New to Bollywood? 3 Idiots is a Great Place to Start

“Life as an engineer will bring only frustration”

                           – Farhan Qureshi

I had never heard of 3 Idiots until I found it on one of the unchecked boxes on my “100 Movies Bucket List” scatch-off poster and I looked it up. I was surprised to find it was a Bollywood staple and further surprised it was also on IMDB’s Top 250 list. It’s one of three Bollywood films on that poster so having already binged the Bahubali films when I was sick in bed a couple years ago, and since I’m still putting off the four-hour-long Lagaan (which also stars Aamir Khan), I decided to check it off the list and dive right in.

3 Idiots is billed as kind of a college-level Indian take on a Ferris Bueller-type story combined with a trite “follow your passion, follow your heart” mantra. It tells the story by following the main characters track down the primary protagonist years after the main narrative (and frankly, wastes a bit of time and creates a lot of unnecessary tumult doing so). The film is schticky in parts, calling back to the kinds of jokes your high school and college teachers probably thought were hilarious first day thoughts.1Remember the one about the kid who finishes his test late and then storms up to the professor who refuses to accept it? The student demands to know if the professor knows who he is, as if he is some important benefactor’s son. But the professor declares he doesn’t even know the student’s name. So the student shoves his test into the middle of the pile of other completed tests and runs out of the room. Yeah they rip off that entire sequence. There’s also a love story worked into the film that is probably unnecessary, or at least deserves more time in this nearly three-hour-long movie. 

For all of these faults, there are moments when I couldn’t help but think of 2008’s more succinct release, Slumdog Millionaire, which went on to win Best Picture the February before 3 Idiots was released. It doesn’t take much time to realize how much more sophisticated the cinematography and filmmaking is in 3 Idiots. There’s much more interesting camera work, color, costume design, and editing than in Slumdog, but this film would be ignored by the Oscars likely thanks to the Anglocentric worldview of the Academy, despite the fact it was the highest-grossing Indian film of all time, and — as noted — remains one of the highest rated films in the world. 

And what justifies that prestige is something that the film does in the first half hour that only Bollywood films can do: seamlessly transitioning from a vibrant dance routine that platitudionously declares “all is well” into the discovery of a student’s suicide, completely sticking the landing.

The film follows three friends in engineering school: Raju, who wants to be an engineer but is too afraid of failure to succeed; “Rancho”, who is the focus of the film, challenging institutions and always the center of attention (he’s the Bueller); and the narrator, Farhan, who doesn’t want to be an engineer and instead has a passion for wildlife photography. The trio partake in countless hijinks in their journey through university. They do the kind of stuff we all did, or at least thought we might do: showing up the doting teacher’s pet, crashing overnight before a test, drinking together on the college steps, crashing weddings, helping each other out of toil and trouble, and expecting they’d be friends forever. 

My best friend as a kid reminds me a lot of Farhan. He was incredibly intelligent, passionate, funny, and shy — so there was a heartwarming connection there. We weren’t in touch as often as we went off to college but he was the kind of warm, accepting, and nonjudgmental person I’ve always been drawn to — despite being none of those particular things myself. The kind of person that has a laugh that will light up a room and that I have such fond memories sitting around doing nothing particularly extraordinary with other than just smiling and shooting the breeze. He’s no longer with us but I’ve been thinking about him a lot in the last few months as I’ve spent time in Colorado. I remember playing this game, Age of Empires III, with him all the time and making fun of it over Skype calls, so this was a bittersweet film in that regard. Because it’s about friends. Your good friends. The people you can’t help but think about every day, or who you didn’t realize how close you were with until they were gone. The friends who are there for you when you didn’t even expect it, who push you when you need it.

The darker moments of the film underscore this with the pressure of living up to expectations, or becoming something you don’t care about. The principal antagonist in the film, the college’s director, Viru Sahastrabuddhe — or “Virus” as our protagonists call him — crusades for strict academic success and will accept no tomfoolery, and students are driven to physical injury, mental anguish, and suicide because of it. Rancho is a release. His willingness to question the process, tease the administration, bemoan engineering, and poke fun at the overseriousness of it all is a reprieve, not just from Virus, but from the boys’ families, and from the expectations they impose on themselves. There is consolation in knowing you’ll be okay, even if you’re not going to be the best student in the class.

As someone who probably should be more open to addressing he has more in common character-wise with Virus than with any of the protagonists, this is of course all utter hogwash. How dare these students in a premiere engineering college not fret over their future 24/7? But the truth is, even the Viruses of the world feel pressure on them, it just takes the people close to you to bring you back down to earth. Call your friend, take a breath, and play a video game. It’s going to be okay.