Judge Gordon Sullivan wants to go on a road trip, but needs two more idiots.
For these guy, college is a no-brainer
As of this writing, 3 Idiots is the highest grossing Bollywood film in India, and had the biggest opening weekend of any Bollywood film. This obliges me, according to the secret DVD reviewing code, to remind American viewers of some facts about Bollywood they may have forgotten since they saw all those news pieces about it when Slumdog Millionaire came out. First, Bollywood is an informal term for Hindi cinema, one of several regional cinemas in India. It also happens to be the largest center of film production in India, which makes it one of the largest in the world. Finally, Bollywood is known for being formulaic (in the best sense of the world), with long (sometimes epic) narratives, song and dance numbers, and themes about the tension between tradition and modernity. 3 Idiots captures these aspects of Bollywood cinema perfectly. Because of its familiar collegiate and road movie trappings, it's probably the perfect way to introduce the unfamiliar to Bollywood cinema.
Facts of the Case
3 Idiots opens in the present day, as Farhan (Madhavan, Rang De Basanti) is about to take off in an airplane. He receives a message so important that he fakes a medical problem to get the plane grounded. He then commandeers a limo and picks up Raju (Sharman Joshi, Rang De Basanti) and takes them to a familiar spot on the campus of the Imperial College of Engineering. There they hope to meet their long-lost friend Rancho (Aamir Khan, Rang De Basanti). Instead, they're confronted with Chatur (Omi Vaidya, Why Am I Doing This?), an old enemy from their college days. He reminds them of a bet between himself and Rancho about who would be the most successful person after ten years. Since Chatur wants to win the bet and Farhan and Raju want to find their friend, the trio embark on a journey in between flashbacks to their college days.
Of course, because this is a 164-minute Bollywood film, my paltry summary cannot hope to do the plot justice. I didn't mention the love interest, the rivalries, and the crazy stunts that go on at the Imperial College of Engineering. Between the flashbacks and the contemporary sequences, it can feel like watching two totally different movies. The college scenes are like a Hindi Real Genius, while the contemporary scenes play more like a Hindi Road Trip. That's the charm of a Bollywood film: it's like getting at least two films for the price of one. With a running time like this one, you sure get your money's worth—and it wouldn't be a Bollywood film without at least one song and dance number.
What I like most about 3 Idiots is that it feels completely like a Bollywood film, but also seems indebted to American influences, making it much easier for this American to follow. I've seen some other Bollywood films (though not a huge amount), and many of them rely on myths or cultural stories that non-Indians are unfamiliar with, making them difficult to follow. Not so with 3 Idiots. We get college pranks, road trips, and the familiar story of a young man following his dream instead of the path his family sets for him. I should stress that 3 Idiots doesn't feel like a sellout or like it's pandering to the foreign market. Nothing has been toned down: the film is still long, still largely in Hindi, and still emphatically takes place in India.
There's an appropriately splashy DVD for 3 Idiots. Although the box art is fairly generic, the film looks excellent with this anamorphic transfer. Colors are bright, detail is strong, and there are no significant digital artifacts to be found. The 5.1 surround track is similarly strong, with dialogue strong in the center and music sounding especially good in the surrounds. Extras include four featurettes that total about 20 minutes of material. Together they look at the making of the film, how the major musical number ("Aal Izz Well") was shot, and the casting of the Idiots and Miss Idiot. My only complaint about the extras is that they're not subtitled. The principals generally speak in English, but sometimes the accents are thick enough or the sound captured rough enough that it can be hard to understand.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although I think 3 Idiots is a film with wide appeal, those unprepared for Bollywood conventions might be turned off by the film. This is certainly a film designed for a lighthearted party atmosphere, and the more people (and the more boisterous the people) you can see this with, the more likely it is you will enjoy it.
I'm not sure who to blame, overcautious producers or timid consumers, but 3 Idiots is being sold like it's a typical American comedy. The cover image has been shot with enough light to minimize the darkness in the skin of the three main actors, while the back cover compares the film to Ferris Bueller's Day Off. The summary on the back makes it seem like the entire focus of the film is on Rancho, and his is the only character name mentioned, probably because he's the only one that isn't Indian. Only reading the minuscule credits on the back reveals that people with Indian names were involved with this film, the first and only hint from the box that this is a Bollywood film. While I don't begrudge Fox the desire to compare 3 Idiots to other films that American consumers would be familiar with, I'm afraid that too many viewers are going to be hoodwinked into watching what appears to be an American comedy and instead get an almost-three-hour Bollywood film. It might increase rentals in the short run, but is bad for Bollywood's chances in America in the long term.
Thanks to strong storytelling and familiar tropes, Bollywood's spin on a million college comedies is the perfect place for Bollywood novices to taste what the style is all about. Although this DVD makes it hard to tell the film is from India, the audiovisual presentation is top notch, and the extras are light but informative.
They may be idiots, but these three are not guilty.
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