Directed by: Rajkumar Hirani || Produced by: Vidhu Vinod Chopra
Screenplay by: Abhijat Joshi, Rajkumar Hirani || Starring: Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor, R. Madhavan, Sharman Joshi, Boman Irani, Omi Vaidya
Music by: Shantanu Moitra || Cinematography: C.K. Muraleedharan || Editing by: Ranjeet Bahadur || Country: India || Language: Hindi, English
Running Time: 171 minutes
If you’re a Westerner and have seen any Indian movies at all, you’ve probably watched a Bollywood film, and if you’ve watched any Bollywood films (or even just one), then I’d bet money that the one was 3 Idiots. Rajkumar Hirani’s college coming-of-age dramady remains one of Indian filmmaking’s modern classics, an emotional and deceptively mature analysis on South Asian college life and the maturation of this latest Indian generation.
The majority of the movie is told through flashbacks, with the present day-setting serving as the connecting tissue between these flashback segments and the premise from which the story unfolds. 3 Idiots (henceforth, 3I) balances the sobering drama of young adult angst and the whimsical comedy inherent in most Bollywood features better than most of its industry. There are few tonal clashes between the occasional suicide threat and satirical jabs at Indian higher education, given how intertwined these themes are from the beginning. In doing so, 3I avoids the self-serious, tonal inconsistencies to which films like Rang de Basanti (2006) and even Dilwale Dulhania La Jayenge (1995) succumb.
The obligatory romance is sprinkled in as required, but the backbone of the story is the friendship between the titular “idiots.” The majority of the drama surrounds two of the three friends (R. Madhavan and Sharman Joshi), who attempt to discover what has happened to the long lost third member of their 3 Musketeers (Amir Khan). What makes the movie work is how both the material in the flashbacks and the present time are interesting and important to the ultimate conclusion to the story.
3 Idiots could have been a true masterpiece if its trio of major characters had been drawn just a little bit deeper, as all three are memorable, yet never quite reach the point where they feel like deep personalities we have gotten to know inside and out for almost three hours. It’s a shame, because when 3 Idiots is at its best, it’s a force of cinematic and musical ambition to be reckoned with. While we follow Madhavan’s and Joshi’s characters throughout the whole story (Madhavan is the narrator), we never get to know them in an intimate way. Yes, we learn the basics, like character motivations, and they do have acceptable arcs, but it is nothing extensive.
As for the star of the show, Khan’s role is explored through flashbacks (well over two hours of the film’s near three hour running time). He is the main focus of the story, but is at times hard to relate to — although due to his eccentric personality, that was almost certainly intended. Khan is hard to fully understand because his character is more or less a super-genius. In the engineering college campus where much of the story takes place, Khan is a math whiz, aces all his tests, places at the top of his class every year, and is basically loved by all. Or I should say, almost all. Khan’s only true obstacle to overcome, as his friends point out, is his nervousness regarding his crush, played by Kareena Kapoor. This romantic subplot is written well enough, yet it’s somewhat formulaic and doesn’t mesh with the film’s overall theme of, well, fitting in, and staying true to oneself during the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Admittedly, Khan is a great lead character and plays a likable protagonist; he definitely has a knack for screen presence. Kapoor holds her own as the main love interest, though she has relatively little to do.
The only part of the film I flat-out did not like was the blackout-delivery scene, where the three friends have to deliver Kapoor’s sister’s baby during the middle of a thunderstorm, which causes the power to fail. Why do women always pick the worst times to go into labor in movies? Seriously. This scene is so sloppy and lazy it makes me we want to vomit up shit — actually, that’s not true, I just really wanted to skip the scene. The sequence’s cliched dilemma and implausibility make this part of the film stand out from the rest of the narrative like a sore thumb. The purpose of the scene is for Khan’s character to reconcile with his antagonist, Boman Irani, but I find it hard to believe the filmmakers couldn’t have come up with a less cheesy scenario. This is the lone sequence in the movie that descends into stereotypical contrived Bollywood melodrama.
If I come across as nitpicking or excessively critical, I want to assure you that I did enjoy the movie a great deal, and return to it about as often as any Hindi blockbuster. Part of the reason its few but significant weaknesses stick out to me is due to its otherwise consistent storytelling; its problems are more noticeable as a result of that cinematographic and screenwriting consistency. I wanted the story to shoot into exceptional territory, and the film as a whole comes damned near close to becoming a perfect drama in numerous respects.
Omi Vaidya and Boman Irani play the academic rival and the antagonistic hard-nosed college dean, respectively, providing tons of hilarious moments and acting as the butt of many clever jokes throughout the film. Ironically, these characters are far more believable and we get to know them much easier than our protagonists. I, for one, find it amusing how Irani played the exact same role as he did in Munna Bhai: MBBS (2003), except this time he had hair and the movie didn’t suck. These two antagonists are far more integral to the film than at first glance, and are the main sources of conflict for all three of our heroes. 3 Idiots would have been a much lesser film without them.
Apart from the acceptable character arcs and ultimate conclusion (which is extraordinarily satisfying, all things considered), 3 Idiots hits the head on the nail everywhere else. The cinematography, starting with majestic, free-flowing aerial shots during the film’s opening scene that echo our main character’s free spirit, makes the film feel alive and gives it a sense of style. Almost every shot in the film has a dash of pizzazz and makes seemingly ordinary conversations interesting and cinematic. The film’s editing, top to bottom, is diverse, smart, and stylized. Another thing I was glad to see was how the actors did not overact at all, and the film was virtually devoid of the melodrama that tends to weigh down most Hindi movies. I am a very picky guy when it comes to character likability and believable dialogue, as you can tell, but I thought 3 Idiots succeeded on far more fronts than it failed. Last but not least, the music is outstanding and perfectly captures the youthful mood of the film. The set-pieces are more comical and fantastical than they are aesthetically beautiful, but again, this style fits with the overall theme of the story.
3 Idiot’s biggest success is that it is, for lack of better words, significantly more than the sum of its parts. It has several glaring errors, and one distractingly bad scene, but overall, the story comes together in a heartfelt way. It should be a testament to how much I enjoyed the movie that I felt it worthy of such a lengthy review. Strictly speaking, it may not be an outstanding film in every respect, but it is a highly entertaining and tonally diverse adventure that doesn’t feel artificial or pandering. 3 Idiots should be commended for its impressive technical achievements and effective storytelling that make it a great package. The timelessness and timeliness of its social commentary further adds to its enduring legacy. This is arguably the most rewatchable 3-hour movie ever made.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: 3 Idiots boasts an effective, nuanced screenplay, as well as a wide range of likable characters. Rajkumar Hirani presents his best directorial effort to date, using everything from sweeping aerial footage to hilarious transition-shots to even animation to imbue his narrative with unforgettable visual style and personality. It’s an ensemble effort that produces one of Bollywood’s most readily enjoyable modern classics.
– However… none of our heroes are quite believable. Despite their dedicated performances, R. Madhavan and Sharman Joshi’s dual-protagonists aren’t the most interesting characters. The delivery scene sucks.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
? How many times has Irani played the same exact character in a movie? There’s type-casting, and then there’s playing identical-in-all-but-name characters across different films…