Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
-“Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman
The best hangout films show us not our scarcity but our abundance. What we might already have, who we might soon become. 3 Idiots follows Farhan Qureshi (R. Madhavan) and Raju Rastogi (Sharman Joshi) as they search for Rancho (Aamir Khan), their free-spirited best friend and an engineering prodigy rich in heart. Rancho disappears mysteriously after they graduate from college. Ten years pass. A past enemy, Chatur (Omi Vaidya), discovers that Rancho is up north in Shimla. He tips Farhan and Raju off, and the crew drives from New Delhi.
Settle in for a classic road trip. 3 Idiots begins like a well-made advertisement for their red Volvo, which winds through landscapes torn straight from National Geographic covers. A (lovely!)songstarts playing. But the film’s heartbeat is in discovering just what Farhan and Raju are searching for. Who was Rancho? Was he really, as the song’s subtitles now relay, “like a soaring kite,” “an oasis [in an endless desert],” and a “soothing balm…[on a bruised heart]?” Why are these adult men, with jobs and wives, driving 625 miles through North Indian river valleys?
Answers arrive slowly, in brushstrokes, as we return to Farhan and Raju’s college days. Imperial College of Engineering is a hellscape of half-nude hazing, severe pressure, and gut-punched mental health. The college has a bona fide villain: the director, Dr. Viru Sahastrabuddhe (Boman Irani), who’s nicknamed “Virus” for his borderline social Darwinism. In a speech to his wide-eyed first-years, Virus describes the koel bird which, upon hatching, pushes any unhatched eggs from the nest to eliminate the competition.
“You are also like the koel birds,” Virus says. “Compete or die.”
But as we get to know Rancho, the film paints an opposing image. It suggests, firmly, that we are not like the koel birds. That instead, our friendships are our pearls, and our dreams our freedoms.
Rancho is a genius the way Matt Damon is in Good Will Hunting. It doesn’t quite make sense. Are people really born this way? This smart? But we quickly accept his squirrel-fast brain because Aamir Khan’s pretty compelling.
In his free time, Rancho unscrews refrigerators and microwaves and little helicopters, as though he’s being continuously filmed for an MIT promotional video. Imagine the creative spirit of Violet Baudelaire from A Series of Unfortunate Events meeting the disappearing act of Where’d You Go, Bernadette meeting the genius of Will Hunting. Rancho speaks hopefully but confidently, insisting on learning for learning’s sake. This both startles his peers and places him at odds with Dr. “Life is A Race. Better Run Or You’ll Be Like a Broken Egg.”
Rancho believes in clarity and creativity, forgoing what he sees as the rote memorization rampant in the Indian education system. When a professor asks him what a machine is, Rancho answers colloquially, saying it’s “anything from a pen’s nib to a zipper’s tip.” The professor asks him to leave.
Now, I am neither genius nor engineer. These days, I applaud myself if I successfully remove the lid from a can of tomatoes. Rancho is not quite like us, we who struggle not to switch through browsers during Zoom meetings and who drearily drag ourselves to 5 p.m. Instead, we might find ourselves better reflected in Raju (who loves engineering and is at risk of failing out of college) or Farhan (who really wants to be a wildlife photographer and is also at risk of failing out of college). In watching them fall for Rancho, for his breezy belief in that old carol of following one’s dreams, one falls—at least a little—for Rancho too. There is a freedom here, a freedom starting in the heart.
Take your hand, put it over your heart. Can you feel your heart breathe? Now say, clearly, unabashedly, aal izz well. Again and again and again, aal izz well. Not all is well, but aal izz well, with those inflections, irreverent and perhaps foreign and human and lovely.
In that apex of college hangout spots, a friend’s dorm room: Rancho, Raju, and Farhan discuss a dreamy topic: how to make something fly. A fellow student, Joy Lobo,(Ali Fazal) is working on a helicopter suited with a wireless camera. The year is 2008; this is pioneering. But Joy is failing.
Rancho wants to help the helicopter take flight. Raju resists: “If we work on his project, who’ll work on ours? Tests, vivas, quizzes—42 exams per semester.” Rancho responds, “You scare easily, bro.” (A quick detour: how comforting, these translated intimacies, that in many languages we call friends brothers.)
Rancho goes on. “Take your hand, put it over your heart, and say, ‘aal izz well.’” He explains the origins of his phrase, and it’s wonderful.
We had an old watchman in our village. On night patrol, he’d call out, “aal izz well.” And we slept peacefully. Then there was a theft and we learned that he couldn’t see at night! He’d just yell “Aal izz well,” and we felt secure. That day I understood this heart scares easily. You have to trick it. However big the problem, tell your heart, “Aal izz well, pal.”
Raju asks, sarcastic, “That resolves the problem?”
“No,” Rancho admits. “But you gain the courage to face it.”
So, the filminsists whole-heartedly that we are formidable. That all might be well, or possibly not, but that we have within ourselves all we need—all we need!—to continue on peacefully in this world. I like to picture this as an abundance, a spilling over of belief.
And in this emphasis on courage and real problems, Rancho’s motto, “Aal Izz Well” narrowly avoids plagiarizing The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata” (though the film’s writers were inspired by that movie’s constantly shifting scales of humor and drama). 3 Idiots doesn’t let us forget the real world, rife with people and demanding parents and electricity bills and overpriced vegetables and social expectations.
Hilariously, 3 Idiots makes manifest this “real world” by constantly referencing film as idealist. Characters ask of one another, astounded, appalled: do you think this is a film? When they mean to say: are you out of your mind? When Farhan confesses his dreams of wildlife photography, his father scolds him: do you think you’re in a melodrama? In the song “Zoobi Doobi,” the artists sing: “it’s like we’re in a film…” Challenging Rancho’s philosophy, Chatur (a grades-focused enemy, if you’ve forgotten) insists, “These ideals don’t work in the real world.”
