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Film Review

A Voyage to Planet Earth: Intoxicating Satire in PK

Volume 12, Issue 2  | 
Published 12/10/2015
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Reviewer: Asma Sayed

PK (2014), a science fiction comedy film directed by Rajkumar Hirani, is a satire focusing on superstition, organized religion, religious fundamentalism, and people’s reliance on the prophesies and advice of questionable godmen. The plot revolves around an alien (Aamir Khan) who comes to Planet Earth on a research trip. He lands in Rajasthan, India and finds himself stranded when he is robbed of his remote control. This device is his only means of beckoning his spaceship back to collect him.

The alien’s search for his remote leads him on a series of adventures through which he slowly begins to unravel the confusing social and cultural codes of India: an experience that defamiliarizes everyday India in sometimes provocative and hilarious ways. He arrives on Earth naked but quickly realizes that he must clothe himself and learn to communicate using language, in order to pass. First things first, he begins to collect garments, usually by stealing items hanging out of what he calls ‘shaking cars’: parked vehicles in alleys and other out-of-the-way locations being used for forbidden trysts. In a particularly amusing scene, he attracts significant attention due to his outfit: a Rajasthani woman’s skirt paired with a man’s shirt. He finally realizes that not only is his fashion sense unusual but that, to his disbelief, clothing is gendered. The next stage in his attempt to pass or assimilate, is to learn to communicate with humans so that he can ask them about his stolen remote control. Using his extra-terrestrial abilities, he is able to learn a language by holding a human’s hands. His attempts to hold hands with various people is the source of several humorous scenes. He does finally succeed in his mission to learn a human language. By holding a prostitute’s hands, he becomes a Bhojpuri speaking alien roaming in Rajasthan. Because of his ‘crazy’ ways of dressing, walking and talking, people think that he is drunk and nickname him PK (which means to be tipsy or drunk)—hence the title of the film.

While much of the comedy in the film is created by pointing out the complexities of social norms, the satire largely targets superstition and those who use religion for their own personal power. PK asks people about his remote control and they all say God only knows. Unfamiliar with God, he now starts searching for him. He is directed to various places of worship—temples, mosques, churches—where he follows all the rituals as he is directed to. He, however, remains confused. His logical scientific thinking raises many questions: Why are idols of gods being sold? Why do larger idols cost more than the smaller ones? Do the larger idols do a better job of getting the message across to gods? Why are there different names for gods? Why are there so many religions? How does one decide which religion to follow? At one point, he visits a hospital and inspects the newborns to discover where God places the mark to say which religion the baby should follow. When he discovers there is no such system and that God does not pre-determine religious affiliations for each human, he questions why humans are sufficiently passionate about their belief systems to kill one another.

In short order, PK concludes that the behaviour of Earthlings is very arbitrary: things are certainly not black and white. While a picture of Mahatma Gandhi on a currency note helps buy food, the same picture on a book cover is worthless. After some experimentation, PK understands that Gandhi’s picture has monetary value only if printed on a certain type of ‘paper.’ In one situation, a woman wearing white is a widow. In another context, a woman in white is a bride, causing him to make one social faux-pas after another. His inability to decode these differences and his child-like confusion not only leads to some of the most hilarious moments in the film, but also to some serious philosophical and intellectual questions about religion, cultural norms and capitalist systems of exchange, pushing audiences to think hard about the randomness of human belief systems and the behaviours they inspire, and the complexity and absurdity of social interactions.

PK’s search pushes him to confront these absurdities. He runs into a TV journalist Jaggu (Anushka Sharma), who is looking for a good story to report. She is intrigued by him. After she figures out that he is actually an alien, and not just an odd character, she decides to help him find his remote control so he can get back to his planet. As the story moves forward, they figure that the remote is with a religious leader, a so-called godman named Tapaswi. Tapaswi has a large number of devout followers, one of whom is the journalist’s father. He had acquired the shiny and colorful remote from the thief who stole it from PK, and displays it in front of his followers to show that it was a device that allowed him to connect directly with God. PK and Jaggu decide to expose the godman and his frauds. It is PK, the alien, who is able to shed light not only on the godman’s closed mindedness, but also on the way the young journalist is unknowingly swayed by his pejorative prophesies, despite her critical skepticism, losing her true-love, Sarfaraaz (Sushant Singh Rajput), a Pakistani Muslim whom she met while working in Belgium, and a chance at happiness in the process. Her doubting the intentions of Sarfaraaz based on Tapaswi’s words demonstrates the wide-reaching negative influence of religious discourses that sustain and inflate tensions between various groups, especially Hindus and Muslims in this context. Ultimately, the film takes a safe route. At the end, PK clarifies that he isn’t necessarily questioning the existence of god/s, but rather suggesting that people should find their own gods and spirituality by connecting with god/s directly, and discard all the fraud godmen who claim to provide insight and access to God. This message ensures that the film is received positively in India, a multicultural country with multiple religious and spiritual systems.

Satire has been used as a vehicle for social change since antiquity. Hirani seems to take inspiration from literary satirists such as Jonathan Swift and Voltaire. He questions human fallibility the same way as Voltaire and Swift did. Voltaire, in Candide, questions human desire, greed and hypocrisy. Similarly, Swift, in Gulliver’s Travels, has intelligent horses names Houynhnms disgusted at the ways of human-like Yahoos, who find much pleasure in collecting yellow dust (gold). PK, like these literary works, questions much, but doesn’t necessarily provide answers. Difficult subjects generate controversies; as such, following release in India, the film led to twitter fights under hashtags #boycottPK and #IsupportPK, and received significant media attention from Hindu nationalists attacking the film as anti-Hindu propaganda due to the contentious nature of its subject matter. Nonetheless, the film becomes all the more relevant today as the stories of fraud, abuse and hypocrisy of many such ‘agents’ of God such as Asaram Bapu, Radhe Maa, and many more, have recently come to people’s attention. Audiences will certainly be able to appreciate PK’s simple, but engaging and thought-provoking storyline, Hirani’s first-rate direction and Aamir Khan’s fine acting.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 October 2015 11:22
Dr Asma Sayed

An academic living in Canada; she researches and writes about South Asian literature and cinema

Website: awaazmagazine.com/

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