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OAKLAND — “Life is a race: If you’re not fast enough, you’ll get trampled,” booms engineering college dean Viru Sahastrabudhhe (Boman Irani). The stakes are high: in India 2.0, students whose parents have sacrificed everything for their education are expected to reach the top. But three brainy misfits — Farhan (R. Madhavan), Raju (Sharman Joshi) and Rancho (Aamir Khan) — find a common bond when they realize that their futures aren’t exactly inscribed in a mathematics book.
Written and directed by Rajkumar Hirani, whose two previous films also tweaked Indian sensibilities with great commercial and critical success, “3 Idiots” has dominated at the boxoffice this holiday season. In India, the Reliance Big Pictures release collected more than 1 billion rupees ($21.3 million) in its first four days of release.
A great part of the film’s appeal is Aamir Khan, who has come to specialize in heroic iconoclasts, such as a rebellious villager in “Lagaan” or a visionary teacher of special-needs kids in “Taare Zameen Par.” As Rancho, a young engineer of dazzling inventiveness, Khan conveys smarts, mischief and, finally, compassion, as he spurs his friends on to greatness before he mysteriously disappears.
The film’s good points, though, are marred by a slow start and a nerve-jangling soundtrack (except for the charming “Aal Izz Well”). Perceptive, subtle acting work by Khan, Madhavan and Joshi also clashes with buffoonish performances by Omi Vaidya, as an odious school rival, and veteran character actor Irani, whose character is cursed with an unnecessary — and unfunny — lisp.
Hirani’s screenplay also jumps back and forth in time over a 10-year period with limited success, leaving the viewer often wondering whether we’re seeing scenes set in the present or the past.
Despite its flaws, “3 Idiots” conveys a powerful message about how valuable your friends can be when they push you toward reaching your own highest potential.
Opened: Wednesday, Dec. 23 (BIG Pictures)
Cast: Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor, R. Madhavan, Sharman Joshi, Boman Irani, Omi Vaidya, Mona Singh, Jaaved Jaaferi
Director: Rajkumar Hirani
Screenwriters: Abhijat Joshi, Rajkumar Hirani
Producer: Vidhu Vinod Chopra
Director of photography: Muraleedharan C.K.
Music: Shantanu Moitra
Choreographers: Bosco-Ceasar, Avit Dias
Editor: Rajkumar Hirani
Not rated, 173 minutes
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