Doesn't let its more serious theme of "self-actualization" get in the way of the entertainment.

A comedy about three college buddies that doesn’t let its more serious theme of “self-actualization” get in the way of the entertainment, “3 Idiots” takes a while to lay out its game plan but pays off emotionally in its second half. Quality mainstream item from producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra and helmer Rajkumar Hirani, best known for their 2003 hit “Munna Bhai MBBS,” comes laden with must-see smarts, especially super-choosy star Aamir Khan (“Lagaan”). Crossover potential is zero, but the Dec. 23 release should score some intelligent numbers among Indian auds at home and abroad over the year-end frame.

Script is loosely based on Chetan Bhagat’s 2004 bestseller, “Five Point Someone,” first published in English and later translated into Hindi. But where Bhagat’s novel focused entirely on the college-exam anxieties and romantic antics of three student friends, “3 Idiots” expands the material into a tale of almost epic proportions, as two pals set out on a journey to find the third who influenced their lives so much at university 10 years earlier.

Warm-up has Farhan Qureshi (R. Madhavan) getting a call from oily businessman Chatur Ramalingam (Omi Vaidya) that he knows where to find their former fellow student, Rancho (Khan), who mysteriously disappeared after graduation. Farhan rounds up his old friend Raju Rastogi (Sharman Joshi) and, with no choice but to take Chatur along, the pair set off on the long drive north from New Delhi to the hill town of Shimla.

En route, Farhan’s mind goes back to their days at engineering college, where he and Raju felt pressured by family and society to succeed: Raju came from a poor background and Farhan (who really wanted to be a photographer) from a conservative, middle-class one. Their liberating friendship with roommate Rancho — aka Ranchhoddas Shamaldas Chanchad — gave them a whole new perspective on life.

From his delayed entrance on, pint-sized Khan dominates the movie as Rancho, a pixie-like, free-thinking Gujarati who isn’t fazed by normal pressures (encapsulated by his catchphrase, “Aal izz well”) and has a talent for creative problem-solving. This leads to a running battle with pompous, know-it-all principal Viru Sahastrabuddhe (vet Boman Irani), nicknamed Prof. Virus, but attracts the romantic attention of the prof’s daughter, Pia (Kareena Kapoor).

In the first of several jumbo-sized flashbacks, the pic careens along with likable student japes until it springs a twist before intermission that throws new light on Rancho’s character. As the friends continue their odyssey in part two, more flashbacks show Farhan and Raju being influenced by Rancho’s philosophy on life, for good and for ill.

Most of the character development is packed into this second half, which packs several unexpected dramatic reversals despite the generally light tone. Khan’s ability to play almost childlike characters, which he exploited in his 2007 directorial debut, “Taare zameen par,” is well deployed, especially in the latter stages as Rancho realizes the downsides of his influence. Final reels, which return to the present time amid the spectacular mountain scenery of Ladakh, have a moving, big-hearted inclusiveness.

Aside from one number centered on Raju in hospital, the catchy musical segments are largely decorative. The best-staged performance is the nonsense number “Zoobi doobi,” which parodies Bollywood cliches. Technically, the pic is smooth in all departments.

3 Idiots

India

Production

A Reliance Big Pictures release of a Vinod Chopra Films production. Produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Directed by Rajkumar Hirani. Associate director, Rajesh Mapuskar. Screenplay, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Hirani, Abhijit Joshi, based on the 2004 novel "Five Point Someone" Chetan Bhagat.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, widescreen), C.K. Muraleedharan; editor, Hirani; music, Shantanu Moitra; lyrics, Swanand Kirkire; production designer, Rajnish Hedao; costume designers, Manish Malhotra, Raghuveer Shetty; sound designer (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Bishwadeep Chatterjee; visual effects, Fable Farm; choreographer, Bosco-Caesar; action director, Shyam Kaushal; assistant director, Vinay Waikul. Reviewed at Covent Garden Hotel preview theater, London, Dec. 17, 2009. Running time: 167 MIN. (I: 86 MIN.; II: 81 MIN.

With

Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor, R. Madhavan, Omi Vaidya, Sharman Joshi, Boman Irani, Mona Singh, Javed Jaffrey, Rahul Kumar, Parikshit Sahni, Akhil Mishra.
(Hindi dialogue)

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