Raju Hirani movies are thoroughly modern and yet still express a uniquely Bollywood sensibility. He does not shy away from melodrama or big unambiguous messages. Yet he still puts entertainment first, with an attention to detail and characterization that yields truly loveable and fun-to-watch movies. As Lage raho Munnabhai before it, 3 Idiots leaves you grinning like a dope even as you're thinking about ways to make the world a better place. And there is no doubt that his approach resonates hugely - Lage raho Munnabhai was a massive hit, and the success of 3 Idiots eclipsed it.
When they were classmates in engineering college, Chatur (Omi Vaidya) and Rancho (Aamir Khan) were rivals. Or, at least, Chatur was - competitive, materialistic, and rote, he chafed at Rancho's playful attitude and seat-of-the-pants, intuitive approach to engineering. Now, 10 years later, Chatur gathers Rancho's best friends from their college days - Farhan (Madhavan) and Raju (Sharman Joshi) - and sets off on a quest across India to find Rancho. Chatur wants only to gloat, to flaunt his success over Rancho, whom none of the men have heard from since school days. Farhan and Raju, though, just want to find their cherished friend, whose influence was immeasurable. As they travel, they flash back to memories of the school days together. Rancho's compassion and thirst for hands-on learning put him at odds with the college's stern, tyrannical dean, Viru Sahastrabuddhe (Boman Irani), whom the students called "Virus". It also won him the heart of Virus's daughter, a medical student named Pia (Kareena Kapoor). But Rancho disappeared after graduation, and as his friends drive from Shimla to Ladakh to find him, remembering how he changed their lives, they learn a puzzling secret about his past.
I've been told by people who studied engineering in India that 3 Idiots perfectly captures the stresses of the pressure-cooker, rote-learning environment of colleges like the one it portrays. It's easy to see why the movie strikes a note so close to the audience's heart; the boys' situations are readily relatable. Farhan studies engineering to only to fulfill his parents' expectations - his own dream is wildlife photography, an ambition that his father values not at all. Raju's desire to succeed at engineering is more sincere, but he places on himself the great burden of rescuing his family from crushing poverty. And who doesn't remember an irritating helium-handed brown-noser like Chatur from our own days in school?
On top of these relatable themes, the movie is full of laughs that run the gamut from fart jokes to clever linguistic humor (as there also was in the Munnabhai movies). The most prominent example is Chatur's memorized speech in shuddh Hindi - Rancho tampers with the speech, and the unsuspecting Chatur pompously delivers an outlandishly bawdy oration before the whole school. (The point is to illustrate the pitfalls of rote learning, but it also exposes a much-needed, humanizing flaw in the otherwise godlike Rancho's character - that humiliating others is acceptable to him so long as it furthers his principles.) But there are subtler plays on language as well, such as a cross-linguistic play on suffer/safar (the latter meaning "journey").
The language play is just one aspect of the terrific level of detail in this tightly crafted film. Other nice touches include Virus's introductory speech to the students, which "Millimeter," the young boy who runs errands for pocket change, recites verbatim. Another is that Raju's poor urban family is shown in black & white, a wink to the echos of 1950s-filminess of their situation. There are too many more to mention.
It feels nitpicky to point out flaws in such a well-crafted movie. Still, there are a few. One that gets under my skin just a little is that the story is overwhelmingly male. There are female students in the college but they are just visual backdrop - none has so much as a line of dialogue. Pia is a smart, level-headed medical student, but her only story arc is deciding which man she should marry. Nevertheless, no movie can be about everyone, and so it's a forgivably small irritation for me.
The movie's overarching message, too, is delivered with a cudgel, even by filmi and Hirani standards. One student committing suicide would have been enough to convey the toxicity and destructiveness of the college environment - but the movie doesn't stop there. Instead, there is one suicide, a plot reference to another earlier suicide, and a suicide attempt by a major character.
Yet the preachiness - along with a few extremely filmi, over-the-top plot twists - is forgivable, even charming, in such a good movie overall, especially with the loveable performances of all the actors. The naturalness of these (except for Irani, who exercises his typical wonderful broad comic physicality) tends to offset the extreme aspects of the story, tempering the shrillness of the melodramatic turns. The result is a movie firmly grounded in Bollywood's melodramatic roots, yet offering natural, breathing characters who are relatable and modern. And the twist at the movie's end is so marvelous and satisfying that anything less than perfect about what went before is readily forgiven.