A quick note on PK…

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The biggest intellectual issue I take with PK is one I often have with very many “well-intentioned” Hindi films, namely that it re-characterizes a straightforward political position into notions of fact/falsehood, even more so sincerity/insincerity. Thus the trope of the two-faced politician is a common one in Hindi films, but also in Indian society (I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times people have told me that communal statements by politicians don’t matter because what these chaps are “really” interested in is making money); the resulting cynicism has the virtue of not accepting the authority of those in power as a given, but is associated with the vice of paralyzing any kind of political thinking — since the practice of politics ends up viewed as essentially the deployment of a kind of hypocrisy. PK’s godmen suffer from the same problem: although the narrative arc initially seems to target the un-reasonableness of religious practice (and, delightfully, its complete relativism: the wine that is the blood of Christ itself becomes disgusting when transposed to a Muslim context), by the end it muddles into questions of fraud, and these take over the film. Any number of other issues are also loaded onto the charlatan (played with trademark comical nastiness by Saurabh Shukla), and before too long we also find in him the Muslim-baiter, the media manipulator — in short, he becomes the very bete noire of the (imagined?) liberal audience. But

this doesn’t logically follow: any number of Hindu godmen are anti-Muslim fanatics, but they aren’t anti-Muslim BECAUSE they are charlatans. Perversely, by drawing an equivalence between illiberal, bigoted politics and sincerity, Hirani’s film lets the godmen of all religions off the hook: the problem, we are made to see by film’s end, is the “wrong number” of fraud, an incorrect connection tied to all sorts of ills. There is nothing in this to discomfit too many, either believers or godmen, since they can always resort to the place where PK doesn’t go: the abode of the sincere (and what, after all, is fanaticism but sincerity taken to great extremes?). It’s a bit of a cheap shot, the cinematic equivalent of Anna Hazare’s movement: who, after all, is FOR corruption? [That the likes of the VHP and Bajrang Dal have nevertheless found this film objectionable is almost comical: they have demonstrated that however modest it may be, in them the film has found its target, not for charlatanry but for bigotry, the very raison d’être of these groups.] A progressive politics founded on such easy notions of truth and falsehood is building on sand — what if Sarfaraz had in fact been a cad and a cheat? Would that have vindicated the godman’s bigotry? It certainly SHOULD not, but the film points to a different direction.

I don’t mean to be harsh on the film: the experience of watching it was very enjoyable, and PK can sustain numerous repeat viewings, on the strength of good dialog, some great scenes, the smooth staging of a relatively gentle, cartoonish world that is by now Hirani’s forte, and an excellent, utterly convincing performance by Aamir Khan. But it lacks the edge it might have had (imagine a film that targets the bigotry of Shukla’s character more directly, rather than the fact that he is also duping people) — frankly, I wish Hirani had explored a different possibility inherent in this script about an alien stranded on Earth and forced to learn our ways, namely the utterly provisional nature of just about every social convention (whether pertaining to food, drink, dress, or religious practice). There are a few sequences early on that touch upon this theme (the temple-church-dargah juxtaposition with Aamir showing up with bottles of liquor at the last of these is my favorite), but the film isn’t interested enough in this vein, treating this comedy as appetizer for the main course. A pity: it would have offered a surer, funnier base from which to mock India’s bigots (of any religious persuasuion, or of none).

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12 Responses to “A quick note on PK…”

  1. Itne mei hi aag lagi hui hai aur aap chahte ho viswa-yudh ho jaai!

    I think as soon as you start making a serious/nuanced movies, you will be limiting your audience. Hirani wanted to make an enjoyable movie on a serious subject and he succeeded. He still could have done some better work in second half without limiting his audience.

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  2. I think you want to say so many things.

    Actually this is a serious film but not boring. Even cliche situations look not bad.

    As you have said what if Sarfaraz turned out to be a cheater. Will an individual act impact a whole nation and a whole community? Why not that person be British, American or African?

    There is a beautiful novel by a famous telugu writer Ranganayakamma named Balipeetam. How an intercaste marriage turns out into a tragedy of sorts.

    At the end of the day PK is a winner on many fronts.

