Thursday, July 19, 2012

100 Crore Club Member Badge No. 2: 3 Idiots

Draw a crazy picture,

Write a nutty poem,

Sing a mumble-gumble song,

Whistle through your comb.

Do a loony-goony dance

‘Cross the kitchen floor,

Put something silly in the world

That ain’t been there before.

-Shel Silverstein, “Put Something In,” A Light in the Attic, 1981

3 Idiots (2009)

[For the introduction to the 100 Crore Club click here and part one is located here.]

I had successfully managed to avoid 3 Idiots until this past Friday. It was all for your sake, dear readers, that I swallowed my extremely negative reaction to Aamir Khan’s 40-going-on-18 act and ponied up $3.99 to watch the film on Amazon Video. To my complete surprise, I ended up enjoying the film quite a bit. 3 Idiots is based on a novel I only got five pages into before throwing it down in disgust; it has a terrible soundtrack; the film is sentimental, crass, preachy, full of actors too old for their roles, and overly long. Yet, despite all of this, I ended up coming away completely charmed by the titular idiots and their message. I finally understood why 3 Idiots was the second member of the 100 Crore Club.

When I was born, my parents were very young - just barely out of college, actually. It was the late 1970s (we do not ask a lady her age) and, in America, the countercultural push for social change had been de-radicalized and turned into positive messages for children. “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor”* became Free to Be... You and Me. Though the album has long since become a punchline of earnest liberalism, I have strong - and very fond - memories of Free to Be You and Me. The skits and songs about how we should follow our hearts and not give into cultural stereotypes about what girls or boys or black people or white people or yellow people or red people or brown people are supposed to be left a powerful impression on me. I grew up with the firm belief that we’re all equal as human beings** and that it was the individual, not society, who knew best what was best for him or herself. Although America falls far short of these values in practice, we’ve absorbed them completely as one of the pillars of mainstream culture, you have to look no further than the rhetoric of “personal choice” that flows through both the political right and left here.

One of the performers on Free To Be You and Me was a poet/musician/friend of Hugh Hefner named Shel Silverstein. Silverstein is best remembered as the author of a couple of best-selling books of verse for children.*** I read these, too, as a child and delighted in the mixture of earthy humor, philosophy, and nonsense they delivered to me. Silverstein never talked down to his young readers but neither did he shy away from making a butt joke. And it was that freedom-loving combination of earthy humor, philosophy, and nonsense which permeates 3 Idiots.

3 Idiots was inspired by, though not based on****, Chetan Bhagat’s novel Five Point Someone – What not to do at IIT!. The film opens with Farhan Quereshi (R. Madhavan) and Raju Rastogi (Sharman Joshi) being lured into a meeting with their former classmate/enemy the “Silencer” (Omi Vaidya), so called for his lethal silent-but-deadly farts. The Silencer claims to have information about their long, lost friend Rancho (Aamir Khan). The film then flips between the three reunited classmates on the hunt for Rancho and lengthy flashback sequences where we see exactly how much Rancho touched their lives. Along the way we meet the Dean of the College, Dr. Viru Sahastrabudhhe (Boman Irani), called Virus behind his back, Virus’s moped-riding doctor-in-training daughter Pia (Kareena Kapoor), and “Millimeter” (Rahul Kumar), the kid who works as a porter for the idiots’ section of the dorm.

Much of the serious discussion that surrounded 3 Idiots centered on the takedown of India’s high educational system, perhaps most concisely put in a piece by Sudhakar Ram titled The 3 Idiots of the Education System, in which he lays the blame for poor education on idiots 1) the educational system 2) teachers and 3) parents.***** The educational system depicted in 3 Idiots is one in which test scores and rote learning form the basis of education and things like creative problem solving, philosophical debate, and the humanities are considered harmful distractions.

