Farhan (Madhavan) is a passenger on an aeroplane about to take off when he receives a phone call and realises he really needs to get off the aircraft as quickly as possible. But the stewardesses have fastened their seatbelts, so drastic action is necessary: soon after, he is in the back of a limo he has comandeered after faking a heart attack to leave the airport, and orders the driver to pick up his old friend Raju (Sharman Joshi) who is so overexcited that he forgets to put on his trousers, and they both head over to their old university. Could it be true? Has their long lost companion Rancho (Aamir Khan) returned?
Well, no is the short answer to that in this, the biggest Bollywood movie of all time, taking in far more money than any of its rivals down the years mainly because of its "replay" value, judged so heartwarming, entertaining and funny that audiences returned to it again and again, whether in cinemas or in the comfort of their own home. Was it actually the greatest Indian film ever made, though? It might have been hugely popular, but there remained a group of naysayers who were vocal in their complaints that this was lowest common denominator material, so even if those gripes tended to be drowned out by the majority, 3 Idiots was by no means universally loved.
Actually, if it was not one of the finest motion picture experiences you were likely to enjoy, neither was it some dead loss featuring a bunch of morons for characters as the title might indicate. Much of the idealistic plot took the form of a flashback so we could see what the big deal was about this Rancho person, but given he was played by Aamir Khan, one of Bollywood's most respected stars here earning a record salary, this was not going to be a completely fluffy role, though it was billed as a comedy. The humour tended towards the broad, which Khan's co-stars handled, though he did get to be witty as the character was smarter than anyone else in the movie, and that included the head tutor, nicknamed Virus (Boman Irani).
He is the nemesis of Rancho and his two chums, as his teaching style is at odds with Rancho's belief that learning should not be something done for some grinding sense of duty, but because you are genuinely interested in the subject. If what you're doing isn't fulfilling, there's no way you're going to spend a satisfied life, so Farhan's actual love of photography is becoming reluctantly ignored in favour of the engineering his parents ordered him to study lest he bring shame on the family. Rancho is sort of like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, except he's a student, but his message of inspiration is taken to heart - or it is to a point because Virus's influence is proving more corrosive, thinking nothing of driving underachievers to suicide because of his second place is nowhere tenets.
What you had was a comedy which crunched its gears into drama at regular intervals, offering audiences the gamut of emotion to feel as if they had enjoyed the full range of sensations available, and therefore had a jolly good night out at the pictures. This winding between laughter and tears might take Western viewers aback if they're not used to the way in which Asian cinema likes to pack as much in as possible, but a fine cast helped to paper over most of the cracks, with Khan on especially winning form as the enigmatic student (the star was in his forties! Well preserved, obviously) who seeks to improve the lot of his fellow man; and woman as we see in the famous childbirth improvised with a vacuum cleaner sequence. Love interest Kareena Kapoor, she of the pillowy lips, offered more emotion as she threatened to marry the wrong man, not Rancho, and the themes of seeking personal happiness were perfectly relatable while not being too treacly in delivery. If not one of the greatest movies ever, it had its appeal.