Wednesday, December 23, 2009
3 IDIOTS (Hindi; 2009)
Midway through 3 Idiots, there's a sequence where the ultra-irritating Chatur, the epitome of the learn-by-rote student that principal Viru Sahastrabuddhe (Boman Irani) delights in producing at the Imperial College of Engineering ("ICE"), has to deliver a speech at a college function, before the student body and its chief guest, an education minister. Chatur Ramalingam, a Tamilian by way of Uganda, doesn't know very much Hindi, and has memorized a Hindi speech that he has (unethically) had ICE’s librarian write for him -- another reminder (in a film that doesn’t lack for them) about the petty meanness of a system where everyone’s looking out for No. 1. Unknown to Chatur, however, Rancho (Aamir Khan) and Farhan (Madhavan) have conspired to find and replace several Hindi words with rather more lewd equivalents. Chatur is none the wiser, but the student body and the chief guest collapse in laughter as Chatur’s “chamatkaar” (miracle) is repeatedly replaced by “balaatkar” (rape). The comedy is broad, the shot is cheap, and the audience cannot help laughing its guts out.
A lesser director might have been satisfied with that, but Raj Kumar Hirani gives us more. As the tyrant Sahastrabuddhe tries to get out of his seat to stop Chatur’s speech, he is physically restrained by the politician next to him: neither sleazy nor villainous, this V.I.P. is simply having a blast, and Hirani makes clear that not even ICE’s dictatorial principal can overrule a minister. Not in India. Not in the system that Sahastrabuddhe and ICE serve so well. The actor playing the politician in question is memorable, despite barely a couple of lines of dialog, and that says a lot. About Hirani, about his films, and about the state of the Hindi film industry, where even most lead protagonists are forgotten by the time the audience walks out of the theater. The female lead of De Dhana Dhan, anyone?
The scene discussed above neatly encapsulates Hirani’s films, with their reliance on broad (but not mean-spirited) comedy, a social message, strong writing and the love of dialog, and a very, very desi silliness. Contemporary Hindi cinema has more than one director whose films I’d pay money to see -- but none have drunk so deep from the almost forgotten well of the Hindi comedies of the 1970s, that is to say, none are as humane, as cheerful (and cheerfully local), and as unpretentiously instructive, as Hirani’s films.
To no-one’s surprise, Hirani doesn’t stop at bit parts: 3 Idiots is a film of two halves, both very strong, and combining to give us the finest Hindi film of the year. The imbeciles of the title are played by Madhavan and Sharman Joshi (as the conventional Farhan Qureshi and Raju Rastogi, respectively), and by Aamir Khan (as the decidedly unconventional Rancho); the three are freshmen at ICE, and are the vehicles for Hirani’s relentless (and relentlessly welcome) message to his audience that a mindset that views education as a means to secure mere social advantage, or as a means to do better what everyone else is trying to do, is a system that is focused on producing people with degrees, not educated young men and women. A system that places a higher premium on training highly qualified coolies than on creative thinking that might lead to practical solutions for India’s problems. Rancho is relentless in thumbing his nose at ICE’s powers-that-be, and naturally runs afoul of Sahastrabuddhe -- with potentially disastrous consequences for the three idiots’ future prospects. Indeed, when the film opens we don’t know what has become of Rancho, and will not find out until the very end: throughout, the film flits effortlessly between the past -- i.e. Raju’s, Rancho’s, and Farhan’s antics at ICE -- and the present, when Farhan and Raju are in a quest to find their friend, guru and guide.
As far as vanished imams go, they could do far worse. This is a Big Bollywood film, so some of the idiots are more equal than others. Specifically, as the biggest star, Aamir gets the biggest part, as the prophet of Hirani’s gospel preaching secession (of sorts) from the rat race (not completely: the success ethic isn’t completely left behind, given Rancho’s repeated promises that withdrawal from the race will lead to the greatest success). And Khan is equal to the task: he has the most over-the-top role, and performs it with aplomb and genuine likeability, and -- crucially -- with infectious enthusiasm and energy. There aren’t really any students like Rancho, but I didn’t care, because this film is about one, almost other-worldly student (and his flock of two). Not for nothing does the Zoobi Doobi song video offer a partial tribute to Raj Kapoor: Aamir’s Rancho is very much in the line of the wise fools Kapoor liked to play (not Awaara so much as Chalia), not to mention that in this decade, no-one has more determinedly played the role of India’s cinematic conscience than Aamir Khan. And in ringing out the decade, he does so again, in a film that might be called the revenge of India’s students on Baaghban. To all those “elders” fond of casting reproachful looks around the room while Ravi Chopra’s sobfest is playing out, here’s a film that asserts, unapologetically, the right of India’s kids to be something other than engineers and doctors, to be whatever the hell it is that they want to be. Take that.
The other two idiots have important roles, but more importantly, they are played by very good actors: Sharman Joshi makes good use of, but also rises above, the comical oddity of his face to give his most memorable performance since Rang De Basanti, while the reliably superb Madhavan is, well, super. Not to mention effortlessly natural. Aamir Khan provides the star wattage and charisma here, but deserves credit for not being shy of sharing the stage with more natural, quirkier performers. A lesson more than one Big Time Star could learn.
Kareena Kapoor (who plays Rancho’s love interest -- and Sahastrabuddhe’s daughter -- Pia) deserves a special mention. Her role isn’t very long or intricate, but it is gratifying to see that Hirani knows what only Govind Nihalani, Vishal Bhardwaj, and Mani Rathnam seem to have learned before him: that the camera loves Kapoor when she isn’t trying too hard to play the mega-babe, when it can catch smiles, anger, that flush only Ms. Kapoor seems to have, flit across her face. I felt disappointed when I saw her in 3 Idiots -- because of all those other films she seems to do. Also welcome was Hirani’s evocation of the Raj Kapoor legacy in the context of a song video featuring the man’s grand-daughter: a (small) victory in an industry where, all too often, notions of inheritance and legacy are tied to sons, not daughters. This one is a Kapoor too, Hirani gently reminds us (he wouldn’t shout, that man), and one wishes more would take the lesson to heart.
No-one is perfect, and not even Hirani-the-writer/director can redeem the utter mediocrity of this film’s music (having to swap his preferred A.R. Rahman for the Vinod Chopra banner’s Shantanu Moitra serves as a reminder to us all that Aamir Khan doesn’t always get his own way). Likewise, Hirani’s visual idiom is generally no more than functional -- although he seems to have taken strides from his Munnabhai work; in particular, one odd sequence -- the film’s first look at Raju’s family home -- is insanely funny, at once a descendant and well ahead of Lage Raho Munnabhai’s “Samjho Ho Hi Gaya” song. I’m almost relieved to be able to point to these limitations: otherwise, I might have had to change my religion, and come to Hirani’s altar to hear Rancho’s gospel in an altogether different way.