Saturday, January 2, 2010

3 Idiots - some thoughts

by Kanishka Lahiri

Most of the bytes that are being expended on Bollywood's latest money spinner is either gushing praise for the bold portrayal of "the way it is" in India's education system, or fawn-like admirations for the film's ability to be "socially relevant", yet entertaining. A pleased-as-punch media is now indulgently gloating over the spat between Chetan Bhagat (on who's novel "Five
Point Someone" the film is based) and the producers of the film. The latter buried Chetan's name credit between the janitor and the tea-boy at the end of the movie, and are claiming that they did it only for contractual reasons, and that the story is an essentially original. But I digress. Reading a sample of reviews, I find it interesting that like the naked Emperor, no one seems to be talking about some of the big problems with the movie.

There is a scene in 3 Idiots that depicts the family of one of the protagonists: his father is a postman with an income, we are told, of Rs 2500 a month. He is bed ridden with illness, and the entire family believes the only hope for their survival is for the son to complete his engineering degree. This is not an uncommon scenario in India, where it's elite institutions are for the most part, accessible to students of poor backgrounds who have demonstrated sufficient academic merit. In fact, one can argue that this facet is among the most creditable attributes of these institutions.

Interestingly, the film's makers chose to portray this scene comically, claiming that entering the student's house was like a flashback into the 1950s, a seemingly bygone era that was characterized by perpetual shortages and misery. Bygone era? The Tendulkar Committee report published a few weeks ago places 42% of rural India and 26% of urban India below poverty line. That's only 407 million people.

The troubling aspects of this scene are numerous, and form the heart of a flippancy with which complex issues are depicted by 3 Idiots. This scene suggests that poverty, where it exists, is an abberation from the norm, an exception, something to be looked upon from an outsider's perspective, and when the viewing angle is just right, one can even laugh at it. What's shocking is
that the scene works. The audience follows the lead of the makers of the film, and bursts into peals of laughter at the sight of the poor household. When they are uncertain if the ploy will work, the screenplay stoops to levels that transcend all sense of reality (and decency) to guarantee the giggles (and the rupees). The poor mother scratches the old man's chest with the same rolling pin she is using to make rotis for her guests. Then, notwithstanding the body hairs stuck to the pin (which the camera cunningly zooms in on), she continues to make new ones. Our protagonists wisely refuse, and the audience erupts into laughter.

It's very clear in this scene who the audience is supposed to identify with. Or is it? What if you really are a postal service service employee? What if you do have shortages at home? Or even if you are rich - are you so insulated from the poverty that surrounds you, that this scene does not offend? Would this scene have generated the same guffaws 20 years ago? If not, you start wondering what has changed. Last week the Prime Minister categorically stated that the
reforms that he spearheaded in 1991 have so far failed to accelerate poverty reduction rates. We have more poor people in India today than ever before. How is it that such scenes are suddenly considered acceptable, let alone entertaining? What does it say about sensibilities of modern audiences?

I suspect the filmmakers know fully well this scene will elicit fewer laughs in the universal "Galaxy Theater" in small-town India than in upscale Koramangala's PVR multiplex. Fundamentally, it's a business decision: they know their audience, and have devised a successful strategy for entrapping it by taking advantage of its increasing insularity from the masses and its apathy towards the country's real problems.

In a later scene, the same lower middle-class houselhold doesn't have the creative or financial resources to transport the dying postman to the hospital. However, our upper-class imaginative hero steps in with the solution of using his girlfriend's scooter to move the patient when the ambulances fail to show up. The audience rapturously swallows this up as well, thanks to the comedy. The thin veil works astonishingly well. The audience fails to notice that the film
has shamelessly made Aamir "save the savages from themselves", just like the numerous European imperial protagonists who executed the "white man's burden" in racist depictions of their nobilty in lending a helping hand to the so-called third world. The isolation of India's suave urban rich from the reality of India's poor and lower middle classes appears to be complete, and condescension is taken for granted. The former sits back in air conditioned multiplexes with
reclining seats, pays Rs 300 for a movie ticket and finds it acceptable that urban poverty is justified material for comedy. It's self-gratifying that that one of their own is stepping up to save the poor from the clutches of the "system". Not suprising in a movie where the opening credits pay homage to shining India's new royalty such as "Mukesh Ambani, Chairman". The credits do
not say of what - simply chairman. Why not take the obsequiousness the full length and crown him Emperor of Shining India?

