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While cultural differences exists, the dilemma facing any graduate (high school or otherwise) is universal. Where do you go? What's the next step? Are their prospects for all you have learned, or will life once again show you that spinning your wheels can be (and ultimately is) a serviceable career option. Of course, in the West we take our educational advance as rote. We believe that a degree equals the dream. In other countries, however, parents fret over offspring, pushing and pressuring them as part of an unusual combination of social status and retirement plan. In India, specifically, the drive to be number one often outshines a child's abilities or acumen. Instead, the demand for a good job and an even better position in life are all that's important. Oddly enough, the country's media has shied away from any critical complaint about this tradition - until now. The film, 3 Idiots, broke down barriers within the nation, becoming one of its most successful movies of all time. After sifting through its 164 minutes of merriment, it's easy to see why.
It's been over ten years since Farhan (R. Madhavan), Raju (Sharman Joshi), and Rancchoddas , or "Rancho" (Aamir Khan) attended the prestigious ICE - Imperial College of Engineering - for their four year study of the subject. Initially put off by brown-nosing super student Chatur "the Silencer" (Omi Vaidya) and parochial professor Viru "the Virus" (Boman Irani), they were determined to graduate and get that elusive well paying position. At the time, the aforementioned teacher's pet was so angry about Rancho's disrespectful approach to college that he challenges him to a bet. On September 5th, a decade after graduation, they would all get together to see who had achieved the most.
Along the way, we learn about each student's secret desires. Farhan would rather be a wildlife photographer, but his domineering dad refuses to hear such nonsense. Raju is embarrassed by his family's poverty and desperately wants to please (and provide support for) them. Chatur just wants to be number one. Rancho, on the other hand, is an enigma. Vehemently opposed to rote memorization and yet consistently the top student in the class, he drives both his roommates and his instructors - including Virus - to distraction. So naturally he falls in love with said teacher's daughter Pia (Kareena Kapoor).
At nearly three hours in length, 3 Idiots is the most epic coming of age college hijinx comedy ever. It's also the most heartwarming, endearing, and insightful. Taking down the draconian philosophy surrounding higher education in India (everything centers on class placement, competition, and oppressive cutthroat tactics), director Rajkumar Hirani mixes melodrama with message to deliver a delightful dismissal of such practices. If it stands for anything, 3 Idiots argues for being true to yourself, to follow your dreams and passions, and to never allow outside forces to coerce or pressure you into defying your desires. Sprawled over 14 years and filled with all manner of cinematic styles - farce, musical, serious dramatics, meta commentary - it's initially hard to get a handle on where Hirani intends to go. Most of the narrative revolves around the past. Some centers on finding Rancho after his post-pomp and circumstance disappearance. In-between, the storyline (taken from a vignette oriented novel by Chetan Bhagat entitled Five Point Someone) establishes the kind of classic close friendship that literally locks the viewer in.
From there on, it's up to the actors to win us over, and Hirani has picked some prime examples. For their part, Madhavan and Joshi have the harder roles. They must be decent without being doormats, capable of their own identity without melding into Rancho's often ridiculous schemes. Of the two, the latter really stands out, especially when his plotline if given a pair of potentially deadly denouements. As villains, Vaidya and Irani barely avoid the moustache twirling tendencies of such old school baddies. Luckily, Hirani gives them slapstick quirks (clueless confusion and farting, a lisp and a love of powernaps, respectively) to avoid the slip into stereotypes. Kapoor is a real force to be reckoned with, since she is a medical student/doctor, an almost established professional that can't be played with. Her relationship with a materialistic "ass" is one of 3 Idiots best subplots. That just leaves Bollywood superstar Khan to redeem Rancho - and boy does he ever. While Americans would have no problem with his "follow your bliss/all is well" mantra, he represents a rebellious rogue to the average Indian. Rancho doesn't believe in the soulless assembly line state of his peer group's post-adolescence. Instead, he wants to buck tradition, and the actor does so with cool and compassion to spare.
As it motors along, the length allowing all manner of interesting sidelines and subplots to emerge, 3 Idiots remains steadfastly a film about bonding. It argues that, without each other, Farham, Raju, and Rancho would never have survived ICE. It clings to the arcane notion that relationships forged in youth remain hard and fast even decades later. It drops in diversions (a baby's birth during a flood, a medical emergency, a suicide, a question of true identity) to see how our trio reacts. The title might suggest stupidity, but the meaning goes deeper than just "being dumb." According to the film, India sees all students from second place downward as "losers," or idiots. Virus is specifically harsh on the students, suggesting the fatal way out of their eventual familial embarrassment and shame. All throughout the movie, Rancho suggests that success follows those who truly pursue their desires. While a tad simplistic, it makes for a meaningful last act when Chatur is trying desperately to one up his reclusive rival. Some may view 3 Idiots as overstuffed and underplayed. In fact, it's one of the most satisfying, smile inducing experiences in a long time.
Fox, whose apparently picked up distribution on this and other Bollywood titles, does a terrific job with this DVD. The terrific 2.35:1 transfer is terrific. The colors are clean and crisp, their primary bounce given digital 'umph' via the format. Similarly, there is a nice level of detail, and when you consider that everyone in the cast is playing much, much younger than they are (Khan is in his 40s), the level of polish and professionalism is excellent.
With its always unusual combination of English and Hindi (imagine a Western film where a character speaks in a combination of two languages and you get the idea) the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is amazing. While not wholly immersive or given over to displays of directional or spatial ambience, the careful collection of dialogue, music, and sound effects is superb. As you know, Indian cinema loves its musical interludes, and the one's included here are more contemporary, almost tied to the shoe-gazing indie rock of America's teen comedies. As for the subtitles, they are easy to read.
All we get are a collection of Making-of featurettes, each one offering a different perspective on the production. One focuses on the actors, another on the music. A third looks into the movie's main theme, while the final one highlights the work of the women in the film. Overall, they are insightful if a tad superficial.
Along with the crime drama Ghajini and the sci-fi spectacle Enthiran, 3 Idiots is one of the biggest grossing films in the history of the Indian box office. At well over the one billion rupee mark, it clearly struck a chord with the always picking Bollywood audience. Here, in all its dazzling, original language glory, it's easy to see why. It's entertaining, endearing, and enlightening. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, the story of Rancho, Fahran, and Raju will remind you of why movies are magic - as well as how far Tinseltown has fallen into the micromanaged demographical trap. Certainly, 3 Idiots panders to a certain segment of the viewership, but it does so with great characters, exceptional warmth, and a lot of heart. Going to college may be a mindless, soulless excursion into the depths of one's own individual abilities. A least in the case of this career defining trip, these three idiots have each other...and us.
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