Review: 3 Idiots (2009)

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There are three guys in this film trying to make their own independent, free-thinking mark in life. Apparently that’s what makes them idiots according to their elders. Only an idiot would give up a high paying engineering career to become a photographer. Only an idiot could possibly fail to overcome the fear of failure that stops him from achieving high grades when his impoverished family’s future is at stake. Only an idiot would want to take a conceptual approach to learning when a routine textbook approach is all that’s required to succeed. The only thing an idiot might be able to get away with in a superstitious world is sticking to the mantra “All is well” when on the surface it appears that all is not so hot.

The real idiots of the movie are the elders, of course – the stubborn father, the whining mother, the vainglorious school master – who all fail to appreciate the level of devastation (particularly suicide, in this case) that can follow the forcible mishandling of sensitive souls. The college seniors who haze the three guys on their first night in college are also clearly more idiotic than the three leads, as is the fellow student who memorises the textbooks, aces the exams, obtains a lucrative job, buys a fancy car, but apparently manages to lose everything because he’s such a miserable failure as a person.

Bring perceived as an idiot in this story world – which covers a broad swathe of urban India – is a badge of honour. It indicates an ability to think and act outside the square and challenge outmoded norms. So-called idiocy is progress.

Such are the basic core messages of this feel-good blockbuster from the creators of the Munnabhai phenomenon. Local and diasporic Indian audiences absolutely lapped 3 Idiots up, not least because it was loosely based on a popular mainstream novel (Five Point Someone by banker turned author, Chetan Bhagat) and came accompanied by a savvy marketing campaign full of product tie-ins and surprise promotional engagements that had fans wondering where mega-star Aamir Khan might pop up next. One series of advertisements posted in Indian multiplex toilets welcomed the relieved person reading them as “The fourth idiot”. With the producers and distributor able to negotiate better than usual revenue sharing deals from exhibitors, the close-knit team will be able to develop whatever they like for their next picture, which may or may not be a good thing.

So far director Hirani and his team have managed to earn their rather manipulative melodramatic tendencies by sustaining deft comedy and elaborate staging in their dramatic scenes (Munnabhai’s visions of Gandhi in the library, Rancho’s friends extorting information from the other Rancho by holding the urn of the latter’s dead father’s ashes over the toilet). But there’s a nagging feeling after watching their movies that you’ve been taken through a wee bit of a didactic lesson in how to think and feel in a fairly unsophisticated way. It’s something like having an otherwise pleasant experience interrupted by a hammer blow or two to the head.

I must reserve a final comment for Boman Irani, here performing as the school master. Like most sane people I usually detest any form of hammy, over-the-top, lowbrow performance, but Irani seems to elevate this notorious ‘skill’ he has for creating a complete fiasco of a character to a whole new level. Maybe it’s because he takes them so far beyond the realm of the barely tolerable that his absurd creations work for me. Even when his characters are complete morons or revengeful nutters, something comes through the baffling mess that’s surprisingly heartwarming and admirable. For naysayers who just can’t stand his childish, loony, extroverted hamminess is it any worse than say Jim Carrey’s or Ben Stiller’s in the context of Hollywood?

Needless to say, for viewers approaching Hindi-language cinema for the first time through this mega-hit, much will ride on the impression of Irani’s school master, with his ridiculous lisp, crazy Einstein hair and the mother of all permanently grumpy expressions. Hopefully it’s the start of a beautiful friendship.

7.5 babies delivered via webcam out of 10.
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