3 Idiots: Bollywood blockbuster is equal parts cautionary tale, maker manifesto, portrait of India

kareeena-kapor.jpgOver the holidays, I kept spotting tweets from Indian and non-Indian friends alike gushing about 3 Idiots. The just-released Bollywood blockbuster has broken box office records throughout India. I'm no expert in Indian cinema or popular culture, but figured so many happy pings couldn't be wrong, so I ventured out for a screening (at an otherwise struggling art-house theater which was this night *packed* with a cheering, Hindi-speaking crowd). Verdict? Yup, it's awesome, and the tech themes may make this accessible for those of you who otherwise might not make the leap to watching Indian films.

@robinsloan said it best: "It works as fun movie AND a portrait of India today AND a maker manifesto." The film is a cautionary moral tale about about aspiration at all costs, and a social commentary on India's educational system. The hacker-protagonist played by Aamir Khan preaches DIY tech education as an empowering journey to world-changing knowledge, not a shallow means to upwardly mobile ends.

Bollywood movies somehow manage to cram in more sheer total stuff than US pics. This one's no exception: there's a hot "wet sari" scene, a bathroom dance number with aerial toilet steadicam shots, a climax of of parental drama that involves comparison shopping between laptops and SLR cameras, an obviously fake rubber baby, and beautiful Himalayan scenery. Blogs, webcams, and aerial surveillance drones glide effortlessly through the script. Not once, but twice, a homemade penis-electrocution hardware hack serves for comic (and bladder) relief.


If you're reading this and you speak Hindi, none of this is news: by various metrics, Idiots was the most-anticipated (and is now the most-successful) Indian film in some time. But for Bollywood noobs, I can think of no better first door to open. The film is in Hindi and English, with English subtitles. Yes, you'll miss out on some of the layered humor in the film's ample Hindi puns, but there's so much else going on you'll be fine.

Producer Vinod Chopra reportedly plans to make the entire film available for download and viewing online, for free, this March. Chopra is quoted in the Economic Times, a business publication out of India:

I'm providing this facility for those who can't see it on big screen and watch pirated movies. I just want them to discourage pirated prints. They just need to wait for 12 weeks and after that they can legally download the movie and watch it. Tomorrow if there is a facility to watch movies on mobile phones, the film will be available there but in appropriate time.
Bonus inside baseball round: the film is loosely adapted from elements of Chetan Bhagat's book Five Point Someone: What Not to Do at IIT. There's a big off-screen drama exploding around contract and credit rights between the author and 3 Idiots producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra and director Rajkumar Hirani.

The filmmakers' side of things is presented in this YouTube response video (!), but even more noteworthy: yes, Internet Hitler has an opinion, too: video 1, video 2.

Embed below: short promo version of "Zoobi Doobi," a silly and infectious musical number from the film that pays homage to over-the-top Bollywood love stories (and if I'm not mistaken, Singin' in the Rain.) Caution: earworm!

MP3 version of soundrack: Amazon. (Music by Shantanu Moitra, Shreya Ghoshal & Sonu Nigam.)

3 Idiots is currently playing in theaters throughout the United States (and worldwide).

Related/required reading:

1) Robin Sloan's thoughts on 3 Idiots
2) "State of the World 2010," notes from Bruce Sterling on why you should follow Bollywood stars on Twitter (item D in the list).
3) Here's the film's Wikipedia entry [CONTAINS SPOILERS].
4) This Variety review cracked me up, for one line only: "Crossover potential is zero." [CONTAINS SPOILERS]


  1. I’ll be keeping an eye out for this in March. Years ago, I worked with a guy from Mumbai, and he got my budding interest in Bollywood seriously hooked by setting me up with a pile of soundtracks from current movies of that time. I don’t speak a word of Hindi, so “Monsoon Wedding” is the only movie I’ve seen that made any sense. I hope this release of 3 Idiots comes out with subtitles, because it looks like fun.

  2. Oh, it is subtitled! I’ll edit the post to make sure that’s clear. And you really ought to try and seek it out in theaters, it’s more fun when you’re seeing it with a cinema full of ROFLing people who get all the Hindi-language jokes.

  3. It’s playing all over NYC, apparently. Thanks for this- I was totally ignorant of its existence. I love a good Indian Flick!

    When I was in India last year, I watched “welcome to sajjanpur” with NO english subtitles and still fully enjoyed it, even though i misunderstood several of the subplots.

  4. This has been on my “MUST SEE” list for a while. I’m not a Hindi=speaker, but I love Bollywood films for their sheer madcap energy. Even the most sedate drama is filled with song, color, dancing and excitement. It’s something that the summer “tent-pole” movies of Hollywood seem to lack more and more. The joy of film-making, the feeling that the people who made this movie had a ball.

  5. First thing, Great post Xeni! You always do a good job of trying to bridge Western and Eastern Culture.

    I am a Pakistani but born and raised stateside so I get Hindi films but I am not one to be thrilled to watch one. I got actually dragged to see this movie as I did not see the hype and etc in its build up and, and this is were the phrase OMG was made to be used, OMG it was great.