I don’t have first hand experience of the Indian educational system and don’t fancy embarrassing myself by trying to sound like an expert but I can draw from my experience in the American public schools, which are among the worst in the world - neither rote learning nor creative problem solving get taught in America. The only thing I learned in school was how to hate education and, judging by the anti-intellectual fervor sweeping the country, I don’t think I’m alone. I recall, in particular, an English literature class in 10th grade (~15-16 years old) where the teacher assigned us an “open-ended” essay question that she clearly thought only had one right answer. In full defiance of every grade-grubbing teacher’s pet bone in my body, I wrote a paper titled something like: “Blood is thicker than water: Why Huck Finn’s dad was a better father figure than that slave Jim he ran away with even though Huck’s dad beat him PS Fuck you.” (I got a C - for using complete sentences.) In other words, Shel Silverstein’s message of creativity only got as far as disguising the rote-learning as “open-ended” essay questions in America.

Though I can’t identify completely with the Idiots (not being a guy, Indian, or in Engineering college), I think I got where they were coming from and I can certainly understand how the pull of this message would hit home with a lot of people - but a message alone isn’t going to sell tickets. The genius of 3 Idiots (and, indeed, the oeuvre of Rajkumar Hirani) is that it weaves the message into an entertaining story. We travel willingly with the characters as they learn their life lessons, instead of being dragged along through a turgid morality tale. In the best tradition of socially aware pop filmmakers like Raj Kapoor, Hirani packages his message with razzle-dazzle and a pair of star-spangled speedo underwear - and expects us to enjoy everything equally.

Hirani himself was as an Engineering college dropout who went into filmmaking because he loved film and I think it’s that combination of smarts and love of popular film which allows him to connect with both the multiplex and single screen audiences. Though he is known for mixing social messages into his films, one never gets the sense in a Hirani film that he looks down on the delights of popular film, like song picturizations and slapstick humor. Like Shel Silverstein, he lets us indulge our inner child by making fools out of authority figures and giggling at flatulence - two universal human impulses that stretch across class, creed, and nationality. I can only assume that a large percentage of the audience of 3 Idiots could never run away and become wildlife photographers but, for those 3 hours that we’re watching the film, Hirani gives us a taste of freedom. And that is no small accomplishment.

The characters of Farhan and Raju have been the focus of much of the discussion around 3 Idiots, as their stories relate directly to the critique of the educational system that people found so empowering. I’m going to talk about the two characters who struck me as the most interesting - Rancho and Pia. I’m on record - probably even on this blog, though I’m not about to go back to find the quotes - as being very against casting Aamir as a college student and it’s true that he is too old for the role. However, Aamir handles the part so masterfully that (here is where I eat my words) I can’t imagine anybody else playing it. Rancho is a tough role to make appealing; he’s within spitting distance of Manic Pixie Dream Boy (a la Ranbir in the dire Saawariya) and an inexperienced performer could easily have sunk the whole film by playing up that angle. But Aamir... Aamir the Hero comes with a bit of wisdom and authority. I never once believed that he was “18” or “22” but I did believe that he was Rancho and I believed that he had learned for himself everything he was telling the idiots. As played by Aamir, Rancho wasn’t a smartass teenager and he wasn’t smarmy plot device; as played by Aamir, Rancho was somebody you wanted to listen to.

One of the more interesting wiggles to Rancho was that he was from a lower economic class than anybody else at the college and he was essentially self-educated. Neither of these angles is dwelt on but they are there. Farhan and Raju reflect back the part of the audience who is like me, with the luxury to worry about whether or not we’re taking the right direction in life. It may not seem like that to a young person but even being able to ask yourself - Should I get a practical degree or go into the arts? Do I please my parents or voice my own opinions? - that is a luxury. Some people don’t have that choice. They need to earn whatever money they can to eat. Today. Rancho speaks to that audience when he tells Millimeter to buy a school uniform and sneak into school if they don’t have the money for fees. Rancho speaks to that audience when he builds a successful career without the piece of paper.

[My great-grandfather Bobby]

Let me tell you something. My great-grandfather Bobby had an 8th grade education. He was a plumber. (A damn fine one - he fixed Jackie O.’s toilet one time. True story.) And in his spare time he tinkered with electronics and did things like make his own microphones and recording equipment. He was a Rancho. For all that people have said that 3 Idiots is a critique of the education system and a rebuke to parents who push their unhappy kids into engineering degrees, I think it says something more to the kids who will never be able to afford an engineering degree - 3 Idiots says: Fuck that shit, yaar; your mind is worth more than some rich kid with a piece of paper; you’re worth more than some rich kid with a piece of paper. And that is a revolutionary message.

