Saturday, January 10, 2015

A quick note on PK...

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'ĂȘtre 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).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"PK can sustain numerous repeat viewings"
If they edit out Anushka, then I might do repeat viewing.
On serious note, Guru has a revered position in Hindu Dharm. There is a kabir couplet on it. So