PK is a thought-provoking movie. It’s thought-provoking enough to lead me to write this post although I’ve watched several thought-provoking movies in the past without making an effort to write about them. But PK is special. The official trailers described PK, the character played by Amir Khan, as someone who was in the habit of “correcting flaws”—but it’s more than that. PK delves into science fiction, theology, the nature of god, atheism, geo-politics, terrorism—and in doing so—takes you on a meta-cognitive spin into the Platonic concept of representation of a representation and so on.
Now this guy, Plato, was a difficult man. In his book “The Republic”, Plato described the features and constituents of the ideal republic in which he claimed that “poets”—possibly meaning all creative artists—were to be banished from this ideal republic because all creative artists are liars. And no, Plato’s ire wasn’t limited to creative artists alone—he believed all creation as we see and feel is a lie, a poor substitute, a diluted representation of the concept of creation. So that makes creative artists double-liars; because they pick and choose their materials from one lie to create another version of a lie, a representation of a representation—thus misleading people. Plato would therefore have nothing to do with creative artists in his ideal republic. There are Islamic theologians who say similar things—I’m told—which is why many conservative Muslims consider the liberal arts as immoral and corrupting. Who can forget the incidents relating to the Danish journalist who drew cartoons of the Prophet?
But Plato’s theory is not explored in PK. It’s just my meta-cognitive mind working overtime, and I’ll establish the connection a few laborious paragraphs later; sorry. The point of the preceding paragraph is to shout out my almost complete opposition to that theory. I’ll defend Plato’s and others’ right to spin theories but I’ll have my own theory to believe in and practise, thank you very much. And I believe in the imagination. All that drivel about the “concept” of things cannot be “imagined”, leave alone created or represented, if there wasn’t an intelligent guy somewhere imagining it. I mean, there was a time on this planet when there were no chairs. People sat wherever they wanted. But I’m sure there was a “concept” of the chair, that perfect metaphysical chair, and the physical wooden, plastic, fibre-glass and other chairs that we know are poor copies of that. I think I’ve established how important imagination is—which is what creative artists have. A chair might or might not be a brilliant piece of imagination or creation, but nevertheless, it’s important to us and therefore we owe it to the guy who imagined it, and created that first chair as a copy of its concept. I’m willing to fight it out with Plato to have this guy in my republic. I’m a sucker for imagination and freedom of speech and expression.
However, freedom of speech and expression means little if there’s no freedom to offend. At least that’s what it means in the classical liberal sense. And the freedom to offend is the acid test of a society’s tolerance. If a society cannot accept criticism, ridicule and caricature—whether it’s done to offend or to correct flaws—it’s not a tolerant society. The intolerance in society is revealed when academic works or art, speeches, or any other expression that goes against the majoritarian morals is reviled, destroyed, and authors, artists, commenters are threatened, penalized and exiled for exercising this freedom. What’s curious is that an intolerant society accepts arson, violence, and the threat of violence to get what it wants but refuses to accept dialogue, argument, and perspective. An intolerant society fights the pen with the sword, fights the brush with the sword, and even fights off ideas with the sword. That is sad because ideas feed actions, and actions drive progress. As liberals, we must absorb perspectives into our thinking and learn from this process. The chair is a good example, having come a long way from being a stump of a tree to the modern ergonomic chairs and chairs with controls to help the physically challenged.
Now, this is as long an introduction as you’ll probably ever get to read for a film review. I told you, PK’s special. This movie is an attempt to contradict, expose and rationalise our often irrational ideas about god, religion, communities, and so on. It uses an alien as a prop to introduce this
supposedly neutral perspective in medias res starting bang in the middle of a desert. However, what begins as a sort of pacifist-atheist take on religion evolves into something else as Rajkumar Hirani and Amir Khan shift the goalposts at regular intervals in the plot. Below is an attempt to summarize the plot and the method used to achieve the objective of the film.
