3 Idiots: Educational Pedagogy or Fantasy

In case you didn’t know, 3 Idiots is now a record-breaking Hindi movie, that explores and exposes the educational system. As of the time of this post, it has been released worldwide and is the highest grosser in Indian cinema history (about US$68mn in 19 days and also made 43 million pounds worldwide to date).

The movie is based in a “traditional” academic setting in an engineering college, reputed for its excellence and for its no-holds-barred-excellence-is-the-most-important thing principal. The story revolves around 3 students who get to live together in the college hostel and become lasting friends. The story tries to bring to the front the problems created by a severe focus on grades and book knowledge and essentially laments the restriction of freedom of thought and reflection that has become a hallmark of the educational system. The term “idiot” is used to refer to not someone stupid but to an irrepressible free thinker who follows his heart.

It has caught the imagination of an entire nation of learners. And that fact bears important testimony to the popular perception that the academic system discourages free thinking, diversity of opinion, creativity and innovation because of it’s over emphasis on grades, bookish knowledge, competitive spirit and teacher-centricity.

The main “idiot”, played by Aamir Khan, is, in my opinion, the only idiot in the film. Born to the assistant of a rich man, he proxies all the way through engineering college for the rich man’s son. As a result, he gets to go where his interests take him, to whichever subject and teacher that excite his imagination. He is naturally inclined to be curious, his questioning ways earning him the ire of his teachers and the ridicule of his peers. But he is brilliant and ultimately emerges as a scientist with a large number of important patents to his name.

Aamir believes in free thinking, of questioning the dominant paradigm. Ultimately he converts the principal of the engineering college, who is fanatically entrenched in the “traditional” mindset, to seeing things in a different light. The movie ends with shots of Aamir in a “school” in Ladakh doing what he believes – teaching kids to let their imagination, innovation and creativity take over.

But there is a bit of demagoguery here, with no clear indication that the ideas are as revolutionary as they seem. For example, a point of discussion should be what is exactly being proposed. The movie is not clear on what or how this pedagogy and system really to be made possible. If it is argued that ultimately it is a movie and not a research project, I would argue that it is not a trifling matter given the reach and success of the movie and its ability to shape popular perception.

The applicability of these ideas and their sudden, almost inexplicable shift from a higher education setting to a school, is a little puzzling too. There is no evidence of Aamir’s school principal having the same endgame delirium as was the case with Boman Irani, who played the engineering college principal. The dynamics are very different between the two scenarios. 

Also, there is little evidence that creativity, innovation and imagination does not at all exist in the traditional system -sometimes teacher-heroes led and sometimes with an organizational focus. It then begs the question – are we talking of a change from inside the box or are we talking about something revolutionary that is at odds with tradition. I don’t see that debate happening around me. Most of the debate seems to be around how the movie has borrowed more from Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone than anything else.

Conflicting verdict at the end for me, though. It leaves me wanting for more because it was hugely entertaining. And a trifle irritable because perhaps the matter should not be trifled with.

4 thoughts on “3 Idiots: Educational Pedagogy or Fantasy

Add yours

  1. What an Irony, 3 Idiots becomes an icon by being an iconoclast.

    The movie is grossing millions and people are walking out of the cinemas saying “Tussi great ho Sir Ji”.

    I feel where the movie goes wrong and at times we all go wrong is over generalization. I have been to an engineering college and the current system is not just about making the colleges a pressure cooker. And definitely not all teachers are the stereotypical VIRUS. Any place you go there are a few guys who choose to excel in their own terms and most often than not are fully supported by peers and instructors.

    There is a focus on the syllabus but there are ample opportunities to be innovative, free thinker and off course a part absentee. 

    The movie raises a fundamental question about the pressure the current system exerts on students. The pressure of becoming the “best”…

    Popular notion of “best” in any professional college directly implies highest package and not necessarily the highest scorer. However, this pressure to earn better is evident out of the college too and is not unique to educational system.

    Agreed the higher education system needs a reform but this has to be a holistic and organic reform originating from with in each student, teacher, policymaker, and parents.

    There is a need for focus on being creative and innovative but this is an ongoing pursuit and can’t be regulated with in any set up, existing or proposed.

    I agree to disagree with the over arching comment on education system but yes, 3 Idiots thrives on brilliant caricatures executed with amazing élan. Kudos for a movie well made.

    PS: Sagarika Ghose offers an interesting critique of the movie and can be read at:



  2. I read Sagarika’s post and wrote back in her blog. I am reproducing it here:

    Saying “Is three idiots a dangerous film…” prompts me to ask if media is ever dangerous, in any form? In true democratic vein, if it should not be censured, isn’t it great that it provokes debates like this one?

    The fact that hundreds of thousands of people worldwide resonated with some messages in the movie – is that just because they have embraced mindlessness? How is it apparent that education and thoughtfulness are seen as obstacles to a good life (whatever that is) or that as a nation we are not in a mood to study?

    Your post is inundated, if I may say so, with rhetoric, no less demagoguery than is the fault of the movie you condemn. You also refuse to believe that there could be truth in the sanctimony or that the caricature may be closer to reality than you would want to believe.

    Isn’t it fashionable to ridicule politicians or Page 3 journalism, too? Are those movies in any way different? Why do we “mindlessly” believe politicians are all bad and policemen all corrupt, incompetent and violent?

    It is unclear to me how the urgent reforms you mention – for the changes in the exam system and against parental pressure – can inhibit or constrain standards of excellence. In fact, I argue that we need to relook at how we define and measure excellence in the first place.

    And, then, the final question. Can changes within the system achieve the desired results or is there a completely new revolutionary way?


  3. “Trifling with matters that should not be trifled with”
    that sounds like one of the faults with the movie.

    One could go on criticizing the movie for it’s many faults. Some of the things which I personally found very hard to digest were –
    1. portrayal of the University faculty.
    2. that the second best student – the one who has conformed to the standards of a “responsible youth” and who has dedicated himself to succeeding in the rat race – should be presented as such a despicable character.
    3. The cheap humor that the film tries to derive from the portrayal of Raju’s family.

    “3 idiots” is a cheap entertainer – the standard bollywood flick – it gives the majority of it’s audience what they want to hear, irrespective of whether it’s factually correct or not, and hence it has succeeded in the box office.

    I have commented in greater detail on the above points in the latest post on my blog. (It’s not quite as vindictive as this comment – but it does express my view on the above topics)


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