Guest Post by PRABHAT KUMAR
Commenting on a Hindi film released a month ago is a difficult enterprise, but this ‘delayed’ review of PK highlights what the film critics so far have ignored. Through intelligent crafting of its narrator-figure and its satirical narrative, I argue, this astoundingly successful Hindi film questions the ordinary and banal of Indian public life. The political vision behind PK’s satirical attack is old but relevant: Nehruvian.
Breaking the grammar of normalcy, Pee Ke!
“Oye Pee Ke hai kya?” (Are you drunk?), is the dismissive riposte that PK, protagonist-narrator, of the film receives for questions he asks. For, the questions he asks are considered ‘abnormal’. But he is persistent with his ‘odd’ queries and prying gaze, like a drunken man, unmindful of the wrath he may invite from the sober and normal beings. He is tireless and gawking in his ‘weird’ interrogations, like a curious child, unaware of the risk of irreverence to mature beings. But, why does he ask such ‘strange’ questions? What makes his questions ‘unheard-of’ and his snooping eyes ‘clumsy’ in normal everyday life? Why is his ‘drunken-childish’ probing inadvertently insistent to confront the normalcy of mature world? The answer lies in the carefully crafted lead character and the political subtext that inform PK.
Who is PK?
PK (Amir Khan), the lead character of Rajkumar Hirani’s excellently crafted mainstream Hindi film, is an alien from another planet. He alights on earth (like an avatara or godly messiah!) to know about its people and their lives. His spaceship leaves him in the desert of Rajasthan. The audience gets to know that PK is equipped with one material belonging hanging from his neck – a locket-shaped remote to communicate with his planet members. He also possesses two great skills: one like a computer and another like a human. He has a basic aptitude to reason like any other human has. He has the power to transfer into his mind the ‘language-system information’ of anybody by holding the latter’s hand (or, plugging himself with another being) for a few hours.
With these bare belongings PK walks curiously towards the world, with open body and mind (like a new born!). Bedazzled in the new planet, he soon realizes that his locket is robbed and so the passage to his home is lost too. The film, in the main, is the story of his travel and travails to retrieve his stolen property in the Indian part of the planet earth. The otherworldly narrator-protagonist PK confronts the everyday life and reality of India. A reality that appears normal to its inhabitants, from PK’s vantage point, however, is incongruous and, hence, disturbingly humorous. PK turns out to be a satire on the banality of Indian public life. It mocks enchantment of Indians with religion, ridicules the dominance of ‘managers of god’ in Indian public life, and warns against religious prejudice and its dangerous consequences. It messes itself with contemporary reality from the old but relevant Nehruvian approach, and scathingly attacks Indian politics marred by religious fundamentalism and bigotry.
What equips PK to see the (Indian) world as only he can see it? Why do common people around him cannot perceive, what PK, and through PK’s eyes the audience, visualizes: Indian reality as incongruous with reason, hence, ridiculous and grotesque? What makes the film a fabulous piece of satire?
Looking through PK’s glass: Gaze of the narrator
Like narrator-figures of well known modern and pre-modern Indian satirical pieces (Bankimchandra’s Kamalakanta, Bharatendu’s Choosa Paigambar, etc.), PK is invested with signs of semi-divine externality (he is appears from another planet), intoxication and madness (he talks as if ‘Pee Ke’). An alien incarnate PK, needless to say, is an outsider to earth, who goes into the interiors of the social environment and experiences the Indian part of human world. He encounters Indian society and culture and makes sense of his experience from such a vantage point, tinted, of course, by critical reasoning aptitude. PK’s gaze, thus, entails a locational advantage. He stays untainted by prevailing ‘normalcy’ because he has not inherited the current worldview (status quo), which cannot look beyond the immediate and beneath the obvious, and hence, cannot scrutinize itself. His gaze, therefore, is effortlessly dissecting. He is disturbingly puzzled at ‘normalized’ order of the inhabited world, a world, if seen from his lens, falling short of reason and rationality in public life.
