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.