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TO BE unconventional about success has always been difficult. In circa 2010, it’s almost impossible. With gilt images beaming down 24/7 from television and multiplex screens, only hyper fame and money define success today. There can be no other parameter. Certainly, for a Sindhi man — whose community stereotype demands that money and convention play a key role in the great scheme of life — directing the biggest grosser in Bollywood history, earning Rs 20-odd crore from it as a director, and having a shiny trail of two earlier megahits behind him should have meant a very big deal. But ask 44-year-old Raju Hirani what success means to him and the miracle unusualness of the man and his art kicks in.

Hirani’s latest film, 3 Idiots, has been having what stock markets would call a historic bull run. In just 18 days, it has mopped up Rs 350 crore — double the entire business of the last record-holding film Ghajini (which in turn had done 50 percent more business than all the films that ranked below it). Numbers aside, the film seems to have uncorked a dormant emotion in society, and its upbeat slogan “All is well” has become the unchallenged anthem of the season. The film had 21 nominations at the Screen Awards and won 10, including best film and best director. Hirani is undoubtedly the big man of the moment.

Yet the affable, mild-mannered man sitting unassumingly at a coffee shop in Delhi under the TEHELKA office seems peculiarly untouched by the applause around him. He’s been quite happy to trek across the city for his interviewer’s convenience rather than insist on the star’s prerogative that we go to him. Sundry people are swarming around him, jostling for autographs. For a film man, it should have been a cinematic moment. More than 20 years earlier, Hirani had opened his autograph book in the anon – ymity of his room in the Film and Television Institute in Pune (FTII) and signed with quiver of excitement: Raju Hirani: editor, director, producer, 1988. The world lay headily at his feet, he was sure he was going to conquer it. What a self-fulfilling proph – ecy it had turned out to be.

But for Hirani, of the many major “plot points” in his life, the public success of 3 Idiots features nowhere. His idea of success lies in other, much more poignant, autobiographical moments. The moment he first told his father that instead of studying to be an accountant, he wanted a career in cinema. The exact moment he received a tele g – ram from FTII telling him he’d been selected for the editor’s course (NSD and FTII had both rejec ted him first time round when he applied for their acting course). The first 5-minute student film he made on a Chekov story, The Bet. Powerful moments of escape, self-recognition, arrival — many of which imbue his film with the searing conviction and tension of lived experience.

“You cannot imagine what it meant for me — a middleclass Sindhi boy in Nagpur — to be set free by my father,” says Hirani. “I was so scared and then so relieved, I went up to the terrace and flew a kite.” This incident was so seminal for Hirani, in fact, its powerful emotional duet — fear and release — reasserts itself again and again in the film in varying combinations. The road taken; the road not taken. And all its varying consequences. Virus’ son committing suicide; Farhan Qureshi telling his father he wants to be a photographer not an engineer; the acceptance letter from Hungary; Rancho’s immense pleasure in nurturing his high-school in Ladakh, his inevitable material success as the scientist Phunsukh Wangdu; Pia risking social censure to seize love over convention. In fact, if there is sometimes an over messianic, almost didactic zeal with which Hirani goes about delivering his message in 3 Idiots—“Follow what your heart wants” — it is bec – ause this freedom to make films was the primary, enabling miracle of his life. It released him from the self-hat – red of low grades and the grinding mediocrity of a borrowed life. It gave him back his identity.

Apart from this, the film’s peculiar didactic energy probably also draws from the fact that though Hirani got lucky on the professional front, in his private life, he knows the pain of looking back on a road not taken. At a crucial juncture in his life, in a personal episode he would rather not make public, faced with a life-defining choice, Hirani fatally chose pragmatism over his heart. The vacuum and lingering loneliness of that decision dogs him till this day. He has felt the soul-draining dread of going into someth – ing knowing it was wrong for him, the dread of caving in to please those he loved and to accommodate the constraints of money. This rebuking memory imparts an extra urgency to 3 Idiots.

In fact, part of the explanation for the film’s astronomical success may lie in the fact that, by excavating his own autobiographical emotions, Hirani seems to have divined a massive common nerve in Indian society: the humiliations of living a life you don’t want, regret for the unlived life, and the empowering potency of being shown you can choose otherwise.