PK is an alien who lands from a spaceship in the middle of a desert wearing nothing but a curious pendant. Curiously, he looks exactly like a very well-built, high maintenance, waxed and tanned Amir Khan err human. Almost immediately, PK sees two things: a fully clothed man and an approaching train. And before PK knows it, the man snatches his pendant, clambers on to the train and escapes. The pendant happens to be a remote control device that enables PK to communicate with his spaceship. Without the remote (remotwa in the movie), he’s unable to establish communication with his spaceship and therefore wanders in the desert for some time observing people. He takes some time to realise that clothes are not skin, and he perfects the art of finding cars in which people have sex with windows so ajar that he’s able to steal clothes and slink away. After getting clothed, PK goes around asking people where he could find his remotwa, and the most common answer he gets from irritated strangers is “god”. And thus PK’s quest for his remotwa evolves into his quest for god.
In another part of the world, a girl, Jaggu, played by Anushka Sharma, falls in love with a boy, Sarfraz, played by the very meaty, very sassy Sushant Singh Rajput. Girl and boy recite poetry, sing together, make out and seem to have pre-marital sex as well before girl announces to her family that she wants to marry this boy. The boy’s attempt at breaking this piece of news to his family is not shown, so we’ll ignore it. Anyway, all hell breaks loose in the girl’s family because they are from different communities. A religious teacher from the girl’s side predicts that the boy will ditch her because that community specialises in deception as a principle, and that’s exactly what happens, following which she comes home and starts working as a journalist.
*Meanwhile, PK has reached a big city. Here, PK finds an inordinate number of people dressed almost identically in white clothes. They are huddled in groups, waiting for a sentry to check their IDs and allow them to proceed to their god. Because PK is penniless and he needs money, he decides to make a purse lying around his own, thinking that it was meant to be taken. He’s immediately caught, searched, handcuffed after a few slaps and handed over to the guards. They carry on a swift trial in which they establish that PK is an alien and not even supposed to enter the place where he had stolen the purse from—and he readily accepts it, because he is, after all, an alien—and so, as a penalty for theft, they decree that his arm is to be sawed off. Scared out of his wits, PK steals another man’s white garb and slinks out undetected, and joins a crowd of people heading towards the holy place.
On reaching, PK notices that people are circumambulating a square piece of something that looked like a stone, and he joins them silently. After every round, PK searches his pockets to check if this god had returned his remotwa. But god and remotwa eludes him. Impatient, he asks someone loudly as to why they are circling on and on without any seeming benefit and when he could expect to get back his remotwa. As the stunned devotees stare at his insolence, a few guards come and arrest PK again. By this time, PK has had enough of human irrationality. He protests loudly that it must be a false god which leads people to believe that he is able to return his remotwa, whereas in reality, all sorts of unpleasant and undesirable things are happening to him without him getting anywhere near his remotwa. At this, the guards beat up PK and put him in a jail where additional charges of blasphemy are slapped on him.
As PK sat in the jail bewildered and heart-broken, he tells one of the guards that he’s from another planet and knows nothing about human beings or gods, and all he wants is his remotwa. The guard feels visibly uncomfortable at being forced to hear blasphemous words about the existence of other planets and creatures on them, so he reports this to his superior. The next day, a bearded man in flowing white robes comes to PK and asks him to become a follower of god. PK asks him if that will enable him to get his remotwa back. The bearded man in flowing white robes tells PK that if he is a true follower, god will not only give him whatever he asks for, but also grant him over 70 diaphanous, black-eyed virgins to fornicate with unendingly in gardens flowing with fruits, milk and honey. PK decides to focus on the remotwa and ignores the rest; and so he agrees to become a true follower. Soon, PK is released and sent to a special chamber where the true followers are gifted with a special stamp on their private part. Now this scares the sh*t out of PK and he manages to escape from this chamber.
By that time, night has fallen, and PK decides to try his luck with god one last time. He lurks amidst the darkness and approaches the place where he was arrested the previous day for asking questions. But before he reaches that place, he hears distant but menacing sounds of people shouting and stones grinding with terrific speed and ferocity. PK peers and watches people throwing stones at three pillars. Hundreds of people are gathered, their murmurs rising up like an ominous distant thunder with the unending crackle and grinding of stones hitting against stones. PK wonders if he should ask what’s happening but he doesn’t have the courage to risk another arrest. So he decides to slink away in the dark before the guards find him again.
