Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 15, 2012

3 Idiots

Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

I am not even sure how I discovered the 2009 Bollywood film “3 Idiots” buried under a trash heap of the typical Cineplex offerings on Netflix, but can recommend it as one of the best feature films I’ve seen this year. Indian audiences would agree with me as it is now the highest-grossing film in Indian history. Since “3 Idiots” was developed primarily for their domestic market—the Indian Cineplex, so to speak—it is of some interest that it is also the highest grossing film exported to international markets as well. If there’s any confirmation of the thesis of Andre Gunder Frank’s “ReOrient”, namely that China and India will eventually dominate the West once again, it is to be seen in a film like “3 Idiots” that is smarter, funnier, and more moving than anything coming out of Hollywood in years.

The good news is that the film can be seen on Youtube, as well as rented from Netflix:

While it incorporates the usual Bollywood elements of sentimentality, soap-opera like plots, broad comic situations, and song-and-dance routines, it is not the typical escapist fare that Indian audiences dote on. A typical Bollywood film might be about a love triangle, for example. But “3 Idiots” is about something very topical, namely the pressure-cooker environment of engineering schools and the mini-rebellion of three students against an ossified administration that values high grades and conformity over innovation. You can find echoes of “The Paper Chase” and even “Animal House” but in the final analysis it is uniquely Indian.

We meet the three main characters in their freshman year at the Imperial College of Engineering (ICE), the Indian equivalent of MIT that has the most competitive admission standards and the toughest classes in the nation. One “idiot” is Raju Rastogi (Sharman Joshi), who is the poverty-stricken family’s only hope for a decent life. His father is an invalid former postman, his mother the sole income provider who complains bitterly about not having bought a new sari in years, his sister a 28 year old single woman who will never get married because the family can’t pay for a car, a necessity for a dowry. When we first meet him in his dormitory room, he is praying fervently to a shrine of deities that he will succeed.

The second “idiot” is Farhan Qureshi (R. Madhavan), who comes from a relatively prosperous family but has little interest in engineering even though his father is determined that he make it in this profession. His heart is really with wildlife photography.

The third student is not an “idiot” by any stretch of the imagination. He is nicknamed “Rancho” by Raju and Farhan just before they become a closely bonded trio. Rancho is short for his ponderous full name Ranchoddas Shamaldas Chanchad. When Rancho first shows up at the dormitory, he is ordered to strip down to his underwear by an upperclassman hazing the incoming freshmen including Raju and Farhan. After Rancho rightfully decides that he did not go to ICE to get hazed, he runs into his room and locks the door behind him. This infuriates the bullying upperclassman who warns him that if he does not come out of the room by the count of ten to get hazed, he will piss on his door—evoking “The Three Little Pigs” and the big bad wolf.

Like a clever little pig, Rancho cobbles together a metallic conduction device that is connected to an electrical outlet on one end and a spoon on the other that is pushed under the door. As soon as the first drops of urine hit the spoon, the upperclassman howls in pain after getting a good electrical shock. This turns Rancho into an instant hero to all the freshmen and a good friend to Farhan and Raju.

In his first week, Rancho runs afoul of the school’s dean, Professor Viru Sahastrabudhhe (Boman Irani), who is nicknamed “Virus” by the students. He is to ICE as Dean Vernon Wormer is to the Faber College of “Animal House”. Virus greets every freshman class with the same lecture. You need to get good grades in order to succeed. That will open all sorts of doors for you, including a well-paying job in the United States. When Rancho defies Virus by stating that the real goal of an education is to develop inquisitive minds and a love of engineering, he drags the impudent student into a large lecture hall and announces that they have a new teacher: Rancho. He is ordered to go to the podium and lecture the students.

Rancho then picks up the engineering textbook and glances through the pages for a few seconds. Then he faces the students and Virus, who is sitting among them, and asks them to define “Rajufication” and “Farhanimate”. They have five minutes to find the answer. Assuming that the words are in the textbook, they (including Virus) furiously leaf through the book trying to come up with the answer. When the five minutes are up, Rancho tells them that the words were made up out of his friends’ names. The students get the lesson that textbooks don’t always have the answer, thus embarrassing and infuriating Virus who thereupon begins to refer to the three friends as “the idiots”.

Rancho is played by Aamir Khan, who is one of Bollywood’s most inventive actors. He is best known for playing the anti-colonialist cricket player in “Lagaan”. Khan is simply brilliant as Rancho, obviously feeling a real affinity for a character willing to challenge conformity and snobbery.

