Celebrating India in Israel: 3 Idiots
Written by: Akin Ajayi
Bollywood, India’s gargantuan film industry, is the public face that the country holds up to the world; a repository for the cares and concerns, the passions and the tensions, that rub up against one another in the country of 1.2 billion people. So it seems reasonable when parsing the astonishing success of 2009’s 3 Idiots to consider what the film has to say about the world’s largest democracy, alongside the more obvious question – how a comedy-drama about three young men with social skills of fratboys became highest grossing Bollywood movie ever, receiving adulation from around the world and with several location-specific remakes in the pipeline.
Farhan, Raju and Rancho meet on their first day at the elite Imperial College of Engineering. They are the chosen few, their pompous and overbearing Dean, Viru Sahastrabudhhe – “Virus,” for short – tells them. 100,000 applications whittled down to 200 hundred freshmen. This is not a signal for complacency, mind: Virus has no time for slackers. His son was killed in a train accident, but he was back at work the next day, he boasts. At ICE, the competition to be the best has only just begun.
The three roommates have little in common, but are all aware of the overwhelming pressure to be the best. Farhan’s parents have give everything for their son to succeed as a engineer, brushing aside his desire to become a wildlife photographer. Raju’s father is an invalid, his mother scrapes together a basic living for the family, and his homely sister can’t get married until someone puts together a dowry together for her. A lot rides on Raju securing his future prospects.
But Rancho is a different quality altogether. In the pressure cooker environment of ICE, he is an unexpected free spirit, learning for the sake of learning and often getting into trouble for it. He seems blithely unconcerned by the brutal competition amongst students for the best grades – personified by Chatur “Silencer” Ramalingam (said nickname arising from a pungent personal hygiene problem), who memorizes taught material mindlessly. “Pursue excellence,” Rancho counsels, “and success will pursue you with its pants down.”
Rancho makes enemies of both Virus and Silencer; an already strained relationship with the former becomes more complicated when he falls in love with his medical intern daughter, Pia. Virus – who brands the friends “the three idiots” – tries to break up their disruptive friendship, snidely observing snidely that Rancho is the son of a wealthy industrialist – which they hadn’t known – whilst they both came from more modest backgrounds. Rancho has the luxury of being philosophical about his future, he suggests; they haven’t.
As for the Silencer…Rancho uses his proclivity for mindless cramming as a path for public humiliation, doctoring a speech that the Silencer delivers to an august audience into a series of ribald reproaches. The Silencer vows revenge: ten years from now, they’ll see who is more successful, which philosophy of life has proven the more productive. The stakes are at once both quotidian and crucially important. Will the three idiots outwit Virus long enough to secure their college degrees? Will their degrees present the passport to a brighter future, or must they summon up the courage to find personal fulfillment from elsewhere? Will Rancho get the girl, or is there a hidden reason for his curious diffidence when it comes to Pia? And, 10 years on, will the Silencer win his bet?
Despite – or perhaps because of – the occasionally ribald humor, on one level 3 Idiots is a remarkably sophisticated exploration of India’s changing cultural landscape. The untrammeled growth of the national economy and the expansion of the middle classes has brought a distinct shift in personal priorities. Whilst India might have been associated once with spiritual values – humility and patience seen as virtues rather than hinderances, for example – a vigorous, perhaps even brash commercialism has emerged over the last two decades. The received wisdom, 3 Idiots proposes, is that everything has a price, and the most important thing is to be able to afford it. Success matters much more than excellence; what matters is not how one plays the game, but that one wins, whatever the cost.
It’s in this sense that the high jinks of the three friends, as they negotiate their college degrees and their futures, resonates the most. There’s the implicit understanding that to the best comes the best, for one thing. It’s not quite arrogance, but it is certainly a long way from humility and submission to the ineffability of the divine. In the Western world, we’ve become accustomed – by default more than anything else, I suppose – to thinking and behaving this way, assuming the operation of a supposedly-egalitarian meritocracy. In this sense, it is quite an education to see these mores rub against the old dispensation in new terrain.
It would have been quite easy for 3 Idiots to slip into didactic mode, and it is very much to its credit that it remains first and foremost an entertainment vehicle. For good or for bad, we must remember that 3 Idiots is a Bollywood film; the obligatory dance routines (exquisitely choreographed, it must be said) remain a matter of personal taste, but at 2 1/2 hours long, it would certainly benefit from the services of an unsentimental editor.
Beyond this, it embraces the standard tropes of Bollywood cinema: shocks and surprises, unpredicted reversals and unexpected triumphs. Amidst the complicated welter of sub-plot and digression lies a central theme: What price, success? 3 Idiots employs the most basic emotional language to explore this question. This is meant as a compliment, by the way, and of the highest order. It is delightful, entertaining and in a very subtle way informative; it would take a heart of stone not be charmed by this lovely, if a bit overlong film.
3 Idiots will be screened as part of Celebrating India in Israel, festivities marking the 20th anniversary of bilateral relations between India and Israel (http://celebratingindiaisrael.com/index.html)
Tel Aviv: 28 April @ Cinematheque, 9pm For info & tickets: www.cinema.co.il (Tel Aviv)
Jerusalem: 6 May @ Cinematheque, 8:30pm For info & tickets: www.jer-cin.org.il (Jerusalem)
Haifa: 8 May @ Cinematheque, 5:30pm For info & tickets: www.haifacin.co.il (Haifa)