Archive for ‘The Art of Storytelling’

January 14, 2010

Storytelling Lessons from 3 Idiots

3 Idiots

I finally saw 3 Idiots last Saturday. I know I am quite late, but as they say, better late than never! Earlier I had decided that I will write a review of the movie after I watch it, but I don’t think it makes sense anymore. The movie is already on its way to create history and almost everybody who saw it loved it! So my review doesn’t matter anyway.

Now that the question whether you should watch the movie is meaningless, I decided I’d rather try to answer the more important question: why did everybody love the movie? Being a student and writer of fiction, this question fascinates me more than anything else. I am addicted to movies and books because it is my obsession to find out the secret behind the success of great stories.

What makes a story great?

Like many other fiction writers, it is my firm belief that the prime objective of any form of story, be it short story, novel, novella, movie, play or any other form of story, is to provide a powerful emotional experience. Everything else is secondary. Let me explain a little more as to what I mean by a powerful emotional experience. Put simply, a powerful emotional experience would mean a healthy mixture of smiles and tears. A drama would give you more of tears and less of smiles, and a comedy, ideally should give you tears along with loads of smiles. But how is that possible? A comedy is supposed to make you laugh, not make you cry right? Wrong.

A great comedy is one that makes you laugh and cry at the same time. Your tears may not be tears of sadness. It may be tears of joy, but it does take a few tears to make sense of a comedy and “connect” with it at the deepest human level. And untill and unless you really “connect” with it, you will not find it great. It will be just another comedy: enjoyable, entertaining, but not great. Bollywood film makers simply don’t get this fact (except for a few) and keep dishing out trash in the name of comedy. Even the comic acts of Charlie Chaplin, the pioneer and the greatest master of slapstick comedy, had its emotional moments. Anyone who has seen The Great Dictator (arguably, his best film), would understand what I am saying. Even if you take an out and out comedy example like the American Pie series, the best part about the series is not really the sex and the girls, but the bonding shared by the friends, which is both funny and touching. Thats why after the third part the series flopped, because it had only boobs, booze and no true emotions.

But then what about thriller, horror and other weird but great stories? These genres neither make you laugh nor make you cry. They create a different kind of sensation in you. Powerful emotional experience in this case will be the ability of the story to “shock and awe” you. The greater the “shock and awe” the greater the impact of the story. Movies like Fight Club (the Hollywood one), The Prestige, Perfume, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button fall under this category. Movies like these achieve greatness because of their ability to go beyond our imagination and present something that utterly mesmerises us, so much so, that you don’t have exact words to describe them. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is another example.

And then there are stories that make you laugh and cry and also create a shock and awe effect. You can’t be sure of their genre, because they go beyond the boundaries of genre. You can’t be completely sure of the range of emotions they evoke in you. You are mesmerized, stupefied, and left speechless. According to me, the best examples of this are movies like Forrest Gump or the Harry Potter series and novels like Midnight Children by Salman Rushdie. Is it any wonder that Harry Potter series is probably the most popular series ever (in both book and movie format), Forrest Gump is probably the best movie in the career of Tom Hanks, one of the finest actors in Hollywood or that Midnight’s Children has been voted as best book to get the Booker Prize in the past forty years?

What is hot about 3 Idiots (and what is not)

The best thing about 3 Idiots is its ability to make you both laugh and cry, in a way very few Bollywood movies have done before. With reference to the above discussion I don’t think I need to elaborate why that is no important for a story. At the heart of the story is a very simple but touching premise (which is present in a much lesser degree in Five Point Someone): you should follow your dream and do what you are really good at. Now that is a universal theme and will appeal to every human being! The rest of the story is just a great way of communicating this ideal. Now let us look into the different aspects of the movie that made it an above par movie, and some aspects that stopped it from becoming a great movie.


Characters, along with the basic plot, are the backbone of any story. The movie (and the book) both have very interesting characters. The book had Hari (the scared one and the narrator), Alok (the fat one), and Ryan (the cool one). The movie has Farhaan (the scared one and the narrator), Hari (another scared one, not much character differentiation with Farhaan) and Rancho (the demi-god, awesome, super intelligent and super cool one). So you see the problem with characterization in this movie is that two weak characters are pitted against a very strong character, which suits Amir and his fans very much (and that is one of the reasons why the movie became a hit), but from a purely storytelling point of view, is a weakness because it relegated the weak characters to the status of sidekicks. In this respect Movies like Rang De Basanti or Dil Chahta Hai were much better because all the characters were strong and no injustice was done to any of them.

