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Idiot is as idiot does

3 Idiots tells us that India’s system of higher education is idiotic, teachers are lisping semi-insane brutes who drive students to suicide, rote learning is always bad and the IITs produce nothing but Lamborghini-chasing mercenaries who are only waiting to land corporate jobs in the US. Sagarika Ghose examines...

india Updated: Jan 15, 2010 22:50 IST

The movie 3 Idiots has broken all box office records. Raju Hirani, Aamir Khan and Vidhu Vinod Chopra are laughing their way to banks to encash their Rs 300 plus crore. Critics are gushing, audiences — cutting across gender and age — are packing into theatres in hordes, and declaring that there is no better film. The pressure to enjoy Three Idiots is almost similar to the pressure to enter the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) — deviate from the orthodoxy of relentless breathless appreciation and you’re likely to flunk the admission test into your family circle or group of friends.

Undoubtedly, 3 Idiots is a wonderfully made film. The superbly talented Aamir Khan always brings energy and innovation to his roles and Raju Hirani is perhaps the Hrishikesh Mukherjee of our times, a master of the art of gentle middle class comedy but told with high tech razzmatazz. Yet, the success of 3 Idiots reveals that we are on our way to becoming brain dead.

The film tells us that India’s system of higher education is idiotic, teachers are lisping semi-insane brutes who drive students to suicide, rote learning is always bad and the IITs produce nothing but Lamborghini-chasing mercenaries who are only waiting to land corporate jobs in the US. Is that true? The IITs have produced among others Narayana Murthy, Nandan Nilekani, Jairam Ramesh, the whistleblower Satyendra Dubey, Magsaysay Award-winner Sandeep Pandey — who served on its faculty, — and many among the group that created the inspiring Karadi Tales (the audio story tapes for kids). The IIT winter festival, luminously titled ‘Mood Indigo’ once showcased how many talented poets and musicians there were among its students!

Of course, the film is a fictionalised version of the IITs, and perhaps a better reflection of the vast number of engineering colleges mushrooming across India, which are indeed soul-less factories where real education is substituted for cramming. And, of course, we are not meant to take 3 Idiots too seriously, as it is after all just about having an escapist laugh and not thinking too much. After all, if you think too much you may discover that 3 Idiots is a dangerous, preachy and sanctimonious film that disdains all forms of hard work; that subliminally condemns studying as a pathetic exercise in rote learning and scorns the sadhna of higher education.

The film establishes that unless you are a naturally gifted scientific genius like Ranchordas Chanchad, there’s no point wasting time with your books. Then you’re better off singing songs or becoming a wildlife photographer. As if becoming a ‘wildlife photographer’ is a sweet extracurricular hobby that doesn’t require hard work and determination and an equal amount of sadhna.

If we continue to lose our minds over films like 3 Idiots, we will soon become a nation of idiots and will have to hire foreign brains to do our thinking for us because we will be wallowing in hatred of the system and escapist pleasure. In the same vein as 3 Idiots, Mahesh Manjrekar has made a Marathi film titled Shikshanaaka Aicha Gho, which literally translates as ‘Screw The Education System’. Do we want to bring up children on the notion that the education system is idiotic and deserves to be screwed?

Of course, there is a need for reform. Of course, there is a need to urgently relieve the pressure and strain. But where does the pressure come from? It comes from vast numbers that apply — not necessarily from diabolical teachers and emotionally blackmailing parents. The pressure comes from the fact there are too few IITs, too few medical colleges and too few quality universities. For a country of our size, why is there only a single All India Institute of Medical Sciences? Why aren’t there at least ten?

Sure, there are many terrible teachers at our universities. But has any Indian graduate come across a total caricature like Professor Virus? Instead, graduates in India can provide many stories of learned, and inspiring teachers who fought to keep students interest alive, that, often in criminalised and politicised campuses it is the idealistic teacher who is the victim of ‘spoilt brat’ students who demand high grades and favours through means fair and foul.

The Nehruvian dream which gave us centres of excellence like the IITs and Indian Institutes of Managements (IIMs) should be a source of pride for us. These are institutions that students should aspire to join, not scorn and curse simply because it is fashionable to do so. There is still no substitute for hard work, no substitute for sadhna and no short cuts to academic excellence.

Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal’s education reforms for Class 10 board exams are indeed visionary. But caution has to be exercised that urban middle class children are not pampered into thinking that anything that causes ‘stress’ is evil and should be attacked and, worse, not be even attempted.

Encouraging students to abuse their teachers, hate their books, throw metaphorical tomatoes at all centres of excellence is to encourage an illiterate lumpen rage against anything that isn’t dumbed down to the shocking level of intellectual nothingness that we seem to be comforted by these days. If our children cannot use proper grammar, if they cannot spell, if they are unable to sit for examinations, if they are unable to speak a language correctly, if they are unable to study because they are turned off by stress, if they are led to believe that all effort is a waste of time, is this the kind of generation we want to rear as future citizens? Saraswati is a gentle goddess. Maybe we need to change our mode of worship, but let's not disrespect her.

3 Idiots is a fun caper and thoroughly enjoyable. Yet, at the core of the film is a dark and troubling cynicism about the future of India’s young. The technicolour fun and games conceals a destructive anger and a condescending disdain for all those across India who may be aspiring to join centres of excellence or study or teach in them. The incredible popularity
of the film shows that as a nation we are in no mood to study and are delighted that idiocy is at last legitimate.

Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN. The views expressed by the author are personal.