[Originally posted on Study India 2010 blog, 23/08/2010]
When in India, do as the Indians do. We were told this with vigour in one of our first-week lectures at HR College, by the earnest media don Aditya Bhat. So we took his advice and settled in to watch a Bollywood film, an experience that was probably new for the vast majority of us, myself included. Now, I had been led to believe a number of common traits about the kind of films churned out by the world's largest film industry, none of them positive. Number One: they are chock full of song and dance. The prospect of this fills your author with an acute sense of dread, what with one being a curmudgeonly sort of fellow turned off by impromptu forays into ill-advised and overly emotional displays of love, happiness and/or sadness. No, this would not do at all. Number Two: that Bollywood films generally consist of sloppy romance, slapstick comedy and schlocky, overblown action pieces. Now, I can take all three of these in measured doses, and individually, but all together they sound suspiciously like a recipe for a serious headache. Hmm. And Number Three: that they are bum-numbingly long. I personally prefer taught, precise film making and it is the rare exception that a film longer than two and a half hours holds my interest. So, for better or worse, I went into the screening of the 2009 film '3 Idiots' with decidedly low expectations.
Starring the legendary Aamir Khan alongside Kareena Kapoor as the token love interest, and Boman Irani as the wonderfully twisted and slightly mad Viru 'Virus' Sahastrabudhhe, 3 Idiots was perhaps the perfect way to be introduced to the world of Bollywood cinema. It tells the story of three friends going through the pressures of student life, life in modern India, the expectations of Indian parents and the journey along the way. First things first: the cast. All the lead performances were strong, but Irani stands out among them. Despite the clichéd and oddly-camp nature of the character, from the frizzy grey head of hair to the pervasive and annoying lisp which dominates his character, he managed to bring a performance of humour and humanity to a film which occasionally descended too much into farce for my tastes. And I haven't even mentioned how terrifying he makes this Engineering School dean; who often goes out of his way to be cruel to the students, occasionally with genuinely shocking and upsetting results. These are the parts of 3 Idiots which are the most satisfying and rewarding; when the sentimentality and silliness are cut through with an unusual emotional intensity which takes you by surprise and draws you in far more than the film would have achieved otherwise.
The film proved to be rather long, and I did feel that it sagged under its own length at points, but this is a minor criticism and the length generally failed to bother me. What did bother me however was the script, and the often juvenile nature of the proceedings. There were the occasional funny moments which rose above the generally low brow fart-joke nonsense, but I found it didn't tug on my funny bone as much as I'd hoped. I'm sure that many others will find it amusing however, and that the comedy was not quite to my tastes, leaving open the question of whether a film review is a rather useless endeavour when so much of the enjoyment of a film is based on personal preference. However, I will ignore your raucous cries of disapproval for my blatantly opinionated film review and persevere regardless. Another sore point for me was the film's liberal use of the emotional baseball-bat-to-the-face approach, eschewing subtlety for a more straightforward, and some would argue less effective, attempt to yank on your heartstrings. But, despite the often absent sense of pace, there were some real moments of warmth, sadness and love which used all the actors well, with Khan standing up well with Imani.
Overall, 3 Idiots is a hugely enjoyable few hours, packed with colourful characters, even more colourful settings and scenes, and both great laugh-out-loud moments, and ones where you might need a box of tissues handy. There are some not inconsiderable problems to do with lowbrow humour and a lack of emotional subtlety, but I think many will find these minor quibbles which avoid detracting from the experience too much. 3 Idiots is definitely a great way to be introduced to Bollywood, and I'm now eagerly looking forward to watching a 4-hour romantic musical extravaganza for my next one!