When Indians would pooh-pooh Bollywood masala to me, I used to cite a list of great Bollywood films to make them admit they actually do like good masala movies. Now, I just mention 3 Idiots. FTW!
For those of you who still don't get Bollywood, the masala formula is, roughly, this: singing, dancing, comedy, drama, melodrama1, death, birth, a monsoon dance number--and maybe a fight scene--a movie that you, your kid sister, your prudish Auntie and your dad can all watch and enjoy without boredom or embarrassment. A good one should make you laugh, cry, and hum the best song for a week. A great one will do all that, and maybe even change the way you view the world.
The formula has grown pretty tired in the last fifteen years, as younger directors have edged--or run screaming--away from it. Writer-director Rajkumar Hirani and his co-writer Abhijat Joshi ran screaming into it and made masala wildly entertaining and meaningful again. And they did it with the dull subject of education reform. Is there anything so boring these two couldn't transform it into something magical? (The History of Indian Mud maybe, but I wouldn't bet on it.) This is a movie for the whole family, even your foul-mouthed Auntie and the snobbish professor Uncle who claims he hasn't seen a Bollywood film since Pakeezah.
First, the quibbles: I usually LOVE Boman Irani, but his character in this didn't quite work for me; the birth scene almost breached my threshold for corn; and, the film lags a bit in the middle. But the rest of the movie is so sweethearted and so much fun those diddling things don't matter much in the grand scheme. The slapstick and sight gags are inspired, the melodrama moving, the corn sweet, the musical numbers dazzling. Hirani and Joshi use the masala formula with appreciation, to support the film's many moments of more subversive comedy and finely-tuned drama. The camera-mounted copter scene still haunts me. The ending still makes me laugh.
What an ingenious and irresistible vehicle for its message, to foster talent, question authority, think outside the box, and foremost, provide education for all. Idiots was a megahit all over India--across all demographics. It got the whole country talking about education reform, just as the Indian parliament was taking on the long-awaited Right to Education bill. Beyond India and the overseas NRI2 markets, it has a fervent cult following in Hollywood and is now a viral hit among Chinese youth. Reports say Stephen Chow, no less, will adapt and direct a Chinese version.
In their previous film, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Hirani and Joshi took on Gandhism and political corruption in their own smart-silly way. Their next is rumored to be about "Godmen," i.e., yogis, gurus, priests, mullahs et al. (They are proliferating with the mass media in India. It seems like every third channel on TV is someone in holy robes preaching the truth according to him. Also, peddling his spiritual books, DVDs and eponymous brand of ayurvedic herbal products.)
UPDATE: Aamir Khan and Hirani will team up again for Hirani's next movie.
1 What's melodrama to the middle and upper classes is everyday life for many in India. Idiots handled this well, showing the absurd sacrifices already poor people have to make to send a child to school, even on scholarship.
2 Non-resident Indian.