“PK” - Rajkumar Hirani (2014)

Rajkumar Hirani’s PK (2014) is a comedic sci-fi fantasy that offers a light-hearted comparative look at religious practices and dogmas in India.  Given India’s many staunchly-held religious sects, this is a somewhat risky subject area for an Indian filmmaker to enter into, but Hirani managed successfully to fashion a film that poked some fun, yet still avoided much controversy.  The film was favourably received by most critics, both in India and internationally [1,2,3,4], and it was a hit at the box office.  In fact when it was released, PK emerged as the highest-grossing Indian film of all time, and it still ranks as one of India’s highest grossing films ever [5].

Rajkumar Hirani, who directed, edited, and co-produced this film, also teamed up with Abhijat Joshi to write the script for PK.  Joshi and Hirani had earlier co-scripted Hirani’s previous film, 3 Idiots (2009), which had also taken a satirical look at a social issue, on that occasion concerning educational practice, and which was also a big hit.

Another common feature of PK and 3 Idiots was the appearance of popular lead actor Aamir Khan, who here plays the title role.  Khan has appeared in a number of films that display his dancing ability, but here in PK he is also given a chance to show off his well-sculpted physique.

The story of PK concerns an alien astronaut (played by Aamir Khan) from a far-off planet who is stranded on Earth because he has lost his means of returning to his spaceship.  Although he looks like a human being (apart from his bug-eyed countenance and protruding ears), he knows nothing about human practices and culture.  In particular, he doesn’t know how to talk – on his planet they communicate by direct mental transmission of thoughts when they hold each others’ hands.  And also on his planet the people there don’t wear any clothing

So at the start of the film, when the alien first drops down from his large spaceship in an open area somewhere in Rajasthan, he is naked, except for a bejewelled ornamental medallion around his neck.  This supposed medallion is actually a vital remote communication device that the alien needs to communicate with his spaceship, but it is quickly stolen by the first human that the alien encounters.  So immediately the alien is alone and stranded on this new planet.  As the alien encounters other humans, his odd (to them) behaviour causes them to assume that he is drunk, and so they start calling him “PK”, which when pronounced phonetically signifies the Hindi word for ‘tipsy’.

Very quickly and without explanation, though, the film shifts to a flashback in Belgium involving  ordinary humans.  There two Indian students, Jagat "Jaggu" Janani Sahni (played by the beautiful Anushka Sharma) and Sarfaraz (Sushant Singh Rajput), meet and fall in love.  But Jaggu is an Indian Hindu and Sarfaraz is a Pakistani Muslim, so when Jaggu’s tradition-bound father learns about their affair, he is alarmed. After consulting self-satisfied Indian god-man Tapasvi Maharaj (Saurabh Shukla), who claims to divine that Sarfaraz will betray Jaggu, her father expresses his opposition to their proposed immediate marriage.  But Jaggu and Sarfaraz go ahead with their plans anyway.  However at the actual marriage registration event, Jaggu is stood-up and left broken-hearted.  She returns to India alone and starts working as a TV reporter.

So now we move back to the “present time” and have two main narrative threads in the film: PK’s story and Jaggu’s story.  These are quickly linked up when the enterprising TV reporter Jaggu, looking for an interesting story for her show, hears about PK, who by this time is a clothed, but weird, vagrant.  He is now able to talk like a human and is wandering the streets in futile search of his missing remote device.  Noone believes PK is an alien astronaut; they just assume he is tipsy.  But Jaggu finds his weirdness likely of interest to her TV audience.  Eventually she tracks PK down and manages to interview him while he is briefly locked up in a jail cell, where PK gives her his account, dramatized in flashback, of things that have happened to him since his arrival on Earth. 

One of the interesting things that PK tells her is how he learned to talk.  Initially the mute PK was trying to hold onto the hands of people he met, hoping by this means to communicate with them in his fashion, but this was always met with hostility, particularly when he tried this with women.  Eventually, though, he is befriended by a bandmaster, Bhairon Singh (Sanjay Dutt), who feels guilty after having accidentally run into PK with his truck.  Singh tries to make PK happy and finally takes him to a brothel, hoping that will loosen him up.  But PK spent the whole night just holding onto a prostitute’s hands, and by doing so, he was able to “download” everything in her mind.  The next morning he could talk, and he suddenly knew lots about human life and culture.  Then he was able to accelerate his quest to find out how to get home.

This is the point in the film when things start to get interesting.  When PK queried people he would meet on the street, many of them told him that only God could help him.  But who was God and how could He be reached?  As PK investigated this matter further, he discovered there were a number of different stories about who this mysterious God was, and these stories were detailed by certain “managers” (i.e. clerics) who each asserted that they had privileged access to the truth.  PK sincerely tries to practice a number of these religions – including Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Islam, and Christianity – but he only gets confusion and nowhere to his ultimate goal.

