As I crouched with my friend and her laptop under a desk while hiding from sports lessons, I knew my first experience of a non-English language film was already going to be a memorable occasion. Yet watching Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots was distinctly unforgettable in itself, as the film is one of the most emotionally capacious and rewarding ones I have seen.
3 Idiots was my first Bollywood film as well as my first foreign-language one. The comedy-drama is a modern-day Bollywood classic and follows the quest of two friends, Farhan (R. Madhavan) and Raju (Sharman Joshi), as they seek their missing university roommate, Ranchoddas ‘Rancho’ Chanchad (Aamir Khan). At once a coming-of-age story, a mystery, a slapstick comedy, and a romance, 3 Idiots careens through its plot, cheekily overturning my expectations from misleading start – in which Farhan fakes a heart attack to trigger a plane’s emergency landing – to rousing finish.
Admittedly, the film is not entirely ‘foreign’. The script’s dialogue is written in ‘Hinglish’, a popular combination of Hindustani and English, which leaves speech peppered with words and phrases comprehensible to English viewers. With the help of subtitles, I forgot I was watching a ‘foreign’ film at all. Even without translation, however, the expressiveness of the Bollywood actors’ performances and Hirani’s foregrounding of intimate, emotional moments would have made communicative obstacles few and far between.
In its three-hour running time, the film commits to the development of fully-fledged, believable characters. Raju, Farhan, and Rancho’s quirks are each explored, but are never consigned to stereotype. I was most compelled, however, by the complexity of the relationships between the protagonists and their families. The director deftly explores the conflict between the Asian tradition of filial piety and the son’s individual ambitions. With each protagonist returning home at least once over the course of the film, the moments of reconciliation are unforced, cathartic, and genuinely tear-jerking. Hirani does not force these conclusions, but paces them sensitively; the result is universally appealing.
3 Idiots does not conceal its broader social criticism. In fact, it is the film’s cultural specificity that saves it from triteness. Its setting within India’s Institution of Civil Engineers, together with its infusion of real-life references and statistics that reveal the cut-throat competition of India’s higher education system, give new urgency to Farhan’s remark that “life is a race. Run fast or you’ll be trampled”. No wonder, then, that 3 Idiots charged contemporary conversations about Indian students’ mental health at the time, or that the film received unprecedented acclaim in East Asia, where China’s gao kao exam exerts a similar pressure.
Yet the irresistibly likeable Rancho offers a converse value system. His mantra, “all is well”, becomes a quirky leitmotif woven into the fabric of the story. His droll delivery of his philosophy – passion over mindless toil – keeps a worn maxim both fresh and profound.
There is an apprehension when watching 3 Idiots that, in the gap between cultures and languages, the film’s essence could be lost on the non-native viewer. But though it is impossible to wholly gauge a cultural environment from the outside, I found the film’s recasting of the familiar themes of pressure, duty, and aspiration deeply affecting.
I was also surprised by the film’s cinematic stylishness. Hirani’s techniques include Wes Anderson-esque visual centring, roving cameras, and vivid colour palettes, all of which add a vibrant dynamism to the scenes. Each departure from realism, from the exaggerated villainy of the institution’s Dickensian director (Boman Irani) to the decorative musical numbers, is unconventional by Western standards; yet Hirani never relinquishes his fidelity to light-heartedness. Even though the film’s playful parody of Bollywood tropes soared right over my eleven-year-old head, I was charmed by its ready abandonment to quirkiness and silliness. Its fluctuation between humour and solemnity is not, as one critic termed it, an example of ‘emotional whiplash’, but rather an attempt to encapsulate life’s ups and downs and the teeming energy of youth. A droll irreverence reigns throughout – Western social satires could learn from the willingness of 3 Idiots to laugh at itself.
A whistle-stop tour of technique and theme is not enough to describe what is essentially an uncontainable film, or to do justice to the thrill of its joie de vivre. 3 Idiots left me puzzling at the societal dismissal of Bollywood as a kitsch version of its American counterpart. Beyond even the sprawling shots of the Indian landscapes, Hirani’s film achieves the quality of epic.
No longer merely an alternative to compulsory sport, it has become a film I voluntarily return to – one that is full of meaning, but leaves room for a healthy amount of fun. For all that, a relatively thin and penetrable language barrier is a small price to pay.