Despite its unfortunate title and cover art, 3 Idiots is a refreshingly original and accomplished film. That’s thanks in no small part to its concept, but the factor that really elevates it above the norm is the lead performance by veteran Bollywood star Aamir Khan. He’s had some exposure to U.S. theatrical audiences in the past as the lead in the Oscar-nominated epic Lagaan a decade ago, but here he proves to be even more charismatic and impressive in his role, fully supporting his wide regard as India ‘s finest actor.
Khan plays an unusual engineering student named Rancho who seems like a protagonist from an Ayn Rand novel, caring nothing about rote memorization of course material, social graces, or future financial success, instead attending school for the simple joy of learning. His passion is contagious and soon spreads to two underperforming fellow students named Farhan and Raju who become his friends while coming to terms with their own conformist views shaped by their traditional families. They’re plagued by a hard-nosed and buffoonish chancellor nicknamed Virus who expects them to adhere to established educational standards, as well as a sniveling fellow student named Chatur intent on playing by the rules and becoming more successful than them. Along the way, Rancho meets and falls in love with the chancellor’s daughter, Pia (Kareena Kapoor), further fueling the chancellor’s hatred. As they near graduation, the three friends are faced with decisions that will forever impact their future lives.
These college adventures are presented as an extended flashback, as the movie opens ten years in the future with Farhan and Raju being summoned to the campus by Chatur for a gloat session where he crows about how he became more successful than them as he predicted. What Chatur still fails to grasp is that his cohorts are infinitely happier in their chosen professions than he’ll ever be in his predestined path. Farhan and Raju only showed up because they thought they had been summoned by the long-gone Rancho, but when Chatur claims he knows how to find Rancho they join forces to track him down. This leads them to discover a deep secret about Rancho and also ensnares Pia as they continue their journey to find out what happened to their enigmatic friend.
This being an Indian production, there is a musical number or two but they’re completely comical and in ridiculous settings, seemingly tweaking the notion that they’re an expected component of the film. 3 Idiots does fully conform to one industry standard though: the unwieldy length of nearly three hours. At that length, it loses some steam in its closing hour but for the most part keeps things moving in a logical and satisfying way. Even the romance is more of a subplot than a primary theme, keeping the focus almost entirely on the intriguing character of Rancho as he rails against and bends the conformist Indian society surrounding him. With Khan fully in control of the role, he makes for an involving, enlightening character that lingers in memory long after the film ends.
The DVD contains a few brief featurettes on the production of the film, with nothing much of interest except for the revelation that their first attempt at capturing the film’s closing scenes was snowed out and postponed for a full year.