Well, I put off writing this post as long as possible. Because this movie just has so much that goes into it, it’s hard to even figure out where to start.
The most important thing to know about this film is that it made over 300 crores at the box office, a third again more than any other film ever. That is what defines it, that is what retroactively makes it important. If you look at the movie in isolation, just the text itself, it is a good solid movie but doesn’t feel spectacular or magical. If you look at the text and accept that it reached a new level of popularity within the country and outside of it, then it becomes magical. There is something there that reached people, some vital message that was needed. What was it?
It certainly wasn’t the stars. This movie doesn’t sell itself that way, it is supposed to be new and different and deep, but it is in fact a traditional multi-starrer. Madhavan and Aamir were both already familiar faces to the Hindi audience. And Sharman Joshi had been around for a while as well, not as famous, but not a newcomer. Kareena Kapoor was about the safest heroine choice you could have, everyone knew her and no one hated her. This same exact cast in a light love triangle film (for example, if this movie had stayed closer to the Chetan Bhagat book that gave the basic idea for it) it would have barely rated a mention, it is so predictable.
It wasn’t really the songs either. They have a bright distinctive look to them, but if you break them down, you have a “Friendship Song”, a “Romance Song”, and a “Sad Song”. The only one slightly unusual is “Behti Hawa” which I guess we can call a “nostalgia song”. The most unusual thing about them is that we have only 4 songs in a 3 hour movie, it’s really not that many for that length of film.
Even the plot structure is not unusual. We start in the present day, we go into flashback, we come back to present day for the ending. It’s a well structured flashback/present day structure, with little call backs between the two, but it is still not as crazy and imaginative as, for instance, Rang De Basanti (Aamir and Sharman Joshi’s last film together).
So, what makes this film special? Why did people flock to it? What I am left with is the message, and the way that message was delivered. This is a tragic movie that does not feel tragic. It gives us a combination of two previous hit college films, Main Hoon Na and Rang De Basanti. It gives you a spoonful of sugar with all the crazy hijinks and practical jokes to make the medicine of “India eats its young” go down easily.
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The plot is pretty simple once you untangle it. In the present, Sharman Joshi and Madhavan are happy successful people who get a call reminding them of their best friend from college, Aamir Khan. He disappeared just before graduation and they haven’t seen him since, but now they learn his father died and think he must be at the funeral. As they travel, they remember college days when they both struggled in classes and their friend Aamir always easily topped them without seeming to need to work at it. Aamir fell in love with the medical student daughter of the school principal Boman Irani, Kareena Kapoor. Right at the end of school, Madhavan told his parents he wanted to be a photographer not an engineer. Sharman Joshi got his dream job. Aamir earned the approval of Boman Irani. And then we come back to the present and learn that Aamir was in school under an assumed name, he was earning the degree on behalf of someone else, that’s why he snuck away. He is now a successful famous inventor. Sharman and Madhavan stop to pick up Kareena at her wedding, she runs away with them to find Aamir, she and Aamir and the friends are reunited.
It’s a very shaggy dog loosey-goosey kind of a movie. We spend the majority of the screen time dealing with college practical jokes (sneaking into weddings, tricking the snotty good student in class, etc.) which do nothing to actually move the plot forward. When it came out, I was tutoring a couple of little desi girls and they both loved the movie for those parts. They told me all about the funny jokes and so on. The actual moral of the film went right over their heads, as did the romance plot, and everything that wasn’t adults doing goofy things.
There were a fair number of Western reviews of this particular film, thanks to Aamir’s good PR game and the massive box office success. They also tended to miss the moral of the film, be more about “feel-good” and “song sequences”. The bright colors and bouncy soundtrack is what they saw.
That’s how the film is structured, the audience can find their own level within it, whether that is the childish silly jokes, or the bright colors and happiness of the style. Or, for some people, the actual message of the film. It’s probably the most controversial message in any of these new “message” movies, and that is why it is surrounded by so much lightness.
The film isn’t just saying “college students kill themselves and that is bad”. It is saying “parents and school principals are killing children and no one cares”. Boman Irani, funny Boman Irani, is a mass murderer. He killed his own son, he kills his students, and he doesn’t care. He thinks it is a good thing, that he is culling the herd, that they deserve to die because they weren’t strong enough or smart enough to life up to his own standards.
The film runs away from that message. Or, rather, leaves it for the audience to find if they look for it rather than forcing it on us. The “Aal Izz Well” song is a good example, our heroes are goofing around and singing, it’s a really happy song. And it ends with them discovering an older student’s dead body after he hung himself in his dorm room.
There’s a meaning there. First, that the film wants to give us this big happy song so we can accept the suicide more easily, so this doesn’t feel like a “message” film as much. And second, that this is the dark side always hiding under those campus hijinks. The kids may be dancing and singing and happy, but it is a brief happiness that can disappear just as easily.
Suicide is the second cause of death for young people in India, after car accidents. It spikes when exam results are released. This should hardly be a shock, if you have watched a lot of Indian films you have seen the way a “good” parent tells their child to study, to prepare for the test, etc. etc. This is preparing them for life, this is what is most important for them, this is what they need. If that is the message you get your whole life, and if you are in that dangerous brain development teenage period when your brain is essentially the same as a manic depressive’s brain, then you will kill yourself when you fail.
