“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).   

No comments: