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.