Pia is a lot less revolutionary, though still quite charming, as played by Bebo. If there was one thing I found less than satisfactory about 3 Idiots it was that there was only one major female character and that her function was “love interest.” Kareena being Kareena, she added a lot of spark to Pia but that didn’t change the fact that the freedom put forth in 3 Idiots seemed to be aimed exclusively at young men. I did appreciate that Pia was no helpless heroine - she had a career and was a competent professional but it did kind of frustrate me that there seemed to be no place for a woman to be an idiot. With more and more films making sure to include at least one or two girls as part of a hero’s gang of friends, the male-only enclave of 3 Idiots felt exclusionary at times. I know that wasn’t the intention and maybe that is one of the things that carried over from the “inspiration” of Five Point Someone but I would hope that Hirani gets on board with the Woman Power storm that is blowing through Bollywood at the moment and makes a more conscious effort to add female characters to his next film.

I’m not sure if I’ll feel the need to revisit 3 Idiots again but I’m very glad I finally saw the film. The horrible soundtrack was still horrible; Aamir was still too old; and I found some of the humor to be really nasty but all that faded away before Rajkumar Hirani’s message of freedom. It’s only appropriate that the picturization of “Zoobi Doobi” (a song I still loathe) used imagery from those early Raj Kapoor films because at its heart 3 Idiots is closer to a film like Sree 420 than anything that’s come out of Mumbai recently. Heartfelt, crass, socially aware, and utterly catholic in its appeal, 3 Idiots is a film like no other.

To quote Rancho: “Aal izz well.”

* Martin Luther King, Jr.

** A belief that was beaten out of me as I got older but that’s a story for a different time.

*** So best-selling, in fact, that his publisher keeps on releasing posthumous volumes of his work - like a literary Tupac.

**** I can’t comment on the similarities and differences between the two since I threw down the novel in disgust during the opening “ragging” scene. I have a low tolerance for boys-will-be-boys depictions of bullying, having been on the receiving end during my own school days, and the opening incident of the novel is really awful.

***** A message that is translating very well all across East Asia I might add.


Thelondongirl said...

lol $3.99 . you know its free on youtube right. ?? ok lemme go back to the rest of this, that just tickled me

Filmi Girl said...

@The London Girl Don't mock an old lady!! LOL!

I'm pretty sure I checked youtube and decided to go w/Amazon because I didn't want to click through a billion parts or deal with ads or there were no subtitles. :)

Moimeme said...

See, I told you you'd like it.:)

My objections to 3 Idiots are too many and too long to write here, but, even as I hated it while watching it, I could also see that it would appeal to a wide swath of audience as entertainment.

But, to put my objections in a nutshell, I have no beef with 3 Idiots as an "entertaining" film. I only question its labeling as an "intelligent" film. There are self-contradictions galore within the film itself, without even comparing it to its source material. To give only one example, if Rancho is convinced that the education system is no good and one can self-educate just as well (a position not without merit), why does he himself go to an "elite" institution for said education? And why does he advise Millimeter to sneak into a school and steal an education (that's what it amounts to, after all, to receive lessons without payment), rather than give him appropriate books and volunteer to tutor him?

Finally, you may not have liked the five pages of Five Point Someone that you read -but I'm surprised at the way you mischaracterize the book. The opening ragging scene is definitely NOT a "boys will be boys" scene. That tone in fact is taken for that scene in the film, which is played for laughs. In the book it is depicted as and is meant to be a commentary on the horrors of bullying that go on in the hostel. The bond between the three friends is formed because Ryan (the "inspiration" for Rancho) rescues the other two from the humiliation they are slated for by his intelligence (which is a lot more impressive than the stupid trick with the spoon that Rancho does in the film.) So please don't express your opinion on a book that you haven't read - a book that still tops the best seller lists in India, years after its release, and is something of a bible to most engineering students, or indeed, to most Indian youth in general. And if you found that scene in the book too disgusting to read, I wonder what your reaction would be to the much worse acts of ragging that plague Indian colleges, in which several students die or commit suicide every year.

zarina said...

"To give only one example, if Rancho is convinced that the education system is no good and one can self-educate just as well (a position not without merit), why does he himself go to an "elite" institution for said education?"