After telling this tail about his experiences to Jaggu, PK eventually convinces her that he really is an alien and that he is telling the truth.  So she vows to help him find his remote device so that he can return to his home planet. 

At this time also, PK learns that when humans dial telephones, they sometimes get the wrong number.  And so he conjectures that the various god-men that he has encountered or heard about have been trying to connect to God, but they have just gotten the “wrong number” – they haven’t connected with the real God.  When Jaggu hears PK offer his “wrong number” theory about the god-men, she gets excited that the idea will click with the public, and so she conveys the notion to her TV audience.  The public’s enthusiasm about PK’s wrong-number notion upsets god-man Tapasvi Maharaj, and this eventually leads Jaggu to arrange for a TV debate between Tapasvi Maharaj and PK about the validity of the latter’s wrong-number idea. 

The ensuing TV debate is a dramatic highlight of the film, because it offers a succinct comedic showcase and summation  of the questions about religious dogma that have been presented in the film.  In the debate, PK has the opportunity to contrast the difference between the admittedly unknowable God that created us all with the artificial and limited “god” that the dishonest Tapasvi Maharaj had concocted (as well as with the similar artificial “gods” that other god-men hucksters have invented). 

Of course there are some other dramatic aspects of this story that I haven’t mentioned and that you can discover.  For example, the clever but innocent PK falls madly in love with Jaggu.  In addition Jaggu’s earlier beloved, Sarfaraz, reappears on the scene, and his alleged matrimonial betrayal is reconsidered.  So there are still some questions that have to be answered.  For example:
  • Who does Jaggu wind up with?
  • Will PK retrieve his remote device?
  • Will PK remain on Earth or return to his native planet?
See the movie, and find out the answers to these questions for yourself. 

From an overall perspective, we can identify several virtues of the film PK.  For example, the musical numbers are entertaining, and the dancing is well done – particularly the energetic dancing on the part of Aamir Khan and Anushka Sharma.  And the acting performances are generally okay.  I was particularly charmed by Anushka Sharma’s engaging screen persona.  But there were also some elements of the film didn’t quite add up for me. 

One issue that I had with the film concerned basic realism.  Of course we know that in a sci-fi-tinged fantasy, there are going to be some inevitable compromises with realism.  But still there were some unrealistic elements that stood out for me.  One of them concerned the aliens’ ability to vocalize.  PK says that they don’t know how to talk on his alien planet; they communicate there by hand-holding. And yet we soon see that they have evolved to have vocal chords like we humans.  It seems odd that they would never have naturally evolved the ability to speak vocally on their planet.  (Later, PK downloads human knowledge from the prostitute and can then speak like us.) 

Another minor quibble I have that screenwriter Hirani could have easily avoided is when PK says his planet is four billion miles away from Earth.  But the nearest star to our sun (and hence the nearest candidate solar system that could have life forms) is about 25 trillion miles away.     

And although Aamir Khan puts a lot of energy into his role as PK, I found his performance to be too goofy for me to empathize with.  His clown-like, bug-eyed mugging was too much of a distraction on this occasion.

On the whole, though, this film PK does successfully manage to take a light-hearted look at a potentially volatile social phenomenon – religious hypocrisy.  This is something that infects all religions to varying degrees.  And it can occur when presumed managers or authorities of the religion mistakenly assert that they have direct contact with their god and are authorized to proclaim his teachings, when in fact they may have, to put it in PK’s terms, just "dialled the wrong number”.  As PK suggests, the mysteries behind our being and world of experience are probably deeper and more profound than many of these doctrines would suggest.  Our best advice for this time of world crisis may be simply to spread our love as far as possible – even to those beings, alien or otherwise, we may encounter in the future.
★★

Notes:
  1. Rachel Saltz, “Appealing to God, a Disoriented Space Alien Hopes There’s Help Out There”, The New York Times, (19 December 2014).   
  2. Martin Tsai, “Review:  Bollywood musical ‘PK’ a radical film in extraterrestrial guise”, Los Angeles Times, (21 December 2014).   
  3. Edmund Lee, “Film review: Bollywood’s PK sees alien search for remote control and god”, South China Morning Post, (2 September 2015).   
  4. Meeta, “PK”, WithOut Giving the Movie Away, (n.d.).   
  5. “List of highest-grossing films in India”, Wikipedia, (18 March 2020).   

“Roma” - Alfonso Cuarón (2018)

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018) is a film that, given its stylistics, I wouldn’t have expected to be to my tastes.  After all, it’s a slow-moving tale with many long takes and without a clear-cut narrative direction over the course of much of the film.  And the fact that the film was shot in black-and-white would seem to further distance the goings-on from the viewer.  Nevertheless, I found the film to be a rich and rewarding viewing experience, and I strongly recommend it to you.

