“3 Idiots” - Rajkumar Hirani (2009)

3 Idiots (2009) is an immensely popular college comedy-drama that was very well received by the critical community [1,2,3,4,5,6] and has won numerous awards both in India and abroad [7].  Directed by Rajkumar Hirani and scripted by Hirani, Abhijat Joshi, and Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the story of the film is loosely based on Chetan Bhagat’s novel Five Point Someone (2004).  In addition, 3 Idiots features a compelling performance by popular lead actor Aamir Khan in the lead role.  The story of 3 Idiots concerns what happens to three students who meet and become friends after being initially assigned to room together as students at the prestigious Imperial College of Engineering in Delhi (ICE). 

Although the film spends much of its time wallowing in the throes of sometimes vulgar screwball comedy, there is also some narrative width to the plot, and this may expand the film’s appeal for some viewers.  In particular, there is a thoughtful thematic element concerning how best to educate students and the current deficiencies of educational systems in general.  These educational system deficiencies, I should add, are not only present in India, but are characteristic of educational systems at all levels all over the world.

The three students who meet at ICE, i.e. the “3 Idiots”, have all been sent there by their hopefully ambitious parents to study engineering. They are:
  • Ranchoddas "Rancho" Shamaldas Chanchad (played by Aamir Khan).  This personage will be identified with two other characters in the story, and this mistaken-identity element will add a fascinating twist to the narrative.
  • Farhan Qureshi (played by Madhavan)
  • Raju Rastogi (Sharman Joshi)
In addition to those 3 Idiots, there are three other characters who have prominent roles in the story:
  • Chatur Ramalinga (Omi Vaidya) is also an engineering student at ICE.  He is very smart, but he is from Tamil-speaking Pondicherry and so is not very conversant in Hindi.
  • Dr. Viru Sahastrabuddhe (Boman Irani), called “Virus” by the students, is the strict and domineering director of ICE.
  • Pia Sahastrabuddhe (Kareena Kapoor) is Virus's younger daughter and is studying medicine to become a doctor.   She will become the object of Rancho’s romantic interests in the story.
With this mix we can discern five narrative threads that drive what happens in the film.
  1. The Idiots vs. Virus 
    Virus is a doctrinaire college director who lives according to a rigid schedule and seems to want all his students to be submissive robots.  The 3 Idiots, led by Rancho, are, in contrast, rebellious and free-spirited.  So Virus naturally sees them as enemies in need of punishment.
  2. Rancho vs. Chatur Rancho and Chatur are natural rivals.  Both are smart, but they embody fundamentally contrasting ways to learn.
  3. Rancho and Pia
    Rancho and Pia are, on the surface, an unlikely duo.  But their natural attractiveness and spark, as well as adventitious narrative circumstances, bring them together.
  4. Farhan and his family
    Farhan comes from a middle-class family, and his strict father is determined to see to it that his son graduates from ICE with an engineering degree.  But Farhan’s real passion is wildlife photography, which is a far less lucrative profession.
  5. Raju and his family
    Raju’s family is desperately impoverished, and their only hope is for Raju to graduate from ICE and get a good job.  The possibility that he might fail in this effort makes the sensitive Raju suicidal at one point.
The film begins in the “present”, ten years after the initial events in this story, when Farhan, Raju, and Chatur meet up at ICE and are looking for Rancho, whom they haven’t seen in years.  They get a clue that Rancho may be in Shimla, up north of Delhi, so they head out on the road to look for him. Then the focus shifts to ten years earlier when Rancho, Farhan, and Raju met as freshmen at ICE.  There they are faced with the demanding academic requirements and social structure that new ICE students must face.

Right away it is clear that Rancho is a creative iconoclast who continually comes up with novel ways to look at things and solve problems.  And, of course, his ways don’t sit well with Virus, which presents numerous comedic opportunities in this part of the film.

At one point the mischievous boys are looking for good food and crash a wedding party, which just happens to be for Virus’s older daughter, Mona Sahastrabuddhe (Mona Singh).  At the party Rancho meets Mona’s pretty younger sister, Pia, who is a medical school intern at a city hospital.  The two of them engage in witty banter, and we can guess that this is not the last time we will see the two of them together.

Later Chatur has to give an honorary speech on a college celebration day, but since he doesn’t know Hindi very well, he needs to memorize the whole text.  Unfortunately for him, his rival Rancho has made a few off-color modifications to the text he has to memorize, which turns the speech into a hilarious expression of ribaldry.  After Chatur’s embarrassing experience he challenges Rancho to meet him ten years later and see which one of them is more successful (and it is this hoped-for meeting that is shown at the start of the film).

Critical medical emergencies occasion some further encounters involving Pia and Rancho, including one saving Raju’s father, who is desperately ill, and one providing emergency assistance for the delivery of sister Mona’s baby.  Each of these desperate occasions combine Pia’s medical know-how and Rancho’s engineering inventiveness to bring about a last-second rescue.  Later, after a fraternal drinking bout, Rancho’s two pals goad their inebriated friend into sneaking into Pia’s bedroom and declaring his love for her. 