But, Aamir's Rancho is the fake Rancho, who went to the "elite" institution in place of the real Rancho. He went because he has been told to do by the Master of the House where he lived to get a degree for the real Rancho (who would not be able to pass, if he has actually gone to engineering school). His advise to Millimiter is more on grab the education opportunities that are there in front of you, do not let lack of money stops you from gaining an education. And shouldn't education be free?


Filmi Girl said...

@moimeme I don't know if you saw my note at the end but I was bullied at school - OF COURSE I find bullying disgusting. And regarding my opinion on the book - I disliked the tone, the writing style, and, yes, the way the bullying was described. I also strongly dislike the way Chetan Bhagat comes across in interviews.

Just because a lot of Indian youth love it doesn't mean I'm obliged to. I'd also add that Hitler's "Mein Kampf" is a perennial favorite - and I feel no obligation to read that for business tips, either.

Zarina, below, got the point with Rancho.

The one thing 3 Idiots doesn't do is overtly advocate for socialism - free education, free medicine, etc. - but I think you can feel that question subtextually from Rancho. I don't know if Hirani did it on purpose or if the character got away from him but I think it was probably smart because I don't think the film would have caught on with the crowd that can afford to pay for schooling at elite colleges if it had been said outright.

Moimeme said...

@Zarina - Phongsuk (to use his real name and avoid confusion), had a choice. He could have opted not to perpetrate the fraud. My memory is that he said at some point that he came to the university under the assumed name because he wanted to learn. But, even if I misremembered this part, he still had the option of refusing to go, but he chose to go. That doesn't make him a hero in my eyes.

The second point, whether education should be free for all or not, is entirely separate from the concerns of this film. The point is that the education that Phongsuk wants Millimeter to get isn't free, and he is advising him to perpetuate his own fraud to get it. If Phongsuk believed in free education, as I said, he could have easily provided it to Millimeter.

@FG -- You don't have to like either Chetan Bhagat or his books. I was only objecting to your mischaracterization of the tone of that opening scene. You said it was a "boys will be boys" tone, and that is what I emphatically refute. It was portrayed as disgusting, and the actions condemned as disgusting; if you'd kept reading, you'd have found that out.

I don't know if you read any of the myriads of comments and discussions of the film when it came out. In all the usual forums you (and I) frequent, for example, almost every member was nostalgic, recalling the pranks that were played on them and that they themselves played, especially the vulgarity that goes on in boys' hostels at engineering colleges. BTW, 3 Idiots grossed more than MNIK in the U.S. -- SRK's stronghold. How did that happen? Most people attribute it to the fact that the Hindi film viewing audience in the U.S. consists largely of NRI's working in the IT industry -- i.e., engineers. :) A second point to emerge out of all those discussions was that at least half of the audience went to see the movie because they had read the book and were fans of it.

I don't think 3 Idiots is any less of a "leave your brains at home" kind of movie than any of the masala or comedy films that are regularly dismissed with that tag. So, is it a fun movie? Sure. Did it have a point besides having fun? Maybe. It wasn't a point that was either new or particularly illuminating -- again like the masala or comedy movies. To hold it up as some proof of high intellectual achievement in cinema is what gets my goat.

Anyway, I'll leave you to relive your fun memories of it.

Filmi Girl said...

@Moimeme Ah~ okay. I see what you're saying.

Here is what I think: It's my understanding that Five.Someone was a nostalgic look back at IT college and that definitely comes through in 3 Idiots but I don't think that is all to the film. If it was, I don't think I would have liked it as much.

I didn't say it was some pillar of intellectual film making but I do think it's a very socially aware film but those are two different things. The point I was trying to make - and maybe I didn't succeed as well as I hoped - was that Hirani manages to combine messages that reach the now NRI Farhan and Rajus reminiscing about college days and the Millimeters out there.

(Maybe I'm being presumptuous but considering the book was written in English, I don't think Chetan Bhagat was talking to Millimeter when he was writing.)

But THAT is the genius of 3 Idiots - it spoke to the entire Hindi film audience, not just the single screens or multiplexes. You need both for a massive hit like this.