Alfonso Cuarón, a well-known filmmaker with a range of styles, is perhaps best known for his dystopian sci-fi thriller Children of Men (2006).  But Roma appears to represent something of a departure from his past dramatic work, in that it seems more personal and reflective.  Certainly its creation was personal – Cuarón was the writer, director, cinematographer, co-editor, and co-producer of this film.  Moreover, the  story of the film is set in 1970-71 in a neighborhood of Mexico City and in a family setting that corresponds closely to Cuarón’s own childhood family environment. 

Note also that as far as stylistics are concerned, the film’s title, Roma, which here refers to the affluent Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, has suggested to some reviewers a sly reference to Italian neorealism of the 1950s and 60s [1].  However, I would not place too much emphasis on that association, other than as an offhand homage to Federico Fellini.

Anyway, the film was very well received by critics [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8], and it won numerous awards [9].  In particular, Roma received 10 nominations for the 91st U.S. Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and it was chosen by Time magazine and the New York Film Critics Circle as the best film of 2018.

The story of Roma revolves around the experiences of a young woman, Cleodegaria "Cleo" Gutiérrez, who is an indigenous [10] live-in maid for a professional family living in the upper-middle-class Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City.  The focalization of the film is exclusively maintained on Cleo, the part for which is wonderfully played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio; but much of what is going on in the film are things that happen around and to Cleo, rather than events generated by Cleo, herself.  In this sense Cleo is more of a witness to the world around her than an active causal agent; but thanks to Yalitza Aparicio’s sensitive performance, the viewer can empathize with all the subtle feelings she has over the course of the story.  Thus by this means of a largely passive protagonist, as in many famous cinematic and literary works (think, for example, of those of Franz Kafka), the viewer has access to the larger social themes of the story [11].

These major themes, which are essentially interrelated, are:
  • Womanhood and Motherhood  – what it means in terms of expectations, obligations, and fulfillment.
     
  • Manhood – particularly in connection with the obsessive emphasis on masculinity in Latin American culture.
     
  • Love – what love entails in all its forms, not just romantic love.
     
  • Life and Death – how one faces the ultimate issues of existence.
Given the fundamental nature of these themes, we can say then that Roma is an existentialist film [12].  Note that I am in agreement with philosopher Shawn Loht that for a film to be considered to be philosophical, it need not explicitly articulate a philosophical thesis; it can simply present its philosophical themes in the form of a phenomenological experience for the viewing audience [13].  And it is this existentialist nature of Roma that elevates it to an exalted status.

The rather meandering plot of Roma revolves around Cleo and the household in which she works.  These people are
  • Sofía (played by Marina de Tavira), the mother of the family
  • Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), Sofía's often absent husband and the family’s father
  • The four young children:
    • Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey)
    • Paco (Carlos Peralta)
    • Sofi (Daniela Demesa)
    • Pepe (Marco Graf)
  • Teresa (Verónica García), Sofía's mother
  • Adela (Nancy García), another indigenous live-in maid of the family and Cleo's close friend
A key feature of this story’s telling is Alfonso Cuarón’s artful and contemplative cinematography.  This was Cuarón’s first outing as a solo cinematographer, but he reveals himself here to be a master.  There are many long, carefully-staged panning and tracking shots, some lasting more than five minutes, that reveal the atmospheric milieu in which Cleo lives.  To some viewers these shots may have suggested to them the documentary-like flavor of Italian neorealism, but Cuarón’s shots are far from that kind of offhand spontaneity.  Instead, they are so carefully framed and executed that they evoke a moody, almost haunting, feeling on the part of the invisible witness viewing (via the camera) what transpires in the film.

An example of this is the opening shot, which lasts 5½ minutes and shows Cleo dutifully mopping the enclosed driveway of the household.  Then various mundane household activities are shown that gradually introduce the family members and Adela to the viewer.  Father Antonio is shown briefly, but then soon leaves to go on a research trip to Quebec.  Because mother Sofia works as a science teacher, Cleo must spend a considerable amount of time looking after the children.  And although the children are often naughty, it is clear that they all love Cleo, and she loves them.

Adela and Cleo are close friends, and they often converse with each other in their native Mixtec language.  One day Adela arranges a double-date by having her boyfriend Ramon bring along his relative Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) to be with Cleo.  Fermin, a cocky young he-man obsessed with his martial-arts practice, soon maneuvers Cleo into sleeping with him, and they begin an affair.  A couple of months later, however, Cleo suspects she is pregnant, and when she  informs him of this when they are making out in the back of a movie theater, he quickly excuses himself to go to the bathroom and immediately disappears from her life.  Like so many young women in her position, Cleo is going to have to face this problem alone, without any support from her male partner. 