As he travels, PK comes upon a land where people carry flowers and other items on plates to what they called their place of worship. But since PK is penniless and he doesn’t want to risk stealing someone’s purse again, he decides to take a camel with him to this place of worship. In the previous place of worship, PK had noticed that human beings killed camels by cutting their throats and asked god for forgiveness. And poor PK, not knowing that people here followed different customs, leads a grazing camel to a place where lots of people had queued up, flowers and plate in hand. When they ask him what he wanted to do with the camel, PK tells them that he wants to cut its throat and ask god to return his remotwa in barter. Suddenly, PK finds himself amidst a lynch mob with everyone trying to beat the living lights out of him. Confused, scared, irritated, PK decides to visit another place of worship. He just can’t make any sense of these gods, one which seems to like dead camels and another which seems to have a thing for flowers.*
After a few such disastrous incidents with different gods, PK reaches a point where he is on the brink of deciding that there is no god. However, he seems to think that there are some managers of god (but he’s not even sure if there is any god at all) who are making brisk money out of god. In short, PK is disgusted as much with god as with the business of making money from the business of god.
In the meantime, PK meets Jaggu, and Jaggu arranges for PK to meet her boss who had once been beaten up by the worshippers of the god that loved dead camels. And this boss arranges for PK to meet the religious teacher who had predicted to Jaggu that the boy she loved will ditch her because the community he came from specialises in deception as a principle. The idea was that because PK was so far exposed to different religious and cultural practices, and because of his vast intellect with which he could simplify complex theological matters into disarmingly simple, everyday questions, and also because PK was so used to getting beaten up that he would, by now, be able to beat anyone at anything—it was arranged that PK and Jaggu’s religious leader would have a live TV debate on god. The ultimate objective, apparently, was to have PK’s remotwa (which was with the religious leader) as the stake, which PK could claim when he defeated the religious leader in a religious argument about god.
But before the live TV argument on god happens, a number of curious but sort of unrelated things happen. I’ve already mentioned that PK knew about human sex and had perfected the art of stealing clothes from cars where people were having sex with open windows. Next, PK discovered condoms. And then PK discovered that he loved Jaggu after some dancing in the rain. But he also discovered that Jaggu was in love with another guy, who was from a different community—the one which her religious preacher said were masters of deception—and PK, heartbroken, right after this discovery finds himself in a railway station supposedly to receive a friend, when a terrorist strikes; a blast rips apart the train and most people die except for PK.
So when PK returns to Jaggu and her TV debate, he’s so overcome with emotion and pregnant with philosophical juices, that Rajkumar Hirani decides to make him ignore the dead bodies in the station and come back with a single shoe of his deceased friend. This emotion and philosophy catalyses into a fission so thunderous that PK demolishes the argument of the religious leader by saying that there are only two types of gods: the “true god” who created the universe and everything in it, and the “false gods” which religious leaders create in their own image to make money from. (There’s a cute experiment with a phoney shiv ling in a college campus which PK uses as a control to corroborate this theorem, but I’ll ignore it here.) And when PK announces this true god/false god binary, all hell breaks loose, again, and the argument comes to rest on a single point: whether or not Sarfraz had really really cheated Jaggu, as the religious leader had predicted. The logic is something like this:
1) If Sarfraz cheated Jaggu ~ then her religious teacher is CORRECT ~ not much is known about his religious views except that he lies about god
2) If Sarfraz didn’t cheat Jaggu ~ then her religious teacher is WRONG ~ because there can only be a “true god” or “false gods”
How an argument on god can be boiled down to whether or not an individual cheated another individual is beyond my intellect—but then I’m neither an alien nor the script writer of this film—but then, PK is proved right in the end. Jaggu and Sarfraz are united; Jaggu’s family accepts him with open arms because all their faith in the religious leader and his teachings—especially about Sarfraz’s community—evaporates after his one prediction about Sarfraz is proved wrong. And with tears in his eyes, PK tells the world that Sarfraz is an example that proves that his community is needlessly and wrongly maligned by people of being deceptive, while he
decides to ignores the terrorist attack in the station. So ends PK, with a positive note, bringing communities together, chastising humans for irrational practices such as wasting milk in bathing deities, proving the rational principle of true god/false god, and finally, going back to his spaceship.
