The smartest thing about “3 Idiots” is that director Raju Hirani uses the student crowd of his IIT-inspired engineering college as a laughter track. This means when an idiotic joke is cracked, everyone in the audience thinks the next person laughed and so they laugh too. Which is ironic because one of the things that the story of “3 Idiots” attacks is herd mentality but that’s my explanation for the uproarious laughter that bounced off the walls every now and then during “3 Idiots” because this movie is not really a comedy. It’s actually bordering on tragic. And not just because the men in this movie have a thing for pulling their pants down and exposing rather unphotogenic bottoms in very unflattering underwear, although it really was very sad that there wasn’t one yummy specimen of masculinity in an entire college of men. If any of you find the boys dancing in their towels to “Aal Izz Well” attractive, you have problems that are far more serious than the butchering that the story suffers in “3 Idiots”.
THERE MAY BE SPOILERS BELOW.
In the first half of “3 Idiots”, two plotlines are set up. One is of a road trip that Farhan (Madhavan) and Raju (Sharman Joshi) take with an old college mate (Chaturlingam, played by Omi) to find their dearest friend in college, Rancho (Aamir Khan). The other is a tale told in flashback by Farhan of their time in college and the heroic antics of Rancho, a prankster who could crack the system and be a topper even while fighting the system’s intention of turning people into zombies. Rancho doesn’t believe in ragging or memorising textbooks. He loves learning, likes to think for himself and he would like people to feel the same thrill that he does when he invents his gadgets. And he’s aware that engineering isn’t the stuff to fire everyone’s pulse rate. At this point, to quote Rancho, aal is well. Ok, so Aamir Khan is an awful caricature of a 20-something and hams so much that Maharashtra might have to double its pig farming since all their produce has been used up in this film, but that doesn’t kill the experience of watching “3 Idiots”. Sharman Joshi is good, Omi and Madhavan are convincing; the script has its moments. Most importantly, you can’t not cheer for the guy who takes on the system and champions the idea of being yourself.
Then comes the second half during which, with rigorous and meticulous care, the director and script team demolish everything that was well-set up in the first half and create so much unnecessary, teary melodrama that you have to wonder whether some glycerine manufacturer didn’t give the money to make “3 Idiots”. So the following happens in this chrono-illogical order:
1. In the present we discover Rancho is not Rancho. The fake Rancho (Aamir Khan) is bright but poor lad while the real Rancho (Jaaved Jaffrey) is a rich man’s idiotic son. The real Rancho’s dad decrees that the fake Rancho will get the grades and degrees in the real Rancho’s name. So the real Rancho goes off to London while the fake Rancho comes to study engineering. If you think this idea has holes in it, wait for the rest.
2. In the past, we see Boman Irani, who plays the principal of the engineering college, get into an ego tussle with Rancho (the fake one, naturally, being played by Aamir Khan). He embroils Farhan and Raju into his spat because he knows they are Rancho’s weak spots and remorselessly does a series of cruel, horrible things, including pushing Raju to attempt suicide. Irani’s character, who was initially shown as a slightly eccentric academic, turns out to be a monster who runs the college like a fiefdom. It’s difficult to decide which is more appalling: Irani’s character, his performance or the fact that we’re supposed to like him because he likes his grandkid and admits defeat to Rancho with utter lack of grace.
3. Also in the past, Rancho delivers a baby using a vaccum cleaner. It seems to be stillborn but instead of kicking the bucket, it kicks Rancho in the face when it hears the words “Aal is well” and so joins the living.
4. In the present, Raju and Farhan elope with Pia (Kareena Kapoor), whom Rancho had a crush on in their college days and the only woman in the world who doesn’t want to take off excruciatingly-heavy wedding jewellery while on a road trip. No, Raju and Farhan don’t both want to marry her; they want to reunite her with Rancho (who they’ve just discovered isn’t Rancho). Whom they haven’t met in some 10-odd years and whose real name they still don’t know. No matter. They know he’d want to marry Pia even though he flatly refused to marry her back in college.
5. Rancho turns out to be an inventor with 400 patents pending and a school in Ladakh.
It’s inexplicable to me that the people who began the story the way they did could actually finish it off like this.
I really, really wanted to like “3 Idiots” and, just for what it says in the first part, I hope it does well. I hope parents see it and I hope young people take some confidence from it. Some characters could have been less flatly written (like Omi and Raju) but neither this nor the pantomime versions of humans as played by Aamir Khan and Boman Irani overwhelm a heartwarming beginning. Unfortunately, what happens in the second part is that the system wins. Rancho isn’t able to rub the principal’s nose in the dirt and we are given no indication that he isn’t being a bastard to the next round of students or changing things at the college to allow more free thinking. An unnecessary romance is thrown in, possibly because the Bollywood system demands it. Glycerine and tears flow and it’s amazing that the outflow from the shooting from this film didn’t make up for the paltry monsoons this year. But most heartbreakingly, there’s so much cruelty in the script; particularly towards poor people, characters like Raju whose poverty and whose family’s misfortunes somehow become an uproarious joke. Except sitting in a plush, comfortable chair in a swanky movie theatre and wearing a skirt that cost half of how much Raju’s mother apparently earned in a month, I didn’t find it funny.