In sum, PK confronts Indian reality, but finds it incongruous with his expectation putatively built on a reasoned commonsense. The audiences, who look at the cinematic rendition of an Indian reality through the alien-narrator PK’s eyes, are automatically made to confront two contradictory realities: 1) normalized everyday world as-it-is, falling short of reason in public life, and 2) ideal world as-it-should-be, something to aspire for. Incongruity, as we all know, creates an ideal situation for humour, which (when directed at one’s own self) is critical and subversive. PK’s entire narrative, then, turns out to be a great satire on the prevalent political reality of India. It dissects the collective-self of an imagined India, which is diverse in its faith but uniform in its irrationality, superstition and intolerance in public life.
Watching PK in the time of ramzadas
The response to PK, as I write this essay, is massive and diverse both inside the film theatre and outside. The general audiences, who have made this film the biggest commercial success in the history of Hindi film industry, laugh and turn somber. Intelligent film critics appreciate its reformist humour, but bemoan its masala and sting it for its populism. The real life counterparts of the film’s villain Tapaswiji, their allies and subordinates, who love to call themselves ramzadas (children of Hindu god Rama), have been up in arms from social media to the streets. While audience’s reaction and critics’ response is largely appreciative, real Tapaswijis and their henchmen are violently critical. They have vandalized theatres, called the film and its protagonist Pakistani Kutta for it is anti-god and, more precisely, anti-Hindu. What makes this film so controversial? Is it anti-Hindu? Is it anti-religion? Is it anti-godman? Is it anti-god? Or, is it simultaneously all or none?
The rationalist PK’s satire is strongly against the managers of god and their henchmen. This is too obvious to warrant any further elaboration. It is also anti-religion in a sense that not only Hindu but also Islamic and Christian practices, the film shows, are marked by spurious rituals, god-managers, and are equally intolerant to others. It is no surprise, therefore, that a few Muslim and Christian clerics have criticized the heathen character of the film.
PK, however, is unabashedly against Hinduism, and its rituals, which are centrally constitutive of Hindu religious practice, are mocked in no uncertain terms. Hinduism is the privileged subject of satire while other religions are marginal. This is so not because the film wants to reform, or alternatively denigrate, Hinduism more than any other religion, as the Hindu right have been arguing. It is because in the cinematic imagination PK follows a nebulous idea of India, which is constituted primarily by its religious communities. Religious identity precedes all other identities of Indians. (After all, in the film we meet Indian citizens, who are always carrying marked or unmarked religious denominations.) In this imagination, Hinduism is centrally constitutive of Indian nation, which is heterogeneous; other religions are politically important, but culturally peripheral. To put it differently, PK’s satire appears anti-Hindu because it laughs at an Indian nation, which, in the film’s self-understanding, is predominantly constituted by Hindus, albeit Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, etc. also are part of it.
On the other hand, the film is ambiguous in its attack on god. In the melodramatic climax PK unequivocally says that there are two gods, one who created the universe and another who is created by the mortals of earth. He is against the managers of god; he is opposed to the divisive institution of religion and its paraphernalia. He has no problems with god-the-creator; as PK speculates, god is too busy and far way to be invoked for man-made problems. Social problems, PK alludes to, can be dealt only by civil and state institutions, not by the god and his managers. He, unlike the hero of OMG (the 2012 Hindi film with a similar story) without bending himself to the authority of god, pushes god away from everyday public life of India with agnostic skepticism.
Is PK, then, an inverted image of the ideal secular Indian with strong scientific temper and commitment to reason and rationality in public life? Isn’t PK’s figure uncannily similar to the idealized citizen espoused and enshrined in the sacred book of Indian democracy: Indian Constitution? Is it this figure of the rational Indian citizen of a secular democratic republic that has come under attack from ramzadas?
Prabhat Kumar is Assistant Professor of History, Presidency University, Kolkata.