Rajkumar Hirani, in 3 Idiots , 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 (Kareena Kapoor) 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 and 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. 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, more convincing than his co-stars) 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 every single person 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 $3.5 million 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.
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. And it suffers from 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).
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.
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 feelgood genre, saving the world one profession at a time.