My father went to the best high school in the state, perhaps in the region. I have a friend now who is desperate to get her children into that school. And I’m not sure what to say to warn her away, beyond “your children will die”. This school tends to what are called “suicide clusters”. The kids are under so much stress to succeed that, if one of them kills themselves, the response of the other students is “I’m so jealous, I want to do that too”. The school responded, they announced various changes like cutting down the length of the school day and so on, and parents protested. They would rather put their children at risk of literally killing stress, than risk them failing to achieve the highest possible everythings.
That’s what this movie is about. It is about the emptiness and narrowness of only one definition of “success”. IIT Bombay (which is clearly what the school in this film is based upon) is the best engineering school in India, everyone wants to get in and very very few people do. Once you get in, your life is supposed to be made. You will graduate, be offered an amazing high paying job, and be set for life. Because that’s all you need for life, a good paying impressive job. And all you need for that job is a degree from the right school.
The three lead characters represent the three flaws with that argument. First we have Sharman Joshi. Unlike most kids at IIT, he desperately needs that job. His family is dying and starving and counting on him. India is a poor country, but if you have the education and home training that will allow you to pass the IIT entrance exam, your family is probably not that desperate. Sharman truly is desperate, and that is his handicap. IIT isn’t structured for the desperate and poor, it is structured for the ambitious and comfortable. He wants it too much to do well. It is only when he relaxes, realizes that there is more than one way to help his family, that he nails the job interview and gets the job he wants. Which is also true, you don’t get hired for the executive position because you got a perfect IIT grad. You have to have a good attitude, be friendly, be charming, know life and know people. This is why so often the “perfect students” hit a wall in their professional careers, they spent all their time studying and not enough time with people.
And then we have Madhavan. He is just not interested in an engineering degree. For his parents, the degree is all they can conceive of. They can’t imagine a life outside of the one perfect golden ticket every parent in India wants for their child. And Madhavan is not happy. His parents never asked or considered what would make him happy, they just told him this is what he had to do. Because he isn’t happy, he is not succeeding. A parent can’t make a child succeed just by telling them this is what they need to do, it has to come from within, there has to be a dialogue and learn what they want and what will make them happy. Madhavan finally tells them the truth, that he wants to be a photographer, and in the present has a happy and successful life in his chosen profession. There is more than one route to happiness.
And then we have Aamir himself, the most interesting and important statement to me. Aamir earned the IIT degree on behalf of the ancestral landlord he worked for. He was a poor little boy with a passion for and talent in mechanics. His landlord’s son was a decent boy who did not do well in school. Aamir wanted the knowledge from IIT, his landlord’s son needed the degree, and the fact that they could both get what they needed through this charade shows how empty the whole system is. You see, his landlord’s son was perfectly successful just with the piece of paper. For what he needed to do in life (maintain the land and property), the knowledge he would have gained from an IIT degree, or even a natural talent for schooling at any point, is needless. And yet society has placed this importance on an IIT degree as a status symbol required beyond any knowledge it gives. That’s not fair, rich folks wanting the status are taking seats away from folks who really want and need the knowledge. And at the same time, talented people with gifts to give the world are being forced to waste 4 years getting knowledge they will never use just because an IIT degree is important. Aamir’s trick fixed that.
What this film dances around until the very end is the true value of an IIT education. It’s not the job you get when it is over, it’s not the prestige of the degree, it’s the knowledge you gain. Aamir got that knowledge and that was all he needed, no piece of paper required. He left school and invented his own products and patented them and gained appreciation through his true talent so that no one cared if he had a degree or not. If you accept that, that you are in school for the knowledge and not the grades, suddenly the stress disappears.
This whole movie is about alleviating student stress. And that is why it has to have so much death. If you made the same movie and had it just about “ha-ha, Aal Izz Well”, it would feel shallow. You need that statement of why this matters, why student stress is about more than just “stress”. And so we have the first death shortly after the start of the film, we have the late revelation that Boman’s son killed himself for fear of bad grades (and Kareena, his sister, hid that truth from her father which is a whole other discussion of how society is complicit in pretending this is not happening so the world can keep chugging along), and most of all we have Sharman’s suicide when he is given the choice of turning in his two friends and having them expelled, or being expelled himself.
Sharman’s suicide does what it is supposed to do, in one moment it makes nothing else matter for anyone. His mother, who was constantly pressuring him about how poor they are and how much they need him to graduate and get a job, suddenly just wants him to stay alive. His friends skip classes and play in his hospital room and obsess over doing anything to make him happier, rather than studying. And Sharman himself, finally, gets out of the hospital and realizes he just wants to live and keep living and he doesn’t care if he gets the lowest or highest grade in class, life is more than that. This is the lesson that it is too late for a lot of parents to learn. They say, and believe, that school is the most important thing. That grades are all that should matter. And the their child kills himself or herself and they realize they don’t actually care about those things as much as they thought they did, they would rather their child be alive than anything else.
3 Idiots released and changed everything. From now on, films would shoot for that 300 crore or nothing. Simple social messages became the order of the day, childish plots with deep messages, bright colors to tell a dark story. But the later films just aren’t as good as this one. It was the first, and it is rawer, darker, and brighter at the same time. This is something the filmmakers really felt and cared about and wanted to get out there in the world, and they took a risk to try something different and make it happen.