AT FIRST encounter, you could dismiss Raju Hirani as merely a simple man. His films lead you to expect someone wholesome and kind, and wholesome and kind he seems. But his friends have other, more illuminating, des criptions. Abhijat Joshi, his co-scriptwriter and creative soul-mate, calls Hirani “ET”, evoking his otherworldly optimism and childlike heart. Aamir Khan likens him to director Frank Capra (whose films always had a message about the basic goodness of human nature). His younger sister Anju and director Sriram Raghavan, friend and one-time roommate, speak of him as a “consummate prankster”. And producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra extols his utter and inviolate honesty.

Sitting over a coffee, you also get sudden sneak previews of Hirani’s famously dry humour. We are discuss ing the many controversies his film has been surrounded with. Soon after its release, 3 Idiots’ dream run was marred by an unpleasantly pesky shadow. Writer Chetan Bhagat, whose book Five Point Someone the film is loosely based on, alleged the producer and director had cheated him of due credit. The claim was unreasonable and Chopra and Hirani threw book and contract at him. But the controversy refused to go away till, having raked its benefits, Bhagat agreed to subside. Barely a day later, another controversy popped up. There was a ragging incident in a college in Maharashtra. Talk went around that the incident was inspired by 3 Idiots. Ludicrously, media reports said the state government was planning to summon the film to see if it had encouraged bad behaviour. “Soon I’ll be responsible for everyone’s farts,” Hirani laughs self-deprecatorily (a reference to Chatur’s character in the film, who’s beaverish desire to succeed is only matched by the offensive surround smell of his flatulence.)

All these qualities, and more, imbue Hirani’s cinema, and like Munnabhai MBBS and Lage Raho Munnabhai, 3 Idiots is undoubtedly a warm, life-affirming film. But as Boman Irani — who has played pitch-perfect antagonists in each of Hirani’s films — says bemusedly, “I loved all three films and am thrilled this one’s doing so well. But if you ask me why we’re being treated as if we are the Beatles, I have no answer!”

The bemusement is wellplaced. In cinematic terms, Hirani’s films are not – and do not aspire to be — pathbreaking in any way. They are firmly middle-road, firmly familiar, and very firmly, happy. In fact, the phrase “feel-good cinema” that everyone, including Hirani, casually uses to describe his work, captures the danger of banality on which it hovers. Small offences are cured by small palliatives, and you know before you’ve begun that by the end of the film, the good guy will prevail. In fact, in less affectionate hands, Hirani’s biggest gifts to contemporary popular imagination – “Jaddu ki jhappi”, “Gandhigiri” and the rebel cry “All is well” — could easily have become the trite tropes Bollywood comedy is infamous for.

So, contrary to evidence, it’s not the obvious attributes of Hirani’s cinema that explains its tremendous popularity. It’s not just the syrupy resolutions or the great gags subor the whip-crack humour. It’s not just the creation of the inspired pair, Munnabhai and his lovable sidekick, Circuit. Or the hyper-intelligent but less empathetic prankster, Rancho. Individually, each of these accomplishments could have wound up on the overstacked shelves of forgettable Bollywood comedy.

The real key to Hirani’s cinema then — the reason why his audiences (probably unconsciously) have more than just a passing engagement with his films — lies in their unusual and strong underlayer of moral anger. At a time when all conventional signages point in a different direction, Hirani dares to be a Romantic. He dares to rail against the general human condition. You would never imagine it at a first meeting, but Abhijat Joshi says, “Hirani is full of revulsions. And religious superstition absolutely tops the hate-lists.” Joshi also admits of himself, “If a film doesn’t explore social truths, half my interest immediately evaporates.”

Hirani has divined a huge nerve in Indian society: regret for the unlived life

Indeed, if you go back to any of Hirani’s films — the two Munnabhais or 3 Idiots — you will find that alongside the spinal plot of the film run dozens of other tertiary preoccupations: greed, abandonment, callousness, cruelty to parents, corruption, superstition, slavish bondage to convention, parental oppression. In another age, a more biting cinema would probably have been Hirani’s most natural medium: Hindi heartland satirists Sharad Joshi and Harishankar Parsai are big inspirations. But driven both by his own temperament and the intuition of the genuine mass-media communicator, Hirani realises that contemporary audiences would reject anything too obviously dark. So over a complex and collaborative process of scripting that often takes more than three years and is conducted trans-Atlantically, the US-based Joshi and he turn his original impulses into unabashed, pre-modern feelgood melodramas — full of great jokes and sunlight and improbable, extreme situations. In the process, they slyly hold up a mirror to middle- class venality and the middle-class is gently nudged to transform itself without even realising it.

