Director and writer Rajkumar Hirani is just two films old, and as it happens, both have been among the seminal films of the past decade, giving movie lovers the plebeian, accidental philosopher Munnabhai. For his new film, 3 Idiots, which has Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Madhavan and Sharman Joshi in lead roles, he has changed his canvas—to a college campus in Delhi. Hirani’s writing can make you cry and laugh at the same time, and his direction, free of technical wizardry, focuses more on the moments that his characters inhabit. He spoke with Lounge about his writing and his pan-Indian sensibility. Edited excerpts:

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This is your first adaptation from a book to a film. How much did you change ‘Five Point Someone’, Chetan Bhagat’s book?

I ended up changing a lot. The book doesn’t have a plot as such, it’s more of a slice of life kind of narrative. I had to weave a plot around it to make it suitable for cinema, so besides the fact that half of the film is set in an IIT campus, and it has three protagonists, there’s not much similarity to the book. Chetan had sent me the book to read, and later on when I wanted to adapt it, I told him that it was going to be very different from the book. He was okay with that.

The cast: Sharman Joshi, Aamir Khan and Madhavan in 3 Idiots.

The book took me back to my hostel days at the film institute in Pune where I studied editing. You know, the little moments that make hostel life special.

Both the Munnabhai films were comedies, but they engaged with society at large. What is your framework for a script—do you think of the bigger idea first and then go into characters and other details?

I never intended either of the Munnabhai films as comedies. I never really thought that they were funny films; I meant them as light-hearted, feel-good films that could make people laugh as well as cry. But yes, I always think of the theme or idea, or whatever you call it, first and then go into characters. The idea for Lage Raho Munnabhai came to me when I encountered many people in parties who would criticize Gandhi; you know, say things like “Gandhi was responsible for India’s Partition", but when you probed, they would not have any solid explanations. It was cool to criticize Gandhi. So the idea I started with was: Resurrect for the new generation what Gandhi was, in a light-hearted film.

Hirani was an editor before he turned scriptwriter and director Shriya Patil Shinde / Mint

Is the big idea in 3 Idiots the malaise in the education system?

The big idea here is a message for young Indians: Chase excellence, and success will follow. It’s a pretty basic message. Of course, education in our country is a race for marks. There’s no attempt to learn as much as learn how to get marks. Even an institution like the IIT can’t escape this. So the story is about three guys in Delhi IIT who are not so interested in studies. The film has two time spans—what happened to the three protagonists after they left IIT. Two go in search of the third. At the centre of it is the love story between the characters played by Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor. It’s again a light-hearted, emotional look at youth. Both students and parents will identify with it.

Your two earlier films have appealed to all kinds of audiences—from city multiplex ones to small-town, single-theatre ones. From the look of it, ‘3 Idiots’ seems to be meant for a more niche, urban, educated audience.

Perhaps, but 3 Idiots is about middle-class aspirations; and there’s a middle class everywhere in India. I’ve been lucky that my films have worked with all kinds of audiences; that could have something to do with the fact that I grew up in Nagpur, studied in Pune and have been working in Mumbai, so it’s a kind of a pan-Indian sensibility, which I think comes across also in 3 Idiots.

Aamir Khan is not known to be an easy actor to work with because of the extent of his involvement in every project. Is it true that he tries to get his way with directors with his own ideas?

He always has his options for scenes; and he insists on doing proper, on-location rehearsals before the shoot. If, as a director, you are a perfectionist, you will understand where Aamir is coming from. He is very involved, but he’s also not an actor who disrespects his director if he knows the director knows what he wants. I took suggestions from Aamir, but that didn’t mean I had to take all of them.

3 Idiots releases in theatres on 25 December.