It’s been a rather exhaustive description. But take heart, dear reader, if you haven’t watched the film yet, you have nothing to lose. For I have not given you the true story of the movie. The section in italics is entirely the product of my imagination. Such things are not shown in the movie at all, but I wish Raju Hirani and the Mr. Perfectionist had taken the trouble to explore the rationality of the desert cult with as much finesse and vigour as they’ve displayed in exploring Hindu rituals.
I’m not sure what critique of god or religious theology is possible without getting into textual details of that particular religion’s philosophy. I may be too dim for PK, but in my limited capacity, I think one cannot critique Hindu dharmic principles without discussing the Veds, Upanishads, the Smritis, and the Geeta. Similarly, one can’t reasonably critique Islam without discussing the Koran and the Hadiths. Again, it beats me how the dharmic principle of the plurality of divinity is battered with a sledgehammer to somehow boost a rag tag argument in favour of a true god/false god binary which is distinctly Abrahamic in principle.
To me, the supposedly rationalist objective of PK seems more like an attempt to treat a pimple with medications for the small pox, having completed the diagnoses using topical symptoms only. To be more specific, saying that a particular community is deceptive or culturally violent citing the lone example of Mohammed Ghazni is as rational as saying that another community is stupid because they waste milk in bathing idols. And if this is the sample of perfection expected from Mr. Perfectionist Amir Khan and the (why I don’t know) much celebrated Raju Hirani, then this industry is in serious need of divine intervention.
What emerges as a recurrent motif in our cinema is this propensity of our film makers to churn out shallow, facile plots to sell a nihilist, Marxist dystopia, with a generous effort to show that Hindu items of worship, rituals, practices and beliefs are irrational, not befitting a poor country, and fails to measure up to the true/false, rich/poor, good/bad binaries. Going back to Plato, what appears to me is this cosmic anti-Hindu bogey, that concept of the perfect argument against Hinduism—and movies like Water, Oh My God, and PK are little bites off that concept, polished and diluted into acceptable potions to be injected into the collective consciousness of the people with a certain regularity. It’s the same plot, same issues and same solutions packaged ad nauseam in the same shrill and messy Hindi-movie metaphors with a barely disguised condescension at the limited intelligence of people who find it possible to laugh at its jokes and agree with its message.
Why do we see the same thing rehashed and dished out to us time and again, as if once wasn’t good enough? It’s this representation of a representation I had been alluding to in my introduction. How would PK fare in the box office if the plot were to be what I described in italics? When Vishwaroopam released, there were nation-wide protests against it by certain people who claimed to have been shown in a negative light. Many theatres were forced to close as a result of violent protests. Is this the reason that our film makers avoid critiquing the desert cult? Or is criticising Hindu beliefs easy, conversely, because Hindus are relatively tolerant and have no problems with criticism as an intellectual activity? Why would Raju Hirani make a case for rationalism by critiquing Hindu belief systems for 90% of his movie? And if that’s his directorial discretion, given the obvious flaws in his script and representation of plot, the gaping question is, does he speak for himself or is this part of a bigger, grander pseudo intellectual design—the likes of which is predisposed to think of the entire human history as a materialistic binary between the haves and have-nots, making the way for legitimising other binaries perhaps? Or perhaps I’m reading too much into a film that only seeks to make money out of the business of gods while taking pot shots at the praying and paying audience? Is it a ploy to mislead the audience or to simply insult and get away with it?
My questions are genuine and not meant to be rhetorical. I wish someone could tell me how PK can pass off as an intellectual exercise in “correcting flaws” in a particular religion or group of religions. If this is not an intellectual exercise, then who will explain if it’s legally, morally and ethically correct to put together a supposed entertainment package that maligns a particular religion on false grounds? Why this discrimination in the propensity to offend a particular religion and spare the others?
What if I say—a la PK—that Mr. Raju Hirani, I’m not entertained by this movie which was supposed to entertain me, so kindly refund my money?