If an alien were to find him or herself stranded in the dust-laden roads of India, how would he or she react to the cumin-scented home of Bollywood? Would he or she be entranced by the succulent mango trees that line the suburban streets of every major city? Would he or she be speechless at the sight of saffron-colored flags, which dance in the wind like fiery nationalist tsunamis? Would he or she be bewildered by a culture that for years permeated the social spheres of other countries like water passing through the Ganges River?
The above questions are addressed in the Bollywood musical blockbuster “PK”, which since its release in late December, has captured audiences in both India and beyond through its mesmerizing—and controversial—combination of playful character caricatures and streamlined stabs at our perceptions of religion and faith. Indeed, within the first month of its release, the musical grossed enough money and acclaim to earn its mark as the most successful Bollywood film of all time.
Starring Aamir Khan—whose fame in Bollywood very much rivals that of Leonardo DiCaprio in Hollywood—as the naive PK, the comedy film of the same title—directed by Rajkumar Hirani, whose brilliance has previously manifested itself in other Hindi films such as “3 Idiots” (2009)— documents the spiritual journey of an alien, who after descending to the planet Earth in the name of research, suddenly finds himself deserted after the communication remote to his spaceship is stolen by a low-class thief. Wandering through the dunes of Rajasthan, India, PK’s mind is quickly overwhelmed the bizarre culture of Earth. By stealing money and clothes from couples having intercourse in parked cars—it’s far more entertaining on screen than in words—PK attempts to blend in with the humans around him and understand their behaviors, making several jocular mistakes along the way. Through physical contact, he is able to learn languages and understand the cultural dynamics that drive the human spirit. But after travelling to the city of Delhi and learning, to much dismay, that no human can help him locate his remote, PK is instructed to turn to God and religion for help, thereby initiating a satirical exploitation of faith that relays a powerful message about blind belief.
Motivated by broadcast journalist Jagat “Jaggu” Janini, portrayed by veteran Bollywood actress Anushka Sharma, PK advances the film’s plot as he challenges the biblical organization of India. Arguing that priests and other religious heads must be dialing a “wrong number” to God, Jaggu and PK invite the public to share their own stories regarding the meaningless rituals and misunderstandings presented by religion. Through the employment of lighthearted music and sharp-witted acting, Khan and Sharma seize audiences by their throats in a comically fine-tuned vicegrip, opening our eyes to an alternative perspective of religion, which preaches that belief by subordination is much less tangible and rewarding than belief by interpretation.
As expected, the lighthearted atmosphere of the film has not been welcomed by all. Since the film’s release, Hindu nationalists in India have gathered outside cinemas in protest of the film, crying that Hirani should be arrested and “PK” be banned for allegedly defaming the Hindu religion. But despite the extent to which these protesters will attempt to censor the film, there is no denying that “PK” is not only rib-shatteringly hilarious, but artistically courageous. Brevity like this, especially at a time when India is continually enveloped by a toxic atmosphere of religious narrow-mindedness, can be found only in the most sharp-tongued of films. Wit and parody provide a much-needed contrast by prancing across an industry that is often characterized by the over-sexualization of women and the overshooting of male dominance, providing both Indians and non-Indians an insight into a world that is above all, breathtakingly beautiful. When PK finally returns home at the end of the film, audiences will hardly find themselves heartbroken, for the leaving of this extraterrestrial creature also symbolizes the arrival of a principle that is almost too real to be shown on screen.
So let the protests continue, because in the end, the widespread appeal of “PK” can only grow exponentially. The film is heartwarming yet radical, childish at its roots yet mature in its delivery. While the film may appear at first glance to diminish the social structure of religion by shedding light on the tense relations between Hindu nationalists and members of the Islamic faith, it is, in reality, a vividly well-spoken appeal to the human psyche. The film contains the very elements that successful Bollywood films thrive on—melodrama, romance, heart-pounding plot twists and melodic song and dance rhythms. And while the word “PK” may translate to Hindi as “drunk,” audiences can be assured that the messages packed in the film will leave you feeling not intoxicated, but sober and refreshed.