    All the aspect the movie hits at, the Parent-Child relationships in South Asia (Sons are Engineers, Daughters are Doctors and anything less is a failure), School pressure to be top of the class or your nothing, Asian system of memorize and dont question anything, The poor not getting a shot at Educational and it just goes on and on. Its something that you are right, only a Hindi film can do and while I feel most fail at it, this pulled it off very well. Also the fact the movie in a way pulled away from over the top musicals, I think most done as dream scenes, you can see that bollywood can do more then just 3 hour music videos which many other movies.
    Aamir Khan the main actor in the film is setting that trademark I feel, if you watch his last film Ghajini http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghajini_%282008_film%29 it has the same “Western” type of film but yet still remains uniquely Desi. Its another film that left me blown away and I would suggest it to anyone, tho its a lot darker and has some over the top action scenes but the story is still interesting.

  6. On Zuhaib’s Ghajini recommendation – I personally didn’t like it. It’s Memento done lot worse. I walked out halfway through the movie.

    But as for 3 Idiots, it’s one absolutely incredible movie, of quality I don’t expect from Bollywood. I am from India, and went to engineering school there. I went through much of what’s shown in the movie about college education. I stopped watching Bollywood movies a long time ago, and saw no need to change that, until recently. The Indian movie industry is undergoing a transformation and some very good movies have been making it big lately. I think it’s time even for a skeptic like me to keep tabs on the latest good movies. I heavily recommend 3 Idiots to anyone at all. If you already have an opinion of Bollywood movies, you will need to shed that for this movie. Mind you, the majority of Bollywood movies are still junk, and there is a financial reason for that which I can talk about if anyone brings it up later in the comments.

    The funniest part of the movie is the speech scene, but you need to know good hindi to enjoy it fully. Even if you have grown up in India, you won’t get the language subtleties unless you have formally studied Hindi. But even without that scene, the movie is a gem.

  7. When I was studying film 40 years ago India was producing more movies than any other country. I assume that’s still true.

  8. For anyone who enjoyed 3 Idiots, may I recommend the Munna Bhai films, especially Lage Raho Munna Bhai. These are also produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra and also feature the amazing Boman Irani (ViruS) in comically villainous roles.

    The unabashed schmaltz, charming actors, and catchy dance numbers are unforgettable.

  9. For those interested…3 of my friends have been in India for the past month filming a documentary about the “4th Idiot” played by Omi Vaidya. (He’s an American-Indian who has had parts in “The Office” and “Arrested Development”)

    The project is basically about the changes in Omi’s life following the release of his first big movie. They have a Facebook group set up called “Big In Bollywood.” Not really sure about how facebook works, but I’m pretty sure you can just join. They have a few random video clips up now with some footage of them crashing various red carpets.

    I’d also like to say that one of the members of ‘Big In Bollywood’ is responsible for this BoingBoing post, one of my favorites:

  10. I also know the ‘Big in Bollywood’ guys, Omi is the character that gave ‘the speech’ and has already been nominated for several awards. Many know him as the tech support sikh that fixes Michael’s computer in The Office. Looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

  11. Just watched this last night at a Delhi theatre. A lot of the plot is well known to people who have seen many Bollywood movies – the college with a crazy strict president (I thought that part was a bit overplayed), and a beautiful daughter, students or rebellious teachers who get on the president’s edge, but somehow manage to win them over etc…

    But it was a fun movie, with a cool message. In India, Aamir Khan is known for his social bent, and he seems to really taking on the education system. You should absolutely see Taare Zameen Par, an incredible movie directed and acted by Aamir Khan about a boy with dyslexia who is taunted and bullied by everyone, before a wonderful art teacher gets him to open up. Absolutely beautiful!

    (Last night on TV, they mentioned that the Maharashtra state government has gotten complaints that the film is promoting “ragging” – hazing of incoming freshmen as depicted in the movie – and will investigate. I rather thought it did the opposite, but then in India, there are complaints filed about almost any movie out there. Ragging is a huge and real problem in India.)

  12. I totally loved this movie, as well! Interesting to read the review by Xeni since *I* reviewed it, too; as a non-Desi I have a lot of the same observations, including that it’s way more fun to see it in the theater. And I love the point that it’s a maker manifesto, which it definitely is.

    (Fun Fact: Bollywood movies screen at your local AMC, at least in the Bay Area, so you don’t even have to look far!)

    I started blogging about Bollywood films after getting way into Bollywood by directing a Bollywood puppet improv show and then starting to teach Bollywood dance — I’ve seen enough that I have to write blog entries about them so I remember which ones I’ve seen, and so I can recommend them to others who may or may not be familiar with Bollywood as a genre (can’t link to it, apparently, but it’s called From Puppets to the Moon ;o)

    And YES, they are TOTALLY doing the chicken dance! It’s more obvious in the film, where they do it multiple times. I LOVE it.

    OH — and if you want Bollywood that shouts out to “Singin’ in the Rain,” see “Om Shanti Om” — the Entire First Half is basically a remake of “Singin’ in the Rain.” It’s a high-larious movie which I have in the past described as: “Singin’ in the Rain” meets “Austin Powers” meets “Hamlet.”

  13. I Must See This Film.

    Loved the point about Bollywood cramming more stuff into its films — which they do!

  14. this film is so touchly.there are so many fun.laughing,but it’s very sad.all is become one condition that we have also coud make it.it’s very meaningful 4 the friendship also.did you watched this film? don’t missed it

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