Finally, after further madcap adventures, the three idiots manage to graduate, with Rancho placing at the top of the class.  But after the graduation ceremony, Rancho disappears, and Farhan and Raju lose sight of their friend.   This brings us up to the scene shown at the outset of the film when Farhan, Raju, and Chatur went off on a drive to find Rancho.  They pick up Pia along the way, and they do eventually find Rancho.  But there are further issues to be addressed and unravelled, including just who is Rancho – his real identity has been a mystery.  Nevertheless, the film does end on a high comedic note and with all five narrative threads resolved in a satisfactory manner.

There are several dimensions along which we can take a look at 3 Idiots with respect to its overall virtues and vices.  On the production side of things, I liked the music, particularly the songs and the associated elaborate and exuberant choreography of “Aal Izz Well” (“All Is Well”) and “Zoobie Doobie”.  On the other hand, the acting was generally exaggerated and artificial, particularly the over-heated ham-acting performance of Boman Irani in the role of Virus.  The only saving grace on this front was the spirited performance of Aamir Khan as Rancho, which drives the film all the way.

A further detriment to the film, from my perspective anyway, was the relentless recourse to juvenile locker-room humor.  There are frequent references to and depictions of male farting and peeing, with the latter act sometimes used to defile the property of a despised superior.  In addition there are a number of instances of collective mooning – where some boys pull down their pants and expose their backsides to someone to whom they either wish to give an insult or to pay self-deprecating obeisance.  This kind of stuff may be considered to be hilarious by some teenagers, and it may help account for the film’s great popularity, but to me it was just foolish.

However, an offsetting positive element to the film was the delicate way the initially tentative romance between Pia and Rancho was presented and allowed to blossom.  This had a realistic feel to it that helped the viewer buy in to everything else that was going on and so increased overall enjoyment.

The most significant positive aspect of 3 Idiots, though, as I mentioned earlier, was its serious addressing of an important issue in society: how to educate people.  This is a critical concern not only for India, but for the whole world.  In this respect the conventional way to teach people is to get them to learn facts and then see if the  students can remember these facts when they are examined.  This is how ICE, as led by Virus, operated in this story. 

But we must be aware that there are actually two kinds of knowing – knowing what and knowing howKnowing what can be referred to as “knowledge”, and knowing how can be referred to as “skill” [8,9].  Knowledge can be written down in textual form and then memorized.  Skill, on the other hand, can only be learned by doing.  You don’t learn how to ride a bicycle from a textbook; you must get on a bicycle and learn how to do it, yourself. 

Both knowledge and skills are important to learn, but most educational institutions just concentrate on teaching knowledge.  Why?  Because knowledge is so much easier and more economical to teach.  For teaching knowledge, one can have a lecturer stand before a large class of students and present factual knowledge to them all simultaneously.  And, of course, in the Internet age of today, these economies of scale for knowledge teaching have drastically increased.  But to teach a skill, the teacher must often have a one-on-one interaction with the student. 

In addition, it is so much easier to examine students for their knowledge and then rank them precisely.  Measuring and ranking skills, on the other hand, is much more difficult.  So educational institutions the world over have opted to concentrate their focus on teaching knowledge.  But knowing skills – in particular (a) knowing how to work together as a team and (b) knowing how disparate objects and tools may work together to generate a synergistic effect – are crucially important and should not be left out of the educational curriculum.

This knowledge-vs-skills issue is directly addressed in 3 Idiots.  Virus represents the exclusive focus on knowledge, while Rancho represents and embodies the virtues of thinking in a skills-oriented way.  This distinction is well demonstrated on many occasions in the film.  Chatur bases his study on rote learning – he memorizes everything, but he doesn’t have a deep understanding of things.  Rancho, on the other hand, uses his more intuitive engineering know-how and teamwork instincts to help solve many real-world problems in this story.  Chatur gets good grades, but Rancho is the better student and the one we want to emulate.
So at the end of the film, we see Rancho (but now with his correct identity, Phunsukh Wangdu) teaching young people, via physical demonstrations and interactions, the way things work.  He is helping them to develop needed skills.  And that is the message we need to take home [8].

  1. Shubhra Gupta. “3 Idiots”, Indian Express, (25 December 2009).   
  2. Nikhat Kazmi, “3 Idiots Movie Review”, Times of India, (11 April 2016).  
  3. Gaurav Malani, “3 Idiots: Movie Review”, Times of India, (24 December 2009).   
  4. Lisa Tsering, “3 Idiots -- Film Review”, Hollywood Reporter, (29 December 2009).   
  5. David Chute, “Aamir Khan’s College Comedy, 3 Idiots”, The Village Voice, (9 February 2010).   
  6. Robert Abele, “‘Idiots’ team for jolly mayhem”, Los Angeles Times, (29 January 2010).   
  7. “List of accolades received by 3 Idiots”, Wikipedia, (20 January 2020).   
  8. Martin K. Purvis, Maryam A. Purvis, & Christopher Frantz “CKSW: A Folk-Sociological Meta-Model for Agent-Based Modelling”, Computational Social Science and Social Computer Science: Two Sides of the Same Coin (Social Path 2014), University of Surrey, UK (2014).   
  9. The Film Sufi, “‘Moneyball’ - Bennett Miller (2011)”, The Film Sufi, (8 August 2012).   

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