When with great hesitation Cleo informs her mistress Sofia about her condition, she expects to be fired.  But Sofia responds with great sympathy and tells her she will support her through this crisis.  This encounter is shown with great sensitivity in a moving 5-minute shot.  The viewer will soon learn that Sofia is, herself, dealing with her own problems with men who disappear from their responsibilities.  Her husband Antonio is pretending to be away in Quebec but is actually back somewhere in Mexico City and having an affair with another woman.

As Cleo’s pregnancy proceeds, there are various other dramatic activities depicted, including a family visit to a friend’s countryside hacienda, which happens to occur when a massive forest fire breaks out and everyone frantically works together to try and curtail it.  There is also a time when Cleo was able to track down Fermin at his martial arts class.  When she approaches Fermin, he dismisses her as a mere servant, and he threatens her with life-threatening violence if she claims he has any legal responsibilities in connection with her condition.  Sofia, by the way, is suffering with her own problems, too, and at one point, in a half-inebriated state, she moans to Cleo that “we women are always alone”.

Finally, with Cleo’s due date approaching, Teresa takes Cleo to a store in town to look at a baby crib to buy.   But just at this time the infamous Corpus Christi Massacre (10 June 1971) erupts on the streets [14], and in this connection Cuarón shows graphic glimpses of the violent slaughter that ensued, including a brief encounter in the store that indicates that a gun-wielding Fermin is one of the participants.

In the midst of this chaos, Cleo’s water breaks, and she has to be somehow rushed through the now chaotic, traffic-congested streets to the hospital emergency room.  This is one of the most dramatic sequences in the film, and it culminates with a tension-filled 4½–minute shot showing Cleo on the operating table and having to painfully suffer through the delivery of her stillborn daughter.

Shortly thereafter and with the divorce of Sofia and Antonio also concluded, Sofia decides to take the family and Cleo out to the beaches of Tuxpan so that they can get away from it all for awhile.  However, here another crisis arises when two of the children defy their temporarily-away mother’s instructions and wander out too far into the ocean, where they get caught in the undertow.  Even though she doesn’t know how to swim, Cleo desperately rushes out into the water and just manages to save the two children from drowning.  This is shown in an astonishing 5½-minute shot (you will wonder how they managed to stage and rehearse this shot).  This mesmerizing sequence provides a moving and memorable slant on the film’s theme of life and death.

At the end of the film, Cleo and the family return to the home in Colonia Roma and ready to resume their lives, but also ready to face whatever new challenges life may offer to them.

So over the course of this film, we get a glimpse, through the sensitive eyes of the housemaid Cleo, of some of the fundamental issues that women face today.  The context here in Roma is Mexico, but this story vividly covers problematic themes that women face the world over – sexism, racism, class prejudice, and the inevitability of death.  But it also conveys, thanks to Alfonso Cuarón’s profoundly context-sensitive cinematography, the overriding positive theme that underlies womanhood at its most fundamental level – love.
★★★★
Notes:
  1. Nick Pinkerton, “Film of the week: Roma reframes Alfonso Cuáron’s boyhood through the eyes of his family’s maid”, Sight & Sound, (28 December 2018).   
  2. Peter Bradshaw, “Roma review – an epic of tearjerking magnificence”, The Guardian, (29 November 2018).   
  3. Beth Webb, “Roma first look: the film of Alfonso Cuarón’s career”, Sight & Sound, (5 October 2018).   
  4. Manohla Dargis, “‘Roma’ Review: Alfonso Cuarón’s Masterpiece of Memory”, The New York Times, (20 November 2018).   
  5. Josh Kupecki, “Roma”, The Austin Chronicle, (7 December 2018).   
  6. Brian Tallerico, “Roma”, RogerEbert.Com, (21 November 2018).     
  7. Glenn Kenny, “Venice Film Festival 2018: The Mountain, Roma”, RogerEbert.Com, (30 August 2018).    
  8. Tanmay Shukla, “'Roma' Review: Alfonso’s Cuarón’s masterpiece is a cinematic achievement”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (October 2018).    
  9. “List of accolades received by Roma”, Wikipedia, (6 January 2020).   
  10. Note that indigenous people make up more than 20% of the Mexican population, but they generally have a considerably lower economic status.
  11. Jessi Jezewska Stevens, “The Hidden Power of the Passive Protagonist”, Literary Hub, (5 March 2020).   
  12. The Film Sufi, “Existentialism in Film 1", The Film Sufi, (15 July 2008).   
  13. Shawn Loht, “Phenomenological Preconditions of the Concept of Film-as-Philosophy”, Journal of Aesthetics and Phenomenology, vol. 2, (2015).  
  14. “El Halconazo”, Wikipedia, (15 February 2020).  

Alfonso Cuarón

Films of Alfonso Cuarón:
  • Roma - Alfonso Cuarón (2018)