1 January 2015

The Gods Must Be Crazy

My column for Mumbai Mirror, Dec 21, 2014:

With PK, Rajkumar Hirani has pulled off his most remarkable feat yet: a mainstream Hindi film that takes on the question of religion, and is neither abrasive nor apologetic.

There's a great scene in Rajkumar Hirani's new film where a shopkeeper outside a big temple (the wonderful Brijendra Kala in a far-too-brief appearance) sells the eponymous PK (Aamir Khan) an earthen idol of a Hindu deity. PK, a green-eyed alien on whose planet there's no such thing as God, wants to know whether there's any difference between the larger, more expensive statues and the smaller, less pricey ones. Having been told there's none, PK buys the smallest and cheapest murti in the shop, and is overjoyed when his first prayer -- for something to quell his hunger -- appears to be met instantaneously: a samosa drops into his hand. When his second prayer doesn't meet with such an immediate response, PK returns to the shopkeeper, and demands that he either recharge the idol's batteries, or give him another one. "This God isn't working!" he says. 

We laugh, as we are meant to, at his frustration and confusion. But we're also laughing at ourselves, because aren't those people lining up to put money in the divine donation box hoping for exactly such efficacy? 

Our idea of the divine isn't quite working -- and that is the properly serious concern at the heart of PK. Like all Hirani's previous films, this one, too, wraps up an all-too-real problem in a frothy fable perfectly engineered to win over audiences unlikely to spend their evening (and their money) on a 'serious movie'. Here, Hirani and his co-writer Abhijat Joshi create a cleverly repurposed version of that hoary old trope, man's search for God. 

What makes this oft-repeated premise funny rather than serious here is that PK isn't looking for God for the usual human reasons -- because he's tired of the world, feels cheated by his fellowmen, or needs an emotional anchor that won't fail him. He's just looking for him because he's lost his interplanetary transmitter, and every time he asks anyone where it might be, they say, Bhagwan jaane

Like Umesh Shukla's OMG: Oh My God, (2012), Hirani's film seems to start by challenging the very idea of belief. But like in OMG, by the time the climax rolls around, it's clear that the filmmakers have changed their minds. The basic question of whether God is real, and thus whether any appeal to him can ever be efficacious, has been set aside in favour of a strongly-worded critique of those who have set themselves up as his earthly managers -- masterfully embodied in PK by Saurabh Shukla as the large and unctuous figure of Tapasvi. 

But unlike OMG, where Paresh Rawal's atheist Kanjibhai had to swallow his cynicism when God himself (Akshay Kumar as Krishna on a motorcycle-chariot) came to his aid in the worldly battle against His self-appointed representatives, Hirani doesn't insist on pushing the real presence of divinity down our throats. His point is gentler, and harder to argue with - if having faith makes people feel better, gives them strength in difficult times, we have no right to try and deprive them of it. 

What the film does, and somehow does with sparkle, is to draw our attention to the nasty things that are done in God's name -- as PK says, if God is asking you to do these impossible things to solve your problems, he can't be real, he must be a fake 'duplicate' God, a wrong number. The remarkable thing is that Hirani and Co. are able to take these things we all know perfectly well -- that the dharm ke thekedars are making money off our fears, or that if we are all the children of God, rich people shouldn't get to jump the queue -- and weave them into an effervescent piece of cinema. 

The strange ways of earthlings seen literally through the eyes of an alien -- the premise has been used to comic effect in countless Hollywood films, and yet it is put to such charming use here that you cannot but smile. 

And it isn't just organised religion that PK holds up to ridicule. From the 'dancing cars' that supply his oddly mismatched clothes, to the conventions that prevent people from holding each other's hands, PK finds human beings mystifying. 

The Hindu-Muslim love story is sweet and simple and impossibly pat, and yet Hirani (and the under appreciated Sushant Singh Rajput) manage to make it work, allowing it to function as the urtext for the million ridiculous rules we have devised to divide ourselves from one another. As PK's paan-stained grin makes clear, the joke is on us.

1 comment:

Ankur said...

hi Trisha,

Usually the female protagonist represents the motherland. Hence the indo-pak love-hate and misunderstood relationship. But can anyone tell me why did the writers choose to name the female lead Jagat Janani or Jaggu and why does she have a tomboy look?