(Interestingly, many of the incidents in Hirani’s films are based on his own life. In one such incident, Hirani’s wife Manjeet, who is a pilot, was seriously ill, suffering from partial amnesia. Despite repeated visits and tests, a neurologist at a prestigious hospital kept treating them with supreme callousness — interrupting his sick wife’s narrations with social phone calls and brusque orders. “At one point, I got so mad, I stood up, grabbed the phone and banged it down hard on his table,” remembers Hirani. Triggered by this and other encounters with heartless doctors, Munnabhai MBBS started out as a visceral diatribe against the medical profession. But narrations to friends quickly showed Hirani he was getting no takers. He went back to the drawing board. By the time he was ready to go on set three years later, the anger had been wrapped in sweet gauze, coated in laughs, and served up as a hugely enjoyable, easy-to-swallow pill. The only indication of that first anger was the conceit of Munnabhai himself — a criminal more compassionate than medics. And the offending neurologist, whose memory is served up as a cameo in a ragging scene where senior doctors are stripped to their undies. Lage Raho similarly had more prickly origins, with a young man knocked on his head in 1947, emerging from a coma 50 years later to the utter despair of modernday India and the betrayal of what Gandhi had stood for. But Hirani and Joshi worked on this original idea — sometimes over 17-hour stretches a day — till they came up with the highly soluble message of sending floral bouquets as a modern-day equivalent of satyagraha.)

Ordinarily, “sweet” is an appellate that would kill any self-respecting satirist. But having transformed themselves into doctors of sweet angst, Hirani and Joshi’s cinematic vision is rescued by the subterranean moral clarities that flow beneath the fun. As Boman Irani says, “They have real insight into the darker side of human nature.” Part of Hirani’s inimitable formula then is that while watching his films and laughing in the dark, middle-class Indians feel subliminally grateful that at least someone is bothering to acknowledge they are ill and doling out “get well soon” messages to them.

IN MANY ways, Hirani’s father is the central inspiration of his life and work: the forthright DNA he maps himself on; the moral barometer he measures himself with — and perhaps against. “A lot of my cinema is drawn from his nature,” says Raju.


Art apart Raju and wife Manjeet in their Bandra home
Art apart Raju and wife Manjeet in their Bandra home

Suresh Hirani came to India as a Partition refugee when he was 14. His father had died, and he had five sisters, two brothers and an uneducated mother. It should not have been his mantle but it fell on the young boy to be his family’s keeper. He worked as labour in a bangle factory in Ferozabad, sold icecreams on a cycle, and finally, moved to Nagpur to work as an errand boy in a general store. Slowly, he saved enough money to acquire two typewriters and started a typing institute. “In those days typewriters came in big iron boxes. To start an institute, you needed four typewriters,” reminisces Raju, “but my father couldn’t afford that. So when government inspectors came to check, he set out the two iron boxes as alibis.”

From that humble beginning, the senior Hirani slowly rose to have 40 typewriters and a spare parts supply business. He was never well off, but he says proudly, “I never let my children feel that.” None of his own siblings educated themselves, but Suresh worked mornings and put himself through night school — while supporting his sprawling joint family — till he got himself an LLB. Ask him what drove him to seek the larger life, and he says, “I was driven by my own imagination. I learnt a lot from the movies, particularly Dev Anand films. I may have joined the film world myself, but life had committed me to my family’s security.”

Because of this enforced sublimation at the altar of the family, perhaps, Suresh Hirani was completely liberal with his own son. “My wife would often tell me to focus more on the children’s studies, but I was only interested in observing their aptitude,” says he. When Raju appro a – ched him on that momentous day then, seeking to swap accountancy for cinema, his father was internally primed to let him fly. “It’s my father who pointed me towards FTII. You cannot fathom how unusual it was for a Sindhi man like him in the Nagpur of the 80s to even know the institute existed,” says Raju. “Relatives would ask him what film editing meant, and he was hard put to answer, but he never tried to stop me.” Raju was working with his father, selling calculators by day and immersing himself in theatre at night, when the momentous letter of acceptance came from FTII. His father did not hesitate a second in putting him on a train to Pune.

Munnabhai has Raju’s father’s moral vision. But he has been recast as a divine fool

Perhaps another measure of his unusualness is that Suresh Hirani says he sought out his wife, Sheela, a teacher and a regular at his typing institute, because he wanted to change the “mental level” of his family. “If you are a Sindhi, people around you only talk money,” he says disarmingly over the phone, sitting in his son’s apartment in Mumbai. “Just a minute ago a friend called me and all he could talk of was the arabpati—(more rich than crorepati) — he had found for his daughter.” But unlike the rest of his community, Suresh Hirani constantly sought other things: a life of the mind; a shift in his family’s culture.