With intentional, intelligent but in the end purely commercial strategy, the film succeeds in creating yet another bubble (alongside gated communities, multiplex theaters, special economic zones) in which the well-endowed urban India can have a good laugh and "enjoy life jingalala" explkoiting, but not unerstanding the real issues out there. The film's makers should be credited for being able to pull this off while at the same time have the audience leave the theaters with a feel-good hypocrisy of having watched a film with a "message". They on the other hand will laugh their way to the box office, thanks to the gullibility and naivety of the modern multiplex audience.

The shameful hypocrisy of the film stands out when it is pitched by its multi-million dollar publicity machine as social commentary: a so-called indictment of the system of education in India's premier institutions. In truth, the movie's depiction of the problems associated with this country's elite institutions is one-dimensional, callous, and disgustingly shallow. This would
be perfectly acceptable if this was pitched a caper movie: (think Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Matthew Broderick's high school caper classic). 3 Idiots tries to have it both ways: dish out cheap jokes in order to rake in the moolah, while garlanding itself with the honour of serving a public purpose. Even that might be excusable, if it were done subtely, with due respect shown for the thousands of people who work within the system, but do not embody the problems
associated with it. But no, that would have hurt the movie's profit margin. Also, it is convenient (and profitable) to just "blame the system". If the film is sincere in its attempt at social commentary, how come it doesn't waste any reel time on the problems created and perpetrated by the student body itself?

No, in fact, it endorses the exact types of student behaviors that have contributed to academic rot that we see in many of our best institutes today. The audience applauds when Aamir and his friends trick the professor into accepting their answer scripts 30 minutes beyond the stipulated writing time (forget about the glaring plot hole in their use of that technique), and never
questions the rampant brazenness or drunkeness on display by the protagonists. When on occasion it does, it does so through the Hitler-like Director of the institute, which as a indictment is less than half hearted, and fundamentally dead-on-arrival, since his character is a comic personification of all that is supposedly wrong with the faculty body. So again there are no surprises for guessing how audience sentiment will align.

While it is undeniable that "all is *not* well" in our academic institutions, this film is hardly the the kind of testimony that will help improve the system. Once you dispel that illusion (one created by the publicity machine and lapped up by the media and audiences nationwide), you're left with an above average comedy (by Bollywood standards), with some scenes that are guilty of shockingly poor taste. The real tragedy is that urban society is so divided today, that it would be wrong to say that the filmmakers have failed to judge people's sensitivities. They have judged things to a nicety: they are spot on in assessing that the crowd at PVR is insensitive, and that they are likely to hoot and scream at anything as long as the packaging is right. And sadly, in their scheme of things, the crowd at Galaxy simply doesn't matter any more.


Kabir said...

One of the best reviews of the film I have read. Couldn't have said more.!

Roopa Roy Choudhury said...

very well written.. A totally different perspective and a must read!

Manas said...

interestin stuff...but i ll jus ask u one thing...y r movies made(their prime motive)....and if someone tries to put some ..or even a little embedded msg in it so bad tht u ll rip apart the whole thing...and do u actually think tht movies exist to impart changes in society...i think u r too biased and determined to rip apart...stil lloads better then the other non sense stuff which comes out of bollywood..

Archana said...

Well, nicely written. One thing, movies are for entertainment. Two - movies these days pick up topics which are probably reality driven. Three - Indians in general live in denial mode and hence the hoot and cheer on the mockery of poverty that happened in the cinema halls. Having said that (I am flowing with thoughts to blog on your thoughts), movies apart and leaving aside what this movie chooses to convey, poverty and education goes hand in hand to a certain extent. On the other hand, leaving poverty aside and focusing on existing education is not a bad thing after all. If a small message could be conveyed above through a movie, I don't see anything wrong with that. I have much to debate with your thoughts, but you did post an interesting perspective. Will watch this space.