Amidst ever-increasing globalization, American audiences are slowly beginning to recognize international film industries, as evidenced by South Korea’s Parasite (2019) being the first non-English-language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. As production companies pull rights for their content to start their own streaming services, platforms like Amazon Prime Video have found competitive avenues through hosting international films and television (think K-drama and European crime shows), opening up accessibility to global film industries.
The vast majority of American moviegoers and movie-streamers, however, still have only a passing familiarity with even the most popular foreign films; most rely on stereotypes in their expectations, such as with Bollywood, which for Americans seldom means more than a campy mix of melodrama, spectacle and musical numbers. And yet films like Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots (2009), available on Amazon Prime in the U.S., both confirm these Indian film conventions and show just how powerful they can be on a domestic and global stage alike, ultimately introducing American audiences into a broader understanding of how film can be used as cultural, soft power for political and social change.
Starring world-renowned Indian actor-activist Aamir Khan, 3 Idiots follows Rancho (Khan), Farhan (R. Madhavan) and Raju (Sharman Joshi), students at a draconian engineering school who challenge the conventional systems of Indian education. To Americans, the setup is comparable to a “slobs vs. snobs” college comedy along the lines of Animal House, but 3 Idiots sets itself apart by being a firm condemnation of the contemporary Indian education system—one criticized for its constrictive and stressful nature often blamed for increasing student suicides (an average of 28 per day as of 2018). When engineering student Joy Lobo (Ali Fazal) takes his own life due to academic pressure, the titular “idiots,” led by Rancho, embark upon a series of socially conscious hijinks and pranks to expose the absurdity of an education system more concerned with economic success than passion, creativity and life itself.
The film is filled with melodrama, comedy and romance for its nearly three-hour runtime, but it never loses sight of its social significance—it is a perfect blend of entertainment and underlying values. Its success speaks for itself, too: the film was the highest-grossing Hindi-language film of all time during its initial release, and it played a huge role in introducing Bollywood cinema to China, where Aamir Khan is now a household name. But how well do these ideas come across on screen for an American audience?
As is expected of a Bollywood picture, 3 Idiots is extravagant. A welcome deluge of delight, from its endearing plot that jumps across genres to its lavish visual design that really comes through during the film’s musical numbers, this is an energetic film to say the least. While its long runtime can be off-putting, most of it flies by on a rollercoaster of emotions and humor, bolstered by fantastical musical numbers and vibrant performances, especially by the iconic Aamir Khan.
Despite the emotional ups and downs, this film manages to more or less walk the line between comedy and melodrama, albeit on its own terms. There is no subtlety here, and the whiplash-inducing tonal shifts shouldn’t work (and occasionally don’t), but 3 Idiots largely manages to strike a careful balance amidst a branching narrative that takes so many different paths that it necessitates both extreme emotion and comic relief, particularly in the endearing romantic subplot between Rancho and Pia (Kareena Kapoor Khan). The shenanigans of the college-aged boys—including relieving themselves on the college director’s doorstep upon which he subsequently slips and falls—draw out full-blown belly laughs, and yet in a matter of moments, their growing sense of self and meaningful relationships among one another bring about tears—exemplified by heart-wrenching scenes of loss, love and brotherhood. It’s ultimately the kind of emotional roller coaster that, after violent ups, downs, twists and turns, ends with both a sigh of cathartic relief and a whirlwind of motion still churning in your stomach and heart as you reorient back to reality.
In terms of content matter, 3 Idiots manages to be both informative and thought-provoking, tackling the sober topic of educational issues in India, including stress, parental expectations, suicide, cheating, resistance to creative professions, poverty, social inequalities and more. Perhaps the clearest thread throughout the film involves Indian society’s narrow view of “success” and the ultimate goal of education, a criticism exemplified in the humorous moment Pia’s pregnant sister Mona (Mona Singh) ruminates on the fact that her child will inevitably be either a doctor or an engineer—depending, of course, on whether it is a girl or a boy, respectively. While the film does take a broad approach to these serious topics, it also allows its international audience to get some perspective on issues India is facing and, perhaps, find a kinship with Indian students. The U.S.’s education system, for instance, may be more liberal than the system portrayed in this film, but almost any student would be able to relate to the social, parental and academic pressures the film’s protagonists experience.
Ultimately, the film’s biggest asset—its grandiosity—could also be construed as its biggest enemy, especially for foreign audiences unaccustomed to the lavishness of Bollywood. In approaching the serious topics of draconian education systems, ragging (hazing, to Americans) and student suicides in India, 3 Idiots is taking on a lot of ideological weight that its myriad tones must balance. The film’s heart is in the right place with a focus on making Indian education less about competition and more about passion, but scenes like Lobo’s melancholic musical number prior to killing himself, however, feel glib. Moments like these arguably tilt the balance a little too far, the good-natured camp being soured into a trivialization of the issues the film holds dear.
One of the film’s most successful sequences is the musical number “Aal Izz Well,” in which Rancho shares his ethos of declaring “all is well” in order to get through difficult times. This scene is bursting with energy in everything from the use of bright colors to infectiously fun choreography. The camera moves quickly to match the energy of the dancers, often utilizing rolls and extreme angles to add to the energy, whimsy and disregard for misguided authority that the scene represents. When the song ends on the sudden discovery of Joy Lobo’s hanging body, though, the same camera techniques are used to heighten the drama and pathos of the moment. This is indicative not only of the film’s tonal whiplash, but potentially also of its flippant discussions about serious issues. The whimsy of “Aal Izz Well” gets a similar cinematic treatment to the discovery of Lobo’s body, canted angles and all, suggesting they are two sides of the same coin. Whether the audience buys that simply telling oneself that “all is well” is the salve for these serious societal issues (or that it is even a responsible way for the film to approach them), however, is another story.
These moments are relatively few, but overall the film still runs a little long for what it is. Clocking in at nearly three hours, 3 Idiots is quite an investment (of time, as well as sustained attention and emotional involvement). As such, the movie’s unflinching optimism gets old after a while. A climactic birth scene in particular features a turn that forces the audience to stretch their belief and investment a tad too far. Humor also brings about much of the film’s joyful tone, and the abrasive style of its comedy sustained for several hours might be enough to turn off some viewers.
As with any film, though, 3 Idiots is a subjective work. Bollywood cinema comes from a cultural context very different from the U.S. and embodies artistic qualities equally different from Hollywood film, meaning it can be difficult for American audiences to immediately cozy up to over-the-top dance sequences, cheesy love scenes or even just a three hour-long runtime that doesn’t include CGI-saturated fight scenes (Avengers, anyone?). In watching international films like 3 Idiots, we should consider that some criticisms may emerge from cultural differences rather than flawed filmmaking. In fact, these cultural differences offer a new perspective on the power of film as a whole, as evidenced by the growing popularity of Bollywood across the globe.
Even though Indian cinema hasn’t reached America in a big way, Bollywood is getting bigger (and grander) all the time. 3 Idiots was India’s highest-grossing film upon its release, but a mere eleven years later doesn’t even live on the top ten list of highest-grossing films in the country, evidence of a rapidly expanding industry. This film was also credited with bringing Bollywood to China and Japan, where Indian movies are now hugely popular. 3 Idiots was remade in Mexico, too, as 3 Idiotas (2017). So, why hasn’t this global smash made nearly as big an impact in the U.S. as it has internationally?
One place to look for answers is in the source & influence of the domestic industries. In America, perceptions about Hollywood films are split. Many seem to think that Hollywood is an elite institution dedicated to upholding the status quo, while others see it as a tool for societal change through increasing diversity and underdog narratives with the potential to oppose oppressive institutions. The real answer may be more complicated, but either way, people always seem to be upset with the level or lack of politics in Hollywood film. In Bollywood, meanwhile, activism seems to have been one of the major factors that spurred the major growth of the industry. Aamir Khan, star of 3 Idiots, has very publicly dedicated himself to promoting social change in India, even spearheading an initiative called Global Citizen with other Indian artists dedicated to affecting change in Indian society.
Khan’s activism has spread far beyond this film, and several movies which he starred in, produced and/or directed are now on the list of the highest-grossing films in India, including 2016’s Dangal in the number one spot (another spectacular, albeit very different, film). So unlike American audiences, who seem torn on how much politics they want in their films, mainstream Indian audiences have embraced film as an origin and undisguised, often straightforward agent for social change. These films don’t necessarily contain intricate dissection of problems or detailed solutions, preferring instead to put social issues out in the open, laying a foundation for a new social consciousness. While Americans may find nothing new in this general approach to art and culture, countries like India have an arguably less established history of free speech and open forum for social change.
For American audiences, however, this activism may be difficult to connect with, and not just because the issues discussed are somewhat localized. The over-the-top aesthetics of Bollywood might make it hard for a modern American audience to take a film like 3 Idiots seriously. As mentioned, sometimes 3 Idiots feels glib when addressing dire issues like suicide with musical numbers and melodramatic turns. In fact, the film was even blamed for allegedly inspiring a couple of incidents involving ragging and suicide. That said, as Anupa Mistry points out in her essay for Cléo, the campy nature of Bollywood cinema offers not only an escape from reality, but also a place where radical social change can be transmitted—both understandable within the socio-political context in which this film was released. Camp is an aesthetic where it is safe to transmit socially radical ideas because of the apparent lack of seriousness.
And while it isn’t always the case that socially-conscious films are as popular as they are meaningful, it seems to have worked out for 3 Idiots, and even that is somewhat of an understatement. Not only is the film incredibly popular in India, but its huge success in China is partially attributed to the fact that the subject of an overly stressful education system focused on rote learning speaks to Chinese audiences with similar experiences. Scholars Sajjad Hussain and Nasir Ahmad have outlined how the film can be used to redefine Indian education and parental expectations; these changing attitudes may have even played a role in the recent reorganization of the Indian education system, designed to reduce tedium and allow children to grow in multiple fields of study, rather than those that conform to a narrow idea of success.
Considering the many balances a Bollywood film like 3 Idiots has managed to strike, all the while remaining uncompromisingly driven by a desire for social change, is it reasonable to consider that a Hollywood film could reach this level of societal influence in the U.S.? Sure, there have been plenty of films more popular and with more and more nods to changing social dynamics, but do their intentions really go much beyond entertainment? Hollywood films are just as defined by excess as Bollywood films, and the system certainly has the resources to fulfill the dreams of activist filmmakers and stars who have the capability and drive to make highly socially-conscious works. The tools are there, but it would take an active change to inject Hollywood film with a clearer social agenda. Also, it’s important to note that American audiences are ultimately the ones who consume what comes out of the industry (one that is primarily aimed at making money) and thus have some say in where it goes or how they choose to act upon it.
In spite of all these, however, it’s important to remember that the right movie at the right time presenting an argument in just the right way can be a powerful thing. With its current trajectory emphasizing relentless franchising, super-heroics and fairy-tale retellings, Hollywood probably won’t grow to look more like Bollywood in aesthetics anytime soon, but there’s surely something to learn from the unabashed nature of a film like 3 Idiots that puts its social consciousness front and center.