xenophobic Hindu society, whereas 3 Idiots is quick to show us the negative sides of the Indian educational and societal values in the form of a student suicide and a very superficial, money-centric fiance.

Despite having a runtime of just under three hours, I was impressed how little fluff there was in 3 Idiots. Almost everything that came up in the first half of the movie came back to serve a purpose in the story later on.

Aamir Khan demonstrated himself to have strengths as a comedian, thanks in no small part to how he could warp his face. Even beyond that, 3 Idiots’ jokes were very tightly written with perfect timing and they were carried out by talented actors.

The weakest link in the movie was its villain, Dr. Viru “Virus” Sahastrabuddhe (Boman Irani), who was the dean of ICE. To me, while he was funny, thanks in large part to Irani’s acting, he felt like a two-dimensional Ed Rooney knock-off in how he was actively plotting to get the movie’s leads to fail out of school. All of his character’s growth happened in one scene, and its circumstances, involving a baby’s delivery and a makeshift vacuum pump, felt very contrived. In my experiences, the problems I encountered as an engineering student was the result of having a very large, unfeeling, and bureaucratic administration. I know it’s hard to depict such a system in a movie where a single antagonist would be much more convenient for storytelling purposes, but I had a hard time buying how Virus was all of the bad in India’s education system rolled into one person.

3 Idiots, as a big-budget Bollywood movie, had a lot of style. The visuals were top-notch. What comes to mind is for the song sequence “Zoobi Doobi”, where Pia (Kareena Kapoor, an actress whose beauty actually improved in the 8 years after she made Khabi Khushi Khabie Gham, which was a terrible movie, but that belongs in a post all to itself) fantasized about Rancho. That said, 3 Idiots sticks out to me because unlike many Bollywood films, it also had the substance to back its style up.

You can hear it from someone who tended to avoid Bollywood movies like the plague up until now: 3 Idiots is a movie that I actually liked a lot. If you have 3 hours that you can set aside one evening, 3 Idiots is definitely worth checking out.

Score: 3.5/4