I'm perfectly willing to believe that a lot of NRI engineers saw this film and saw only what they wanted to in it. Film is entertainment and Hirani never forgets that.

Moimeme said...

@FG -- I realized I didn't quite make the point in my earlier post. The reason I mentioned the book's fans being drawn into seeing the film, as well as the engineer NRI population, was to explain the fact that this film is not merely a member of the 100 cr club, but, to date, is the only member of the 200 cr club. Yes, of course it was popular across the spectrum - and that again is my point. You can't achieve this level of box office success without appealing to the widest possible audience, and that does have the element of pandering to the lowest common denominator, a pandering that is condemned in other films. You may not call the film a pillar of intellectual film making, but almost everyone else in India did and does. :) (I counted exactly six opposing views in all the media.)

Here are a couple of examples of the opposite take, if you're interested:

Less appalled than the above, but still neutral about the film:

I wish you wouldn't comment on the book if you haven't read it. :) Far from being a mere nostalgic trip, it in fact does criticize the rigid education on offer at even such an elite institution as an IIT campus (which is far, far better, or was, in those days, than most universities in India and the world), and does so far more incisively than the film.

Filmi Girl said...

@moimeme We love to give our opinions, no? :) Your pushback is very welcome, as it always is.

(Just remember your commentary on SJ without seeing the show when you see my comments on Chetan's book and take my opinions on that topic with a grain of salt.)

We CAN agree that if you don't pull in multiplexes and single screens, you can't hit the 200 Crore Club - at least not yet. (Inflation, you know... ;))

eliza bennet said...

It probably is not very fashionable but I read Chetan Bhagat's 5 Points Someone after I have found out that the story will be filmed by Raju Hirani.

I loved the novel and after read I have read all his novels - which are not literally masterpieces but helped me through a many airport delay. I find them all very entertaining reads, 5 Points and 2 States being my faves.

The film at best, is inspired by the book. But in itself works for me for the reason that you explained so well. Raju Hirani's storytelling.

As for Aamir, I was against him in Rang De Basanti (he was definitely too old for that part too) but I was not even thinking about that after the film ended.

So I had no problems with 3 Idiots since I knew that Aamir will pull it off somehow and he did.

And I'm very glad you like the film. It is such a good feeling for me, staying away from a film for valid reasons and then suddenly watching it and enjoying it a lot. Happy for you!

getfilmy said...

Lovely write-up FG.

I haven't read the book and I also wouldn't call it an "intellectual" film but what I think makes it an *intelligent* film is that it does what you said - lets the message be heard, understood and accessed by audiences that don't have the luxury to ponder things like "personal choice" and students who are dealing with these parental & societal pressures themselves(and not just in engineering college).

In order to do that, some dumbing down and simplifying is undoubtedly required. Hirani knows how to balance his enlightenment with huge doses of entertainment and this is what makes him a formidable filmmaker IMO. It's not a crime to know your audience.

As recently seen with Cocktail, I think critics read a lot more into a film (especially with their own agendas) than the filmmaker intended. I'm just glad that *someone* made a film that depicts the suffocating problem of parental & societal expectations that plague young kids across South Asia, and he did it in a way that appeals to many and ultimately lifts the heart (a "feel-good" film if I ever saw one).

Sometimes in our zeal to dissect a film with our intellectual scalpels, we miss out on the simple emotional connect it makes with the people - that emotional connect translates into box office and I (perhaps naively, along with Aamir himself as per his SMJ agenda) believe the emotional connect is the first catalyst for change.

In think my parents would be more likely to be swayed after watching 3 Idiots than they would if I showed them something like Dead Poets Society, for instance. It's an important film because within the context of commercial Bollywood, a film that even attempts a message such as this is rare. I'd rather applaud it than criticize it.

Filmi Girl said...

@getfilmy *nods* In his own way, Hirani is much more a populist like Raj Kapoor than the intellectual Guru Dutt. And I definitely see the line between RDB-3I-SMJ.

We can totally judge critics intelligence for calling 3I intellectual when I don't think it was intended to be, nor seen that way by audiences. You have to wonder if the "intellectual" tag is just a smokescreen for critics to enjoy a film that spends as much time on star spangled bikini briefs as it does on talking about education...

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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