Rear Window

Uncivil Engineer

Sandipan Deb is an IIT-IIM graduate who wandered into journalism after reading a quote from filmmaker George Lucas — “Everyone cage door is open” — and has stayed there (in journalism, not a cage) for the past 19 years. He has written a book on the IITs.
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3 Idiots’ portrayal of the IIT education system is both grossly unfair and untrue.

I cannot help but have my views on 3 Idiots coloured by the fact that I am an IITian. Call it Imperial College of Engineering, call it whatever, but what is obvious is that the film is a comment on the IIT system. And it is a grossly unfair comment.

I went to do engineering because at that time, if you were a middle-class boy and you were good in studies, it was either engineering or medicine that was fore-ordained. There was no other option you even entertained. A native dislike for Biology pushed me towards IIT, and there I went, quite happily. Within days, I discovered that engineering did not interest me in the least, and I spent the next years putting in just enough effort to survive. Professors either reviled me or despaired of me. But I have never had so much fun as I had on that campus.

Yes, our boys and girls are still rammed into the IITs by their parents, whether or not they have any interest or innate talent. Coaching classes turn aspirants into rote-monsters, and often, they end up without any life skills. In the IITs, you encounter characters like Chatur Ramalingam, the desperately competitive mugpot in 3 Idiots, but the truth is that such people rarely ever top their classes. There is an integrity in the system that makes sure that memorising and hard labour alone do not ensure the gold medal. In all fairness, Aamir Khan’s Rancho, pure talent and innovation and no respect for bookish learning, is also unlikely to snatch the top slot. To excel in IIT, you need a bit of both.

I don’t know about today, but in my time in IIT, nervous breakdowns due to academic pressure were not entirely uncommon. But, fair or unfair, we would have only derision for these unfortunates. IITs are competitive places, but it would be only those who took the competition too seriously who would work themselves into all sorts of dark places. For the large majority of students, it was merely a matter of doing well or not so well in academics, and let the devil take the hindmost. I remember quite a few occasions when my friends and I finished a semester exam, went for a film and came back in the evening to study for the next day’s test.

But the greatest injustice that 3 Idiots does is to IIT professors. Every professor in the film is shown as a moronic sub-human. The director of the institute, Sahasrabuddhe, played by Boman Irani, is an evil maniac who understands nothing but engineering, and is interested only in churning out a bunch of obsequious automatons. Now, all IIT professors are hardly perfect human beings, but this one-dimensional caricature of a teacher is unfair and untrue by any standard.

Indeed, IIT campuses have a great tradition of teacher-student bonhomie. Often, bored with the food that was being served in our hostels, we would just land up at a professor’s home, clamouring for dinner. And the professor’s wife would always graciously cook for us. Perhaps it was part of some sort of gurukul philosophy, but we just took it for granted, as did the professors.

Director Rajkumar Hirani has now made three films on the same theme: ‘Goodness will prevail, and Boman Irani must be reformed.’ In Munnabhai MBBS, it was medical studies, in Lage Raho Munnabhai, it was Gandhigiri. Now, it’s engineering studies.  I don’t know Hirani at all, but it seems possible that he has had some truly scarring academic experiences which have generally influenced his view. But even that cannot be an excuse for the pre-climactic scene in 3 Idiots, where a childbirth happens using all sorts of engineering jugaad. But the baby is not breathing. What to do? So everyone starts chanting the idiots’ motto: ‘Aal izz well’, and the baby starts kicking. I may be wrong, of course, but I thought engineering was all about rationality and logic, and not about Manmohan Desai trickery.

However, the IITs can learn at least one thing from 3 Idiots. The toilets. Any IIT student would die to have toilets like the ones Aamir Khan & Co prance and frolic around in. Maybe they will even tolerate professors like Irani.