Another thing that I didn’t like about the movie is that all the characters are one sided, the good are too good (Rancho) and the bad are too bad (Sahastrabuddhe) and almost all the characters in both the book and the movie are cliched and stereotyped. Real people are not like them. Ryan Oberoi of FPS was much more believable and real. Great characters are born out of internal conflict and doubt. But these characters are funny and they make you laugh and cry, so in spite of their drawbacks they work.

Interestingly the character of Chatur is drawing more attention than Rancho (the protagonist and the hero). The only reason I can give is Chatur is more believable and we all have known people like him.


The plot of the movie is better and more complex than the book, which is good but it is also too long and has some unnecessary elements (like the delivery sequence of Pia’s sister), which is bad. The movie could have been shorter without doing any harm to the basic story.


Probably the best part of the movie is its dialogue. Nobody will forget the trademark lines of characters (“Tohfa kubool ho Jahapanah!” “All is Well”) or the unforgettable speech of Chatur (“balatkar” and “stan”). No complaints in this regard. Top marks to the dialogue writers.


Again no complaints. Every actor did justice to his/ her potential and were awesome in their role. Credit must go to the director for getting the best out of their characters.

The Last Word

Last night, before sleeping I was thinking about the movie. And interestingly, it didn’t invoke in me, the kind of longingness I had felt when I had seen Dil Chahta Hai, or Rang De Basanti or Taare Zameen Par. I tried hard, but I couldn’t fall in love with the movie. And I started thinking. The movie is good, it is already a superhit, people can’t get enough of it and are watching it again and again, and still I felt something missing. I thought about it for quite some time and came to the conclusion that the movie (and the book) lack the honesty that is so essential for making a story great. It is clever, funny, tremendously entertaining, but not honest and so not great. If you don’t agree with me, then put a hand on your heart and ask yourself if the film makers didn’t cheat us by over simplifying an issue which is not so simple by burying it under an entertaining plot, clever dialogues, funny characters. Is life really so simple that you can just leave everything and follow your dreams and everything else will just fall in place? I don’t think so and I am talking from personal experience. What if Hari’s mother had decided to follow her dream, instead of making sacrifices to take care of her sick husband and her children?

But then, 3 Idiots makes you laugh and cry. And so you will curse me and love it anyway, wouldn’t you? It has got a rating of 8.5 on IMDB and 60% of the voters have given it a rating of 10/10. So the most important lesson to learn from this film is: give them loads of smiles and tears and they will forgive you for all your others mistakes. Its a great lesson in storytelling and in life. Unfair, but true.

November 27, 2009

The Building Blocks of a Great Story

Starting today this section of my blog will contain articles and videos that talk about how to create stories.

This post contains a series of videos on “The Building Blocks of a Great Story” by Ira Glass hosted on You Tube. According to Wikipedia, Ira Glass is “an American public radio personality, and host and producer of the radio and television show This American Life.” A simple Google search will reveal a lot more about him.

But this video series is not about Ira Glass but about what he has to say on the art of storytelling. So I’ll allow Mr. Glass to take over from here.  Since Mr. Glass is a radio professional, his views are more applicable to stories broadcasted on radio. But the core of these principles, especially what he talks about in the first video, can be applied even to fiction writing or script writing for a movie.

Ira Glass on Storytelling # 1

In this video he talks about two very critical elements of a story: One, the sequence of events and two, the narrative introspection. In any great story there is always a healthy balance between the two. One needs to have a “sense of storytelling” to decide on the sequence of events in a story. Interspersed between the events should be the narrative reflection or introspection, the part of the story that makes sense of the events.

Ira Glass on Storytelling # 2

In this video he talks about the importance of content for a great stories. Its difficult to find the content that makes for a great story and the storyteller needs to be ruthless when it comes to maintaining the creative and structural integrity of his/her story. A lot of sacrifice goes behind creating a great story.

Ira Glass on Storytelling # 3

In this video Ira makes an interesting but very accurate observation about the gap between one’s taste for good stories and the kind of stories one is actually creating. Since I am currently working on a novel I can vouch for this personally. What I am writing currently is nowhere near the kind of novels I love reading and sometimes I do get into a depression. But as Ira rightly points out, perseverance is the key in such situations. Keep working on folks if you want to bridge that gap!

Ira Glass on Storytelling # 4

In this video Ira talks about two common mistakes beginners make.

Disclaimer: The views presented in the videos above are those of Ira Glass and may not necessarily concur with those of the author of this blog.

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