Although the film is a light-hearted comedy for the most part, it includes some really dark moments especially the suicide of a fellow student who Virus has decided to expel for failing to complete a project on time. Even when the student tries to get an extension because he was busy tending to his sick father, it is to no avail.

While most Americans are aware of the frighteningly high number of student suicides at high-pressure institutions like MIT and Columbia, the numbers in India are even greater. On November second last year, the Times of India reported:

NEW DELHI: Here’s a compelling argument for education reforms in the country: student suicides have increased 26% from 2006 to 2010, with Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai accounting for most victims, in that order. And this is just the official data.

While 5,857 student suicides were reported in 2006, the figure jumped to 7,379 in 2010, according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau. In other words, 20 students killed themselves every day in 2010, something both academicians and mental health professionals blame on a flawed education system where performance pressure ranks above all else. For the first time in five years, Maharashtra recorded the largest number of suicides in 2010, followed by West Bengal.

“The examination system and the selection process for institutions of higher education weigh heavily on young people,” says Shyam Menon, vice-chancellor of Ambedkar University in Delhi. “The volume of students passing out of the school education system and vying for admission to tertiary education has dramatically increased over the years, with competition levels increasing too. At a time when higher education can result in social mobility, the stakes are very high. Today, there is a greater link between employability and higher education.” Menon believes changes in the education system over the years reflect the changes in the Indian middle-class and their high aspirations, which push young people to perform or perish.

To dramatize the importance of creative thinking, the film ends with a demonstration of inventions at a school where Rancho holds sway. All of them have the same kind of DIY ingenuity manifested by the electric shock gizmo seen in the hazing scene and all of them are actual inventions by ordinary Indians:

The real brains behind 3 idiots

By: Vivek Sabnis

3 simple yet amazing inventions that debuted in the film have brought fame for their inventors

With the release of 3 Idiots, there are three innovators who have finally got due credit. We are talking about Jahangir Painter (49), a Maharashtrian, Mohammad Idris (32) from UP and Remya Jose (20) from Kerala who have given their inventions the scooter flour mill, cycle-based horse shaver and pedal-driven washing machine respectively for the film.

3 idiots has used these three innovations in the film for Aamir Khan, Madhavan and Sharman Joshi.

The inventions were sourced by Prof Anil Gupta, National Innovation Foundation, Honey Bee Network, Sri Raghvendra Institute of Science and Technology (SRIST).

Said Gupta, “3 idiots will not only bring the innovations before the masses, but Vidhu Vinod Chopra and his team have promised to create a fund for the three innovators after the release of the film.”

“We’re hoping that these innovations will be used by entrepreneurs in our country as Bollywood films have a wider audience and are viewed by people even in remote areas,” said Gupta.

Painter runs a small painting workshop in Jalgaon. He has earlier won a consolation prize for making a spray painting compressor device. Now that his scooter flour mill has made him famous, he is planning to invest in some more innovations.


  1. Thanks for drawing this film to my (our) attention, Louis. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a film that combines so many genre and style elements so successfully (or if something quite like this has even been attempted): mystery, suspense, romance, buddy/road/adventure, insightful multi-level social commentary, musical production numbers, wide-ranging comedy (from split-second subtlety to fart gags) and some genuinely soul-cleansing tear-jerking moments (even a ‘Sophie’s Choice’ moment thrown in for good measure!). And … as perfectly satisfying an ending as one could wish for.

    Marvelous, marvelous popular cinema.

    Comment by Nate Johnson — February 21, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

  2. […] agree with me since it is now the highest-grossing film in Indian history. https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/3-idiots/ […]

    Pingback by GPJA #413: SAT FEB 25 – JOIN WHARFIES TO PROTECT JOB SECURITY AND FAMILY TIME « GPJA's Blog — February 22, 2012 @ 4:55 am

  3. I’m very choosy with the movies I watch but THREE IDIOTS has won my heart. The first time I watched I was in the KNUST, and since then have watched it thousands! Oh, creative, i see my school life in the movie.

    Comment by WOKA NAPOLEON DOTSE — May 17, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

  4. Good piece.

    Comment by WOKA NAPOLEON DOTSE — May 17, 2012 @ 5:51 pm

  5. […] is an outspoken critic of India’s grade-driven education system. If you’ve seen the satire “Three Idiots”, you will be familiar with how this ludicrous system […]

    Pingback by Bhaag, Milkha, Bhaag; Breakaway | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 13, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

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