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Hooray for Bollywood

Just when the drama is most intense—go into your dance.

Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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3 Idiots

Hooray for Bollywood

Directed by Rajkumar Hirani

In just seven weeks, the most popular movie ever made in the country that makes more movies than any other has grossed nearly $7 million in American theaters. It’s called 3 Idiots, and its box-office numbers in the United States have placed it among the most profitable foreign film releases in history—this despite the fact that it has barely been advertised and has only been shown in 156 theaters. And chances are, had you not begun this article, you would never have learned of its existence.

3 Idiots—the title is in English, though the movie is almost entirely in Hindi—was produced in Mumbai, home to the planet’s most relentless moviemaking industry, known familiarly as “Bollywood.” To give you a sense of how relentless it is, consider that more than a thousand films were made in Bollywood in 2002, as opposed to some 600 films in the United States; Bollywood fare sold 3.6 billion tickets that year, compared with 2.6 billion for American features.

We don’t talk about Bollywood in the same terms we talk about Hollywood because its productivity hasn’t translated into global reach (although I’m told Indian movies are very popular in parts of the Middle East and in Russia). Bollywood does sell more tickets worldwide, but that is a result of the colossal domestic market within India (population 1.1 billion).

Hollywood fare earns nearly 50 times more: The total Bollywood gross for all film-related products was $1.3 billion in 2002, compared with an astounding $51 billion for American movies. That, too, is also a result of the domestic market in India, where the nominal per capita income is still only a little more than $1,000 per year and ticket prices are set accordingly. Indeed, the most financially successful movie ever made in the Hindi language is not 3 Idiots, with its worldwide gross of $69 million, but Slumdog Millionaire, last year’s Oscar winner, directed by the British filmmaker Danny Boyle and released by Warner Bros., which has taken in an estimated $375 million.

The interesting question is why Bollywood is not the worldwide cultural force it could be. And the answer lies in the fascinating peculiarity of its wares, which are much on display in 3 Idiots. Bollywood movies are governed by a series of strict conventions that make very little sense if you haven’t been raised on a diet of them. The most notable convention is that no matter what the film, no matter the genre, no matter the circumstances transpiring in the plot, there will, every 30 minutes or so, be a huge production number. Even a horror movie will take a break from the tension it’s trying to build for a song and dance. And because these are Indian popular songs, with the ululating monotonic vibrato that derives from the tradition called carnatic music, they have tended to assault rather than soothe the non-subcontinental ear.

The shifts in tone that this convention forces on any movie (save an out-and-out musical) wreak havoc on a director’s ability to sustain a dramatic or comedic arc. So the Bollywood movies I’ve seen don’t even try for thematic consistency in the way most others do; instead, they luxuriate in their bizarre tone shifts and hop hyperactively from farce to melodrama to tearjerker in the space of a few moments. They’re like daytime soap operas played at 78 rpm; if you don’t like the emotion on display, just wait a second and there will be a different one.

3 Idiots is about three roommates at a prestigious engineering college in Mumbai—a school to which, the movie says, 300,000 people apply for 300 slots every year—and what happens to them in the course of their education. The ostensible subject of the movie is the intolerable pressure to achieve at India’s elite institutions and how it threatens genuine education, innovation, and individuality.

It’s a terrific subject for a movie, and it’s bright and sunny, and it has a very winning leading performance from India’s biggest star, Aamir Khan. His character is a brilliant nonconformist named Rancho, who enrages and frustrates the establishment with his singular ways but cannot be controlled because he is the school’s best student. The movie begins 10 years later, as three of his classmates and the woman who loves him try to find Rancho, who disappeared upon graduation and has not been heard from since.

There are suicide attempts, family crises, dark secrets, a hidden identity, stolen exams, sadistic teachers, monstrous fellow students. Interspersed among these high dramas are comedy bits so cheesy and corny that they wouldn’t have passed muster on Saved by the Bell, complete with a musical score with horns that go “wah-wah-wah-waaaaaah” every time something embarrassing happens.

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