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  3. Interesting read Qalandar.. I do agree that the film offers a richer set of possibilities in the first half and then narrows down things considerably in the second. And I again agree that there are some genuinely inspired comic moments in the first half, some among Hirani’s best. Finally it’s also true (GF also touched upon some of this) that the quirkiness of life on earth is often highlighted in the first half. The one problem Hirani would have faced in sticking to the tone of the first half is that he’d have lacked a dramatic crisis of some sort. Indian audiences rarely reward films without this element (though these days multiplex romantic-comedies can get away with this more or less). Hirani then chose a ‘safer’ crisis. And here I agree with Munna that the temper of the times being what they are if he had made a much more hard-hitting film on bigotry he might have faced enormous problems. Having said that it’s probably not in his DNA to make that sort of statement either. Then there would have been the Desai option. The ‘Amar Akbar Anthon’ of anti-bigotry films. The needle could perhaps have been threaded this way. On the other hand that sort of ‘even-handed’ treatment also removes the sting from any such critique. Because within specific contexts certain kinds of critiques make more sense. There are so many movies made in the US and europe about Islamist radicalism and these make sense. If one started doing the same on various Christian right-wing groups one would be accurate but the issue wouldn’t seem as defining as the former one. In our times. So in this sense and specially given some of the reaction that has followed and even though I have mixed feelings about the second half (again conceding that the film is supremely enjoyable) perhaps Hirani’s choices are somewhat defensible. In one sense the ‘protesters’ might not be completely crazy. From a good liberal perspective everything in PK makes sense. But this perspective as you know can hardly be taken for granted in contemporary India. In the film then you either have the utter commercialization of religiosity and/or what appears to be the ‘silliness’ of such custom (and of course he looks at all major religions in India) and then in the second half the fraud godman. There is then no space here for a genuine, authentic religiosity. The very term becomes suspect. But one might even argue that there is no real space left for religious spirituality either except of the most private sort. Because precisely in India is there almost no distinction between religiosity of the ‘spectacle’ kind and religion as such. Here there is an interesting coincidence with Desai’s AAA world. Desai had the ‘adorable’ minorities reveling in their religious stereotypes. Desai never questioned these easy cliches. He just made them lovable. On the other hand you have an ‘absence of religiosity’ in the ‘responsible’ majority figure. In other words a kind of ‘play’ and ‘non-seriousness’ sits on the side of religiosity represented by the minorities while the sober Amar is about a near-austere work ethic. How far we’ve come since! Hirani takes Desai in a certain direction and within his India that religiosity doesn’t seem as harmless. He is on the whole affectionate in his treatment but he’s still lampooning things in ways Desai’s wasn’t. And of course he shifts his focus appropriate to the majority. Now it’s the Amar figure who’s most invested in the religiosity. The film makes it clear that the minorities are not less so (though I’d add as a bit of an aside here that the Christians in certain ways deserve least to be part of this paradigm) but the majority being the same takes on a different charge. In any case the continuities and discontinuities with AAA are perhaps instructive in this limited sense. But to repeat the point I was just making one could be forgiven for thinking this was an anti-Hindutva critique or that even though the film is actually doing more (other religions implicated) and less (it nowhere has that sort of sharp critique) than this it is perhaps doing just enough to at least point in that direction and become relevant on that score. Here note how there’s been a hasty, even anxious reaction by even those somewhat sympathetic to the Hindutva position (or part of it) that in some sense parallels that of those who’ve been enraged by it. The idea that this film is not ‘anti-Hindu’ (of course it isn’t but in the Hindutva world there is no distinction between the two labels) and that people are wrong to look at it that way (one after-the-fact wonders what one has liked!) or that the film is great and reveals greater Hindu tolerance in these matters for this sort of film having been liked by so many (but ‘Hindus’ presumably have never had a problem with these things… ‘Hindutva’ partisans is similarly not close to the entire audience of the film). And so while I agree with much that you’ve said and made similar points in my own piece I do think that given the overall ‘debate’ on this film as well as some of the more intemperate politics surrounding it perhaps one might examine the film again. Not necessarily to discover something more radical here but perhaps a certain polemical slyness on the part of the director that makes its way through even within an overall ‘harmless’ (which is to say universally acceptable) frame.

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  4. A characteristically thoughtful note, with an excellent extension from Satyam. PK generated near universal praise and I don’t begrudge it that, but all the celebratory noise also made it difficult to find critiques of the film that went beyond the plaudits to actually engage with the material in a unique way. I don’t envy Hirani the task he set out on here – and the fact that he’s made such a universally loved film is a real achievement, especially as it “points in the directions” (to paraphrase Satyam) that it does. But as with all small, necessary steps it makes one eager for the leap. Still think I would have been less disappointed with the work if the storytelling was more on point, but that’s clearly just me.

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  5. madhu poornima kishwar is class apart among kids….writing 1000 words of nonsense with sugar quoted stuff won’t make one intellectual but content and knowledge does

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  6. The piece is quite intriguing and thought provoking …
    P.S. You see the coefficient of the linear is juxtaposition by the hemoglobin of the atmospheric pressure in the country, Excuse me please !!

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  7. Read a line or two of the writeup & a ‘response’ or two,
    With due respects–
    The ‘problem’ is that if one has come to know bits about quantum physics, it doesn’t mean u keep applying it to every simple mathematical solution. The answer to 2+3 will remain the same.

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