4 Stars (out of 4)
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The comedy film genre encompasses a wide range of styles, from slapstick to romantic comedy. Hindi comedies are frequently either mindlessly wacky or overly sentimental. 3 Idiots is funny and perfectly balanced: silly but not frantic, poignant but not sappy.
The movie begins as Farhan (R. Madhavan) and Raju (Sharman Joshi) get a lead on the whereabouts of their friend, Rancho (Aamir Khan), who vanished after their college graduation ceremony, five years earlier. The source of the lead is Rancho’s old university nemesis, Chatur — known as “The Silencer” for his chronic, quiet flatulence — who’s eager to verify that he’s become a bigger success than Rancho.
As Farhan, Raju and The Silencer hit the road, the movie flashes back to their first days at a prestigious engineering school. Rancho seems to be the only freshman not afflicted by the neuroses crippling his classmates: fear of disappointing his parents (Farhan), the burden of being the family breadwinner (Raju) and greed (Silencer). Rather, Rancho is at school because he likes creating machines.
Rancho doesn’t agree with the school director’s motto: “Life is a race. If you don’t run fast, you’ll get trampled.” This earns him the respect of Farhan and Raju, and the ire of the school director, Viru (Boman Irani), nicknamed “Virus” by his students.
During a prank, Rancho meets pretty medical student Pia (Kareena Kapoor). Unfortunately for Rancho, her father is Virus. But Pia succumbs to Rancho’s charms and helps him and his friends during a crisis.
The movie transitions between flashbacks and the modern day, as Farhan and Raju close in on their missing pal’s location. The reason behind Rancho’s disappearance — which is explained halfway through the movie — isn’t the focus, the friendship is.
3 Idiots is a smart comedy. Jokes are well-written, with plenty of call-backs to prior jokes and meticulous continuity. The material is well-acted, proving why it made sense to cast 44-year-old Aamir Khan as a college freshman.
The material is also universal, with few regional or culture-specific jokes. Non-Hindi speakers who stumble into the theater expecting an English-language film needn’t worry about not understanding the jokes. In fact, 3 Idiots is a great Bollywood starter film.
There are a few melodramatic moments, but they’re not overdone, as in typical masala movies. Those maudlin movies are lampooned, as when a trip to Raju’s family home is shown in black & white with a dramatic score, his poor mother and unwed sister slaving over dinner next to his paralyzed father’s cot.
By skipping teary-eyed speeches in favor of funny dialogues, 3 Idiots provides better insight into the nature of friendship and the importance of following your dreams than most dramas. Yet it’s funny throughout, making 3 Idiots perhaps the best Hindi comedy I’ve ever seen.
Note: The movie’s runtime is listed as 2 hrs. 15 min. It’s actually closer to 3 hours long.