From Three Idiots to a Nation Of Idiots
Before I went to see Three Idiots watching the film had become something of a sacred duty. Friends telephoned from Mumbai and hissed furiously, "You mean you haven't seen Three Idiots? Why? It's the best movie ever." Cousins cornered me at family gatherings and shouted, "When are you seeing Three Idiots? Its brilliant, its excellent, it's the best." With a chorus of "excellent", "brilliant", "fantastic", "the best" ringing in my ears, jet propelled by the force of family pressure I dutifully lined up on a freezing January afternoon in Delhi, and accompanied by a glassy-eyed horde who had no doubt also been dragooned into the theatre by armies of friends and relatives, we all surged in, breathless with anticipation, to watch Three Idiots.
And did Three Idiots the film live up to the hosannahs and eulogies that I heard chanted? Did the film deserve the tidal wave of frenzied applause that broke over my head every time its name was mentioned in any gathering? In my very humble opinion, no. Three Idiots is, for all its fine comic moments, a dangerous film as it legitimizes a scorn and hatred of education, sanctions wilful dumbing down and if cinema harnesses its immense power to such films, then very soon we will become a nation of idiots, and will have to hire foreigners to do our thinking for us.
The fact that the film is so enormously popular shows how eager we are to embrace mindlessness and how keen we are to promote a culture where education and thoughtfulness are seen as obstacles to enjoying the good life. Is it any wonder that an Indian Express Indicus Analyticus study gives us the bad news that by 2020 those holding medical degrees/diplomas will go up from a shockingly low 1.3 million to only 2.1 million in the next ten years. As a nation we are in no mood to study, and Three Idiots encourages us to throw away our books because today we are chanting the mantra, "the-system-sucks-and teachers-are-pathetic-and-who-cares-about-grades-and-the-rat-race-is- foolish."
Before I proceed any further, I must say at the outset that am a great admirer of Aamir Khan and Rajkumar Hirani. Aamir is a wonderfully talented actor, whose every performance is a joy for sheer energy and versatility. And Hirani's Munnabhai, was a work of pure genius, Gandhigiri and jadoo ki jhappi entered our everyday lexicon as words and concepts and the Mahatma was more successfully marketed than the Congress party has ever managed to in its 125 years of existence. `Three Idiots' too is a slickly made, fast moving film. Purely, as a cinematic adventure, Hirani holds the film together perfectly.
Chetan Bhagat's books are justifiably popular and notwithstanding the controversy over credits of Three Idiots and whether or not it was based on Bhagat's book Five Point Someone, the slice of Indian undergraduate life that both book and film captures is a reality familiar and well loved by so many of us.
Yet I found Three Idiots far too preachy, far too sanctimonious and far too much of a caricature. It lampoons and trivializes our higher education system as an unrelieved arena of bad teachers, suicidally pressurized students, manic success-oriented parents and evil money seekers who care nothing for learning but only want grades so they can get big jobs and Lamborghinis. Such a caricature is, as we all know, far from the truth. Although a liberal arts degree doesn't compare to an engineering degree, my own experience of higher education at St Stephen's College and Oxford University, is that it is an immensely enriching experience, consisting of many idealistic teachers and the excitement of new ideas is something for which there is no substitute.
Yet a film whose central message is "the education system sucks", "we learn nothing at our centres of excellence" and "teachers are unable to teach and only want to ruin students lives," is a rather dangerous film. Three Idiots disdains the rigour of study, pours scorn on wanting to better oneself through the sadhna of learning and instead seems to suggest that to be happy in life we all need to drop out, sing songs under the night sky and not bother with studying hard because studying hard is a waste of time. As a former IITian has pointed out Rancho, in the film mocks Laplace Transform, the equation written on the blackboard, as an example of rote learning. Yet without Laplace Transform, Hirani's computer would not boot up! This former IITian says he has never come across a teacher like Prof Virus, and believes that in its fashionable disdain for education, the film is dangerously juvenile.
Yes, our education system needs urgent reform. Yes, we need to relook at our exam system. Yes, we need to ensure that parents do not pressurize children. But in the pursuit of educational reform, we cannot allow standards of excellence to be lowered. India's IITs and IIMs must be applauded for the world-class minds they have thrown up, these are institutions that are respected the world over. Lets not start lampooning Indian engineers by showing them as students who deliver babies with vacuum cleaners. Let's get real about higher education, not engage in an escapist fantasy and convince ourselves that education does not matter. After all, Rancho could be a subversive because he was a genius student. For those who are not geniuses, alas, there are no short cuts.