PK

Fable for the times

Print edition : January 23, 2015

A still from the film "PK".

At an event in Hyderabad to promote the film, (from left) director Rajkumar Hirani, Aamir Khan and Anoushka Sharma. Photo: PTI

A poster of the film.

Another poster of the film.

PK is a film that, through an alien figure, throws up point-blank questions about religious beliefs, customs, rituals, temples of gods, priests, godmen and all that go along with it.

IN an age when subtleties and nuances are lost in the hubbub of the market, when “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”, one seems to need film fables like PK to call the shots upon the terrible nonsense, rabid intolerance and inhuman violence that have seeped into every nerve and sinew of society. One could critique Rajkumar Hirani’s PK as a glorified TV reality show. Indeed it is so, in a certain sense. Especially in the way in which it conceives of the climactic television show in it as a space above and beyond the clutches of vicious interests and vested tastes. It blissfully forgets the fact that just like the godmen PK is fighting, media itself are run by an increasingly globalising oligopoly that moulds and presides over a hegemony of consensus about a lot of other myths like morality, nationalism, development, rationality and beauty. PK thus conveniently glosses over the eminent similarities between the two. Compounded to this is the fact that there is not a single image of a politician in the film, and the only visible representatives of the state we see in it are policemen of the lowest ranks. All this clearly outlines the apolitical ideological terrain within which the narrative unfolds.

But PK does use television to animate and tie its narrative knots. From the everyday world of television discourses, PK picks and plays with several sensational and sensitive (“hurtable sentiments”) issues that haunt our politics and public sphere: it openly discusses mandir building projects, pries into the shady world of godmen, jestingly hints at love jehad, takes communalism head on, and makes fun of jingoism. Without much ado and with the ease only a “superhit-to-be” can adopt, PK rips apart the masks that cover the greed, inhumanity and violence that lurk behind these ghosts. This slew of subtexts gives an icing to PK’s mega dream-narrative of a free, rational, democratic India (a la Satyameva Jayate). In the narrative world of PK, it seems TV is the only conceivable platform in India (the spiritus mundi, as it were) where one could hope to bring everyone together and provide some space for other voices. The television screen/arena still seems to offer that popular magic and spontaneous unpredictability where the powerless could still speak out and, obviously, in this tele-drenched world, the new hero/ine is the television reporter.

To appeal to a pan-Indian audience of subcontinental dimensions and cultural diversity, one needs to work with the lowest common denominators in terms of narrative style, stereotypes, visual idiom, masala formula, etc., which PK does with effortless ease. At one level PK is an India-Pakistan love story that develops into an interstellar love triangle; it is told by an alien incapable of telling lies, who, in the process, turns into a crusader against godmen on earth and goes on to settle scores and finally succeeds in reuniting a divided family back into its original form (undivided India?). Into its narrative web, PK weaves together all the elements one can think of: science fiction, an inter-religious love story that shifts its location from an NRI (non-resident Indian) to an Indian family setting, a sentimental family melodrama, a media crusade against godmen, and in the middle of it all, an alien picking his way through India in perpetual wonderment. But he is not powerless like a Chaplin tramp, but seems to win hearts all the way and has powerful media machinery and professionals to back him.

PK begins with shots of outer space, gradually zooms down to the earth and to the vast vacant landscape of Rajasthan, where a glowing space ship slowly descends and from which a nude PK (Aamir Khan) steps out. Shortly after landing, this alien from another planet is robbed of the remote that connects him with his host planet, and he is literally lost on earth. His primary mission is to find it, which triggers the rest of the story. From here, the film moves to Belgium to narrate a spicy love story between a Hindu Indian girl Jagat Janani (Anushka Sharma) and Sarfaraz (Sushant Singh Rajput) a Muslim Pakistani boy. This brief but intense love relationship is suddenly disrupted and the heroine returns to Delhi, to work as a television journalist, adding a twist to the story and the tropes of separation and longing into the narrative. Her boredom prods her to pursue PK, the odd man she happens to meet in a metro station. PK has arrived in Delhi in search of his lost remote. After a series of encounters that inflame her curiosity, he recounts his story to her, through a flashback of his encounters with the men and women and the customs and manners of earthlings he came across. It is a journey that spans the rustic colour and gaiety of Rajasthan and the dust and din, thrill and throng of the metropolis of Delhi, the other extreme of India.

Bestowed with the gift of accessing the thoughts and knowledge of others through touch, he learns the Bhojpuri language from a sex worker. If such tactile communication is denied, he has to rely upon the words and deeds of people around him, which he finds totally contradictory. People say one thing and mean something else, and do something entirely different! He discovers that the same object, act, dress or colour mean different things to different people.

In this search he stumbles upon the word “god” several times in several contexts as the primal cause of and solution for everything, which urges him to approach god directly to get back his lost “property”. This journey through beliefs, rites, rituals, idols, divine images, talismans, offerings, temples, churches, mosques, priests, and all the paraphernalia that accompanies religion, god and godmen is the most hilarious and also the most subversive part of the film. It is a series of comic sequences that shuttle across the contradictions between the signifiers and the signified, the connotations and denotations that words, images, objects, gestures, dresses, spaces and expressions produce. PK seems to belong to a primal haven where both are always identical. In his search for god, he realises that people are getting wrong answers because they are calling the “wrong numbers”, especially through the godmen who mediate between common people and the gods. Later, he understands that it is fear that propels people to believe in “wrong numbers”; he even demonstrates how easy it is to instil fear in people and earn money out of it.

In his desperate search for god, he chances upon an actor donning the costume of Siva (with the serpent around his neck and all), whom he chases to seek a solution to his problem. This duplicate Siva, scared to death, takes refuge in a prayer meeting of a superstar godman, Tapasvi Maharaj (Saurabh Shukla). This godman is in possession of PK’s remote, which he is prominently exhibiting as a “direct gift” from god. From then on, it is a duel between Tapasvi Maharaj and PK, initially at his prayer meetings, and later at the TV studio, where they have a live face-to-face programme. In this climactic encounter, PK takes on the godman’s challenge and demolishes him by proving his prediction that Jaggu’s Pakistani lover will ditch her to be wrong. As it is a fable, questions about other modes of keeping in touch or tracking lost friends through all-too-familiar means like FB or other sites on the Internet is irrelevant here. So, in the end, truth triumphs ( satyameva jayate), the godman is routed, PK gets back his remote and returns to his home planet (but only after learning to tell lies from his brief stay on earth and with a broken heart), Jaggu is reunited with her lover and her family, she also succeeds as a writer of the book “PK” and once again becomes worthy enough to earn the adulation of her father.

What makes PK different from other films is its daring in peppering its loud, colourful masala with stinging questions and troubling queries about religious beliefs, customs, rituals, temples of gods, priests, godmen and all that go along with them. PK is a film that throws up point-blank questions about the real intentions behind building temples, about the absurd “common sense” about the “treacherous Muslim”, etc. In troubled times like ours, when one is forced to discuss divisive non-issues like “ghar vapsi”, when institutions of learning are converted into propaganda machinery of monolithic beliefs, and all “ceremonies of innocence are drowned” in blood, questions that PK asks assume ominous relevance. This alien figure could also be a wishful fantasy about the Second Coming, for the arrival of someone to poke and startle us out of our slumber and sloth. Almost a century ago, Yeats had put it much more harshly:

“..somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour comes round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

With no other planet to return to, we need to listen to PK’s troubling questions in order to make this nation on planet earth more humane and habitable.

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