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Content Warning: Mentions of suicide

“Life is a race. Run fast, or you’ll be trampled upon.” It’s with these words that the real story of “3 Idiots” begins. Released in 2009, “3 Idiots” is the story of three troublesome students at India’s top engineering college who struggle to fit into the school’s intense system. Like most Bollywood films, “3 Idiots” is a drama — complete with song and dance — but it is also ahead of its time. Even when I first watched the film at the age of nine, I learned novel lessons on what it means to have a passion, the meaning of success and how to define a true friend — lessons I still hold dear today.

“3 Idiots” begins with two of our three “idiots” — Farhan (R. Madhavan, “Vikram Vedha”) and Raju (Sharman Joshi, “1920 London”) — receiving a phone call from their old college rival, Chatur (Omi Vaidya, “Mirror Game”), telling them that he knows where their friend (and the third “idiot”) Rancho (Aamir Khan, “Dangal”) is. After 10 fruitless years spent trying to find Rancho after their college graduation, Farhan and Raju force Chatur to come along on a road trip to find him. Now we cut to 10 years ago, where Farhan tells the tale of the beginning of the three students’ college careers and a friendship with Rancho that would change all of their lives. 

Farhan, Raju and Rancho are all assigned roommates at the Imperial College of Engineering (ICE), and each of the three friends quickly establishes their personalities: Farhan is the one who’s forced to be an engineer, Raju is the forever-anxious student and Rancho is a specimen unlike any other to set foot on campus — the kid who’s there because of his love of learning. He’s the kind that loves to question the system and doesn’t stop until he has a sufficient answer. In other words, Rancho is a huge pain in the neck for ICE’s dictator-like director, Viru Sahastrabudhhe (Boman Irani, “Uunchai”) — affectionately nicknamed “Virus.”

The first few scenes of Rancho’s antics at ICE were designed to pull laughs out of the audience, and yet it made my little brain think hard. He applies some basic chemistry knowledge to get his revenge on a senior attempting to haze him on his first night, questions Viru’s demeaning speech to the freshmen and talks back to professors that he believes are teaching in an archaic manner. It’s obvious that Rancho is intended to be a “weird” student, yet Farhan’s adoration of his methods makes it clear that Rancho is actually the epitome of an innovative mind. He loves engineering so much that he finds excitement in the simplest of machines and is constantly pushing the field forward. Watching this at a young age, I wanted to feel that kind of passion for something — a love for a field that is so strong that I want to progress it, not be held back by its current methods. Looking back years later, I’m happy to say that I think I’ve found what I was looking for.

Now enter perhaps the most iconic line to come out of this film: “All is well.” Rancho claims that while the heart gets scared very easily, it is just as easily tricked. He tells Raju, “No matter how big a problem is, tell your heart that everything is OK, and say ‘All is well.’” When Raju asks if that actually works, Rancho replies, “No, but you gain the courage to face it!” This scene sparks a typical Bollywood song and dance sequence, where the students sing about not worrying about the future and living in the present. I know that getting your life advice from a Bollywood film isn’t exactly mainstream, but let me be the first to say that “All is well” really does work. And I can guarantee that you do it, too — although maybe not in those exact words. One of the first lessons I learned from “3 Idiots” is that no problem is insurmountable with the right amount of mental self-reassurance. 

Intercut with the dancing are scenes of Rancho attempting to fix a drone that a senior, Joy (Ali Fazal, “Victoria and Abdul”), was working on. Virus tells Joy that he won’t be graduating due to his failed attempts at meeting the deadlines, despite Joy having to work through his father’s stroke the year prior. As a surprise for him, Rancho fixes the drone and flies it up to Joy’s window to capture his reaction at the end of the “All is well” song. Instead of seeing a surprised Joy, the students witness his suicide with the words “I Quit” written on his wall. 

Bear in mind, this was one of the first times I had ever seen a scene so explicitly depicting self-harm, so it is a memory that is burned into my brain. More specifically, I saw what could drive a student to those extremes. At such a young age, I became acquainted with the hardships and pressures that my peers and I would inevitably have to face. Thirteen years after the release of the film, this scene remains just as relevant. With suicide being the second-leading cause of death in the United States among people aged 15 to 24 and a student taking their life every 42 minutes in India in 2020, the message remains as clear as ever: Pressure kills. This kind of message continues throughout the film when Raju jumps out of the window after being informed by Virus that he could either be expelled from ICE or be forced to get Rancho expelled. It reappears later on when Virus himself is told by his daughter, Pia (Kareena Kapoor, “Jab We Met”), that his son’s death was not an accident — it was a suicide, due in large part to multiple failed attempts to get into ICE. 

These scenes in “3 Idiots” bring the conversation back to mental health on college campuses. Think of our college campus. Our education system may not be as draconian as ICE’s, but our students still feel as though they are unsupported when it comes to their mental health, and incidents are still occurring that spark this discussion over and over again at the University of Michigan. “3 Idiots” is nuanced enough to claim that while “all is well” is useful, at some point the system itself must change to see real progress.

Shown hand in hand with the struggles that the students in the film face, are the friends that help them through it. While “3 Idiots” may have shown me a glimpse of a pressure-laden college future, it also introduced me to a picture of true friendship. In the middle of the film, Rancho gets a phone call that Raju’s father has had a health emergency. He enlists Pia, a medical student, and rushes to the hospital on a scooter with Raju’s father. Farhan and Raju arrive later, and Raju thanks Rancho with tears in his eyes for saving his father’s life. The three friends spend the night in the hospital together — missing the first 30 minutes of their exam the next day while doing so. Moments like these are frequent in the film, like Rancho switching out some choice Hindi words in Chatur’s Teacher’s Day speech to make Raju recognize the dangers of rote memorization, and Raju’s best friends doing their utmost to cheer him up in the hospital as he recovers from 16 broken bones after his attempt. Once Raju recovers, Rancho brings a box of sweets to the hospital and feeds them to every doctor that helped his friend, resulting in yet another teary-eyed hug between the two. 

It’s these moments that brought the biggest smile to my face when I first watched the film as I hoped to meet my Rancho, Raju, Farhan and Pia one day — the friends that would be my family away from home. The kind of friends that push me to follow what I’m passionate about, take the leap I’m afraid of taking and confess my love to those who mean the most to me. I am so thankful that “3 Idiots” gave me a romanticized view of college friendship at such a young age, because I can declare with confidence that 11 years later, I have found my family away from home. I have found the people that will show up for me even when they gain nothing from it, maybe even at their own expense. These are the people who cheer me on at dance shows, who read the articles that I write for The Daily without my knowledge and who introduce me to their families and welcome me into their homes knowing that mine is 600 miles away. And if any of my “idiots” decide to disappear without a trace, I hope they know that even in 10 years, I will ground planes and forget my pants to come find them — just as Farhan and Raju did.

I spent much of my childhood dreaming, whether it was through books, television or films. I dreamed of finding my passions and my communities. “3 Idiots” taught me no dream of mine was too big or too unrealistic to chase. But it also taught me not to let my dreams get in the way of my happiness in the present. The film showed me that some friendships are forever, and those who love you will never leave you. And maybe most important of all, “3 Idiots” taught me that if ever I’m in doubt, to place my hand on my heart and tell myself that all is well.

Daily Arts Writer Swara Ramaswamy can be reached at