Which makes me ask: Whose world? And what’s real? I get the sense that Raju and Farhan see film as idealistic and as a non-reality. So perhaps what they are living—that is, what we are watching—is a reality close to our present one. Their world, as ours, is supposedly as vicious as a koel bird’s nest. And Virus reminds us that “Life is a race. Better win or you’ll get trampled.” But if this is real, and if 3 Idiots reflects our own world’s cruelty—then might Rancho’s philosophy also be supple enough for our real lives, for our real dreams?
There’s a sort of Whitmanesque openness in Rancho’s delightful irreverence. He shows us that locks can be unscrewed and doors themselves removed.
When Raju’s father slips into illness and ambulance delays threaten his life, Rancho sandwiches the elderly man onto his scooter and drives directly to the hospital. In fact, he drives directly in to the hospital. While this might elsewhere constitute a felony (trespassing?), it’s striking how suddenly it becomes clear that the hospital’s boundaries were, as all boundaries are, fake.
This is what 3 Idiots offers us, a swift removal of the veil. The film suggests that if we skim away societal expectations, we might rescue a pure, energizing freedom. When walking with Millimetre (Rahul Kumar), a 12-year old worker who does odd jobs around the college and can’t imagine affording school, Rancho again refers to the falseness of boundaries.
“For school you don’t need any money. You need a uniform,” Rancho says, handing Millimetre some money. “Pick a school, buy the uniform, and slip into class. In so much of a crowd, no one will notice.”
“If I get caught?” asks Millimetre. And Rancho replies cheerfully, “Then new uniform, new school!”
By the closing credits, Millimetre has a new job, a better-paid one.
It’s not that 3 Idiots conjures education as some class-equalizing potion. In an unsettling warning to Fahran and Raju, Virus writes Rancho’s family’s salary (semi-spoiler: it is very large) on a chalkboard and erases several zeroes, to reveal Fahran’s very middle-class family’s salary. He removes more zeroes—leaving a scanty 2,500 rupees—to remind Raju of his family’s income and necessity. The message: you two cannot afford to learn “for learning’s sake.” Get a real job and make some money.
Though the film tries, it is difficult to reconcile real life class differences with Rancho’s hopeful philosophy. The film teeters about, trying to promote the power of internal transformation while acknowledging that the world cares little for one’s dreams.
It’s also not that 3 Idiots is oh-so-successfully anti-capitalist. In an early draft of the script, Farhan and Raju find Rancho running a small school, making little money. But happy, fulfilled! Ah, imagine, fulfillment and happiness as the fixings of the good life. Really, that’s what Rancho was saying all along—”follow excellence, and success will chase you.” But the film’s writers predicted audiences would more widely respect Rancho’s philosophy if he did become conventionally successful. So when at last we find Rancho, he’s happy, fulfilled, and also quite rich.
There is a magic realism here, flickering about. 3 Idiots takes a reality columned by class, gender, and “the establishment,” and pulls it apart gently, as if to see how far it might stretch. In fact, if 3 Idiots had a belief in itself, it might be in belief itself. That by believing in abundance—abundance of spirit, of creativity, of friendship—one actually discovers an abundance, of happiness, of fulfillment, even of success. A sort of “if you really do drive 625 miles you really will find something.”
To me, whether or not this is wholly true doesn’t matter. I like to wonder: what might life be like if this were true? A life directed by how our beliefs could free us? Much of the movie blurs reality and fantasy, and there is something both real and fantastical in allowing beliefs this strength.
Certainly, there is also a blurring of genres. Like many Bollywood films, 3 Idiots feels like several genres knotted into one. And what a delight this is. An action film might make us feel one way, a romance another, but those are all singular ways to feel. 3 Idiots is a generous benefactor for our somewhat bleak (and digital) hangouts these days: it offers us many, entangled ways to feel.
There’s self-reference and humor in this, too. When we enter Raju’s family home, the camera switches to black and white. We’re suddenly in a 1950s film, with much postwar gloom and economic impoverishment. At another point, upon discovering a case of mixed identity at a funeral, the film dramatically takes on the air of a mystery. There’s even a rifle.
There’s also a love story woven in between Rancho and Pia (Kareena Kapoor) who is, of course, the college director’s daughter. Lastly, the film is a musical, and the pleasures of that genre are also of abundance. So when the moment Pia falls for Rancho becomes an upbeat musical number, we find that, to quote Jenny Odell, “a single moment might open almost to infinity.”
There is a direction to 3 Idiots, and it is upward. From the beginning we watch Farhan and Raju wind up mountains, north and north, searching and searching for their missing, larger-than-life friend. To go up and up and up is to search for a paradise. And finally they find it, a peninsula hugged by the sea, a place where children bathe in creativity and learn for learning’s sake. They even find their friend (or maybe they don’t. Reader, please watch the movie).
If there is a magic at play here, it is that which transforms a single, lovely moment into a dance number and which provokes friends to drive across several state lines. Which is to say, isn’t this the stuff of life? Aren’t certain delicacies (love, friendship) actually abundant? Gabriel García Márquez insisted that he wrote magic realism because that was, in fact, how life was in Latin America. “In Mexico,” he said, “surrealism runs through the streets.”
Maybe that was García Márquez’s way of saying, as I am now: this is how life feels to me. The almost magical elements, the musical numbers, and the melodrama: they stem from love, from friendship, from belief. And isn’t this how it feels? Abundant?