“My father is a real intellectual, a committed rationalist, a liberal. I have imbibed that very strongly from him,” says Raju. But the quintessential quality he valued about his father — a value that seeps inexorably into his cinema — is his forthrightness. “He just could not tolerate corruption or injustice. He would storm into police commissioners’ offices, and berate relatives and community elders alike, if he ever chanced on the slightest hanky panky.”

Comic cut Munnabhai MBBS, Lage Raho and 3 Idiots
Comic cut Munnabhai MBBS, Lage Raho and 3 Idiots

“I was a fighter,” agrees the father laughingly. “I could get very harsh with people, sometimes even physical. I was a bit like Munnabhai.” In fact, the opening sequence of Munnabhai MBBS — when Munna’s father is robbed by a pick-pocket in the station — is a direct lift from an incident in Suresh’s life. “I remember that day as if it was yesterday,” says Raju. A Sindhi conman from Raipur had taken a princely sum of Rs 2,000 from his father on a false pretext. When he found out, Suresh Hirani refused to let it pass. He woke at five in the morning and combed the hotels in the town till he caught the miscreant. Then he dragged him to the Sindhi panchayat to figure a just punishment. There, one of the elders began to hit the man. “My father stopped them immediately,” says Raju, “He criticised everyone present for being thieves themselves — some evading income tax, some breaking building norms. The only difference between the con-man and them, he said, was that the man was stupid and they were clever. Then he bought a ticket for the robber and put him on a train to Raipur.”

But such strident outspokenness had its costs. Feared for his unforgiving morality, Suresh Hirani was often isolated by others. Around the time Raju was to graduate, his father was abandoned by someone very close to him, someone he had nurtured for over 40 years. “I became very depressed and frustrated,” says the father. “I started drinking and smoking heavily and withdrew into myself.” Things have improved vastly since then: rapprochements have been made; some of the reclusiveness has worn off. But clearly, his father’s growing bitterness has had a big impact on Raju.

In the untraceable ways in which creative impulses work, Raju’s father’s spirit imbues his films, but his implacable anger is pared down, softened, chiselled: made digestible. In a dexterous deflection (almost certainly not planned), in Raju’s films, it is the gangster Munnabhai who is made the crucible of the father’s unswerving moral vision. But he is recast as a divine fool: bumbling, lovable, a perfect counterfoil to show up the cruelties of the world. What’s more, Munna is further cosseted by the unflinching loyalty of the endearing Circuit. No one can find this rascal combination too daun – ting. In Raju’s films, no one risks abandonment or dislike. Even his villains — Doctor Asthana, Sardar Lucky Singh and Professor Virus — are flanked by loving daughters.

In 3 Idiots, Hirani may have veered a little more sharply towards shrill didactic: Rancho (though played admirably by Aamir) is conceived as an immaculate character who can do no wrong. Even at his most drunk, he spins out wise maxims about the suffocating pitfalls of education and grades, and the need to follow one’s heart over convention. His certitudes are softened only by his pranks, not by any vulnerability in his own character. Even then, clearly the son has arrived at what the father could not: the protective shield of comedy to deflect the costs of morality.

It’s exactly 20 days since 3 Idiots was released. The halls are still running full. Raju could be forgiven for sitting back a little, reveling in his many vindications. But Joshi has flown down from the US and the duo are ready to start on their next film: a satire on religious superstition.

Ask Raju again what success means and the miracle unusualness of the man kicks in. “I’m scared people will stop telling me the truth,” says he, “stop giving me frank feedback, start deferring to me just because I have three hits. I have to work hard at guarding myself against that.”

As a first step, Joshi and he are planning to drive out on January 14, away from the flashbulbs and party talk, and hit the road. “We’ll chat with people, absorb real experiences. We don’t want to risk repeating ourselves,” says Joshi.

But even as they are mindful of that, Hirani and Joshi face a very real threat of selfimitation. For instance, one of the projects hanging fire before them is Munnabhai Chale America. Hirani beat all expectation when he pull – ed off his first sequel. Can he really reprise Munna and Circuit yet again without marr – ing them with predictability?

At 44, his best years still lie before him and it’s difficult to hazard how Hirani’s body of work will evolve. But to unlock the full potency of his creative genius, one route might be to find a new midpoint between the father and the son’s moral vision.