A Report from the Bollywood Film Series in the Arts and Ideas Program. I recently attend 3 Idiots, the third of three films in a series designed to show students how the spirit of modern times in India is captured in 21st century Indian cinema. The series was created by Dr. Pramod Mishra of the English Department with a little help from this writer.
The first film, Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) is set in the 19th century when India was the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire. It’s a bad-news-bears story of how a group of plucky and resilient peasants beat the British at their own game, literally cricket and more generally economic power. [Do any Americans care that the Cricket World Cup is currently taking place?]
The second film, Monsoon Wedding (2001) by the talented Indian-American director Mira Nair, is a Shakespearean comedy of romance among the upper and lower classes of Punjabi society. A bad marriage is avoided, a good semi-arranged marriage is established, and, but for a bit of a family scandal created by a doting “uncle,” joyful celebration is in order. The lower caste wedding planner falls in love with the bride’s parents’ servant girl and all is well.
The final film in the series is the somewhat unfortunately named 3 Idiots (2009). It’s a campus tale about three young men, two marginal, one brilliant, who attend one of India’s most prestigious engineering universities. The title suggests The Three Stooges, and while it is true that there are a fair number of flatulent jokes and frat boy high-jinks, it is about much more than campus vulgarity. As Dr. Mishra points out, 3 Idiots, like the other two films in the series manages to combine high-tech film-making and unabashed entertainment values with the exploration of serious social themes. Monsoon Wedding addresses issues such as tolerance for gay culture and male privilege.
3 Idiots is worth paying attention to because it set revenue records in its domestic and foreign release. The complete movie is available on YouTube.
At the heart of 3 Idiots is the prodigy Rancho (short for Ranchoddas), a young man of humble origins who seems to be born with a computer for a brain and an intuitive talent for scientific invention. He’s deceptively sent to the university under the name of his servant father’s master, who hopes that his desultory son will automatically acquire the reputation that the humble servant’s son will undoubtedly earn and transfer to him.
The other two have been pushed into pursuing engineering because it is the pathway to middle class respectability and an income for conspicuous consumption. Raju, the son of a sickly postmaster, hopes to become a poet; Farhan, the son of a bureaucrat, hopes to become a photographer. Unhappy at the university, they barely squeak by and occasionally face expulsion.
The college is run by an arrogant president who preaches the necessity of individual struggle in a highly competitive world. He’s clearly the villain of the piece and the idiots’ attempts to unsettle this martinet and to dismantle his “hamster wheel” approach to education are presented as necessary and admirable endeavors. Complicating matters is the presence the president’s attractive daughter who is headed to marry an insufferable materialist. In this familiar trope in Bollywood movies, our hero pleads with the girl to see the guy for the fool that he is and to abandon her plans for marriage. The film telegraphs the direction that this budding romance will take and we gladly go along for the ride, amazed by the way that the hero overcomes each obstacle set in his way. So what if it’s all pretty preposterous.
There’s no questions that there are great inequality gaps in Indian society but, as much recent social and political science has shown, the wealth gaps in American society are about as wide as one can find in the world, more comparable to Central American countries with long histories of conquest and dictatorship than with the nations of Western Europe. In such a society, movement up the social ladder has become much more difficult. The few rags-to-riches stories that we read about are highly unrepresentative of the access to opportunity and outcome in the US.
If the Horatio Alger story is not alive in American popular culture (but for displays of triumph through talent on reality TV shows like American Idol) it seems present and powerful in films such as those in the series. These films essential mock acquired power and privilege. Those resistant to change are satirized; they either change or are banished from the world of the film. Satirized too are the endorsements of a utilitarian but joyless education. Happiness is a goal to be pursued. The Gandhian ideal of humble service to others is in need of a revival.
The energy and joy in the movie is most concentrated in those highly choreographed dance numbers employing scores of exuberant dancers. These eruptions of movement are often triggered by a proclamation of love.
One can feel that Indians have appropriated without qualification the American gospel of self-determination and self-empowerment. If these films are indicative of an ethos at work in Indian society, this bright-sidedness has arrived more rapidly in India than it had in America. But the optimism is tempered by the warning to resist the blandishments of materialism and to nurture your soul in the company of loving family and friends.
This is the next evolutionary step for a middle class that has secured employment and housing and nourishment. And there are as many members of the Indian middle class as there are citizens of this country. For the domestic (Indian) audience the films must fuel their dreams as powerfully as portraits of the good life in Depression-era American movies did. For Americans, the film provides us with insight into contemporary Indian culture which will seem both totally familiar and totally strange within a matter of minutes.
If you have had a taste of Bollywood with Danny Boyles Slumdog Millionaire (2008), you may be ready for another serving of the vibrant cinema from the other side of the world.