I wanted to compare a review from an Indian publication with a review from the New York Times, but I could not because the New York Times never fully reviewed 3 Idiots. I guess they didn’t think a singing-and-dancing movie made by and starring brown people was worthy of a review, no matter how successful it was.
I was able to find a short review in the Village Voice which described it as a “tuneful, enjoyable college comedy.” Compare that summation to the review in the Times of India which called the film “the perfect end to an exciting year for India: the year when the aam aadmi [common man] voted in progress, liberalism, secularism and turned his back to corruption, communalism, regionalism.”
So, what did the Village Voice miss? Let’s start with “tuneful.”
3 Idiots actually only has two true musical sequences, although there are two other songs that play in the background and are intercut with dialogue. The first song, “Aal Izz Well,” shows the hijinks of the three heroes (Madhavan, Aamir Khan, and Sharman Joshi) while in college. The second is “Zoobie Doobie,” a euphoric fantasy put into song by a young girl in love (Kareena Kapoor, granddaughter of nine-time Filmfare Award winner Raj Kapoor).
Both songs heighten the emotions of the scenes surrounding them by contrasting joy with sorrow. The happy “Aal Izz Well” ends with the discovery of a suicide. “Zoobie Doobie” has a bouncy tune, but its visuals reference the famous “Pyar Hua, Ikrar Hua” sequence from the classic film Shree 420 (1955), foreshadowing a difficult end to the love affair in 3 Idiots.
Traditional Indian drama theory encourages the creation of multiple emotions in one piece; today that is described as a “masala film.” Just because 3 Idiots includes multiple comedic scenes alongside its serious ones does not mean it is a “college comedy.” Once the songs are given their proper weight as support to the narrative rather than a distraction from it, once the comedy is considered as merely a part of the film–not its whole–the recurring theme becomes visible, and that is what The Times of India (and the Desi audience in general) appreciated.
At the beginning of the film, a college student is found having hung himself; later, one of the main characters jumps from a third floor window. Towards the end, it is revealed that the heroine’s brother throws himself in front of a train. All of them were promising middle-class college students, driven to suicide by the pressure to succeed. A recent study in The Lancet found that suicide was the second leading cause of death among Indians between the ages of 15-29. The successful “tuneful” song from the film, “Aal Izz Well”, inspired a website aimed at helping Desis considering suicide.
If the NYT had considered the film worthy of review–and had been open-minded enough to get past the songs and the comedy–they might have had to acknowledge the film’s underlying commentary: that India is not the promised land of academic superiority and happy-up-by-their-bootstraps entrepreneurs it desperately wants it to be; that it might have social issues more serious than can be solved by a song.
But then the NYT would never seriously review an Indian movie anyway, because that would be an acknowledgment that the leading creative force for many people in the world comes not from Los Angeles but from Bombay. Indian films are shown all over Africa, and Asia, and the former USSR. They are popular in Britain, Australia, and Canada, and are breaking into South America; a telenovela set in India, for instance, recently debuted in Brazil.
During its aforementioned “golden age,” Indian films frequently deal with the basic economic issues and the “where do we go from here?” questions the country faced after winning its independence. The withdrawal of Britain from India was an especially shoddy colonial retreat; there was very little plan in place for the transition of power; and, while the violence on the border between the newly created Pakistan and India was the most blatant result of this policy, the films from this time point to other, more subtle, problems such as lack of infrastructure, sustainable economies, and a national identity. And these were the hugely successful films that established the “Bollywood” style. From the very beginning, people wanted to see problems onscreen.