[Okay, I know I already did this post about 3 Idiots, but here’s a somewhat related piece I wrote for Business Standard recently. Was moderately satisfied with it given the 1,000-word space and the very short deadline, but I do think the subject deserves to be discussed at much greater length, and with many more examples from contemporary Hindi cinema]
“So what IS 3 Idiots, really?” asks a friend, “Is it mainly a ‘fun film’ or an ‘issue film’?”
Now, of course there doesn’t have to be a cut-and-dried answer to this question. But the intriguing thing is that you might easily get two different replies from a single fan, depending on the context of the discussion. There are those who endorse the film because of its social consciousness (about the flawed educational system and the unfair expectations many parents have of their children) but who do a quick 180-degree turn when you try to move beyond a very basic level of engagement. Why is teacher’s pet Chatura repeatedly mocked (not just by the three leads but by the film itself) when he’s as much a victim of the System as anyone else? Why does the film set up a pat climax showing that the Aamir Khan character has become more successful than Chatura (who is pretty darn successful in his own right anyway), when the supposed “message” all along was that you should do what you love doing?
“It’s just a fun film,” say the fans when you raise these questions, “Don’t analyse it so much!”
None of this is to say that 3 Idiots is a deeply flawed movie. The reason we can have impassioned discussions about its shortcomings is because it gets many things right in the first place. But the way in which it goes somewhat awry post-intermission tells us something about the conflicting forces currently at work in mainstream Hindi cinema. It tells us about an industry that has to tread carefully while making “issue” films, because one eye must always be on the needs of the mass audience.
This isn't meant to be a negative summary of things. The fact is, commercial Hindi cinema is in an important transition phase just now, one that any major movie-making industry can be expected to pass through. In the last few years we’ve seen improvements at many levels: the films are much more technically polished than before, scripts and characterisations are generally more nuanced, there are young directors and writers with serious talent as well as exposure to the best of international cinema, and the different components of a movie are better integrated. (Remember the Terrible Eighties, when nearly every film had a “parallel” comedy track that had little or nothing to do with the main characters, inserted at random intervals?)
In Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj, Sriram Raghavan, Dibakar Banerjee and Sanjay Leela Bhansali among others, we are arguably seeing the emergence of mainstream “auteurs” – the term used by French critics of the 1950s for directors who managed to stamp their personalities on their movies, even amidst the hurly-burly of the commercial filmmaking process. The best of Bollywood today can be compared with the Hollywood of the 1930s, 40s and 50s when directors such as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray and Howard Hawks did much great work despite the many constraints of the studio system. Even the best of their films show traces of the compromises that had to be made: the back-stories include accounts of a director being forced at the last minute to incorporate a happy ending or to desist from turning the film’s leading man into a criminal.
So it is with our cinema, especially when it comes to attempts to make "issue-based" movies. On the one hand, there is a felt need to deal with problems that, in the real world, can’t be easily resolved or simply made to vanish (whether it’s a terminal disease corroding a human body or a malaise eating away at society). But on the other hand there’s the kowtowing to the viewer who goes to films expecting not internal consistency but a few enjoyable scenes strung together, ending with a heartwarming sense of affirmation, usually provided by the star who assures us that “aal izz well”.
And we all know how important the cult of the Star Personality is in India. An Aamir starrer (or a Shah Rukh or Salman starrer) will always carry a very particular set of expectations. When the leading man makes his first appearance, we’ll see him in silhouette, walking in slow-motion towards the camera (as we do in 3 Idiots), a mild halo effect supplied by a background light. He will be the one eavesdropping from behind a pillar and shaking his head sympathetically as a martinet professor berates a student for thinking outside the box. His will be the catharsis-providing voice that will whisper words of reprimand into the same professor’s ear after the student has committed suicide. He will get to spell out exactly what is wrong with teaching methods and exactly how they need to be amended.
The integrity of 3 Idiots suffers slightly from these in-your-face moments, but in fairness it’s still many rungs higher than our more tedious “social awareness” movies. Like Madhur Bhandarkar’s work, which deals with social ills by setting up polarities and placing an innocent Red Riding Hood figure (the Konkana Sesharma character in Page 3, Bipasha Basu in Corporate, Priyanka Chopra in Fashion) in a big bad world where she is in danger of losing her soul at every corner; she is saved just in time. In these films, nearly every person and situation is presented in black and white terms, and you rarely get a sense of the slow process by which well-meaning people can become part of an accepted system.
At an even lower level are movies like Ajay Devgan’s astonishingly confused directorial debut U, Me aur Hum, which started as a screwball comedy and then changed tack midway to become a shrill drama about Alzheimer’s, before staggering towards an unconvincing feel-good ending. In comparison, R Balki’s Paa - centered on a Progeria-afflicted child – was a much more engaging film, but that’s because the medical condition was essentially a pretext to cast the 67-year-old Amitabh Bachchan as the 13-year-old Auro; the real focus was a Parent Trap-like story about a child getting his estranged parents together. (When the film did deal with Progeria head-on, it changed its tone completely, trading in breeziness for forced solemnity.)
But the past couple of years have also seen some very promising developments. Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, an excellent portrait of class aspiration and the difficulties of moving up the social ladder, made sharp observations about the contradictions and hypocrisies in middle-class Indian life without once getting preachy. And Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance, though a consistently enjoyable movie with many classic “inside Bollywood” moments, didn’t gloss over the heartbreak faced by millions of people who fail to make it in the film industry – or give us the comfort of an ending where the most likable and sympathetic character gets what she wants. These were deeply satisfying movies that knew how to integrate lightness of tone with seriousness of purpose, without falling apart in the process. So here's hoping that mainstream Hindi cinema grows enough in confidence to produce such films on a more regular basis.
[Some related posts from the archives: U, Me aur Hum, Luck by Chance, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!]