Following the stupendous success of "Slumdog Millionaire" in 2008, interest in Indian cinema increased markedly. Yet that movie, while set in India, was directed by an Englishman. Most people in the U.S. know very little of real Indian film, but the number of Bollywood fans is growing rapidly, and they are almost evangelical in their admiration for Aamir Khan, the star of "3 Idiots" and a golden boy in his native country. Of the relatively few exports from that enormous market to play in American theaters, this 2009 film is one of the best. It makes a fine entree into the cinematic culture of India, which is, I must warn you, an acquired taste.
The first thing you may notice is the language, which entails what linguists call "code switching." Sentences often begin in Hindi and end in English or vice versa. But much more important to grasp is the Bollywood aesthetic, which is radically different from Hollywood's; to enjoy it requires a suspension of the rules that constrain American films. Ours have rather tightly defined genres: domestic drama, buddy picture, slasher movie, Broadway musical, sci-fi actioner, and so on. Combining two of them is rare; three is straight over the top.
Indian film, in contrast, is kitchen sink filmmaking, throwing together themes and plots from many diverse genres to create tales of epic scope (this one is nearly three hours long). These sagas whipsaw the viewer back and forth from farcical parody to ghastly tragedy to musical fantasy to weepy melodrama to toilet humor to social protest to romantic comedy. The plots are frequently Byzantine in their complexity and the characters hopelessly unrealistic. As in the Hindu epic Ramayana, they are better thought of as caricatures of love, wisdom, heroism, foolishness, envy, ambition, and other traits.
Now if you find a frenetic hodgepodge of styles and a resolute lack of realism irritating, if you can't accept what will at first seem crazily contradictory conventions, you won't like Bollywood. If repetitive fart and pee jokes bother you, if the idea of grafting a "Revenge of the Nerds" sensibility onto "Mamma Mia!" or of having Judd Apatow direct "Days of Our Lives" strikes you as horrifying, then this movie is not for you. But if you can wrap your head around these jarring juxtapositions, read on.
I'll admit I'm not a big Bollywood fan, but I have to give props to screenwriter-director Rajkumar Hirani for the manic energy and complete commitment he brings to his interpretation of "Five Point Someone," a novel by Chetan Bhagat. "3 Idiots" centers on three students attending the most prestigious engineering college in India, a pressure cooker of a school. They include Farhan (R. Madhavan), who is an aspiring but frustrated photographer, and the impoverished Raju (Sharman Joshi). The charismatic leader of this triumvirate, Rancho (Kahn), is a witty prankster, a down-to-earth genius, and a humanitarian guru who makes it his mission to humble the arrogant: to show the educational authorities their wrongheadedness and the wealthy their hypocrisy.
While he's at it, this charming idealist saves the life of Raju's father, crashes a wedding, and wins the heart of Pia, a medical student (played by the beautiful Kareena Kapoor) who happens to be the daughter of his nemesis, the dean of the college. The dean is a heartless buffoon (played to the scenery-chewing hilt by Boman Irani) who is in the habit of driving his students to suicide, but Rancho gets the better of him. And all of this is accomplished before the first half of the movie is over!
The film could easily have ended at midpoint, but no. Rancho mysteriously disappears, and so his friends embark upon a quest that frames the plot, along with Chatur (Omi Vaidya), an envious rival who has made a wager with him. They attempt to track him down, settle the bet, and reunite him with his lost love. We move back and forth in time and tone with myriad subplots about exam results, summary expulsions, dreams deferred, job interviews, identity swaps, heartbreaking betrayals, near-death experiences, miraculous recoveries, and undying friendship.
There's a runaway bride scene that puts "The Graduate" to shame, and enough high-stakes medical drama for several soap operas, including paralysis, a coma, and a bizarre episode in which a team of engineering students uses car batteries and a vacuum cleaner to deliver a baby during a blackout. And interspersed with all of this are several wild song-and-dance numbers, one of them set in a communal bathroom and another that involves flying and a rainstorm and a cross between the Twist and the Chicken Dance.
In the end, justice is done and all's right with the world. The challenges our protagonists face -- of fulfilling their parent's old-fashioned expectations in a viciously competitive educational system and an utterly class-ridden society, or of following their own personal passions and finding happiness and untold wealth in the process -- are resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Our saintly hero finds true love and, after hours of teasing, gets a single kiss. We're in India, remember, where the good guys must be chaste (though cavorting in their underwear is apparently just fine).
It's a cheerfully preposterous film filled with fine performances, one of the most well-made pieces of pabulum I've seen since the cricket-themed colonial epic "Laagan," a 2001 Aamir Khan movie of nearly four hours that received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. With a story that aspiring young Indians can relate to, "3 Idiots" was hugely popular at home, shattering all sorts of box office records and winning a ridiculous number of awards.
Would you like to know more about India, a place where tradition and modernity uneasily coexist? Then this marathon of broad tragicomedy and rags-to-riches wish fulfillment is an entertaining way to learn. Bear in mind that this is nothing like reality. It's hyperreality: what a nation of 1.2 billion who experience poverty and a daily grind and rapid social change are hoping for, not what you'll really find if you visit. As such, it reveals much about their mentality, about their ideals and anxieties, and about what motivates them. If you can let go of your American preconceptions, it's a head-spinning ride that's undeniably fun.