"Follow your bliss" is a mantra that is unfortunately the best known thing about the late mythologist Joseph Campbell. He derived the expression from studying the Upanishads, ancient texts that were a major part of the formation of Hinduism, so perhaps it's natural that a Bollywood film, 2009's 3 Idiots, would exemplify the "Follow your bliss" philosophy at its most obnoxiously unwise. The thing is, it's not a movie whose motives I entirely disagree with—a comedy about college, it encourages students to care more about their subjects of study than their grades which is a statement I heartily agree with. Unfortunately, the film also supports Campbell's assertion that by following one's bliss material success will inevitably follow.
Probably the best example of the film at its worst shows Raju (Sharman Joshi) being interviewed for a job as an engineer by a board for a big company. He has among the lowest grades of anyone in is school, he's threatened with expulsion for pissing on the college director's mailbox, but the board decides to hire him because he seems relaxed and honest.
Raju is one of the three idiots of the title but he's essentially a minor character—most of the film is focused on Rancho (Aamir Khan), a mysterious student whom we meet as he conceives an ingenious method involving a spoon and a ruler to get out of a hazing ritual involving everyone dancing around in their underwear.
There's a lot of shots of guys with their pants down in this movie. It's partly a college comedy film in the tradition of Animal House with the cartoonishly villainous Viru "Virus" Sahastrabuddhe (Boman Irani), the college director, as Rancho's arch enemy, the film's version of Animal House's Dean Wormer.
But the movie has a more serious ideological intent which makes the cartoonishness of Virus seem ill-considered. India has among the highest numbers of suicides among its college students in the world for reasons 3 Idiots outlines—the students are under a great deal of pressure from parents and society to succeed and support themselves and their family financially. When one student commits suicide because of Virus threatening to expel him, Rancho accuses Virus of murder. Perhaps it's useful for a story to combine all the elements that lead to student suicides in one villainous character. The film is of course a musical so perhaps a fantastic, over the top quality is simply a part of its language. But reducing all of this issues that contribute to anxiety in a student to one Snidely Whiplash character seems uselessly trite.
Rancho has a mantra, too—"All is well", which is repeated throughout the film and is even the title and chorus of one of the songs, sort of a version of "Keep calm and carry on". Rancho explains you need to tell the heart "all is well" even if all isn't well because otherwise you will be paralysed by fear. I don't personally agree with the idea that fear and anger are inherently negative emotions, I think both can motivate one in positive directions, though I can appreciate the idea of lowering stress when there's a suicide epidemic.
The third idiot, Farhan (R. Madhavan), is in engineering school but his passion is photography. He is also encouraged by Rancho to follow his bliss and there's a scene where Farhan argues with his parents about it, telling them that he might have a smaller house and a less expensive car if he focuses on a career in photography than he would as an engineer, but he'd be happy. The trouble is the film doesn't even seem to consider the possibility that Farhan would be completely unable to support himself by following his passion, which is something about 90% of people who've actually followed their artistic passions will tell you is the more likely scenario. Rancho's philosophy as he continually expresses it is that one ought to do what one loves regardless of whether or not it will make them successful. Which I agree with. But then Rancho inevitably adds that it will make you successful which, in addition to being unrealistic, seems to make the previous statement pointless. Oddly enough, it also seems to essentially re-enforce the values of Virus. If one follows one's passion and does not achieve financial success, does that mean one has scored badly in the passion test? The seeming nobility of the philosophy becomes completely insubstantial and becomes simply another way of saying that financial success is the only meaningful goal in existence.
I did enjoy the romance subplot and its accompanying songs. Of course Rancho gets the college director's daughter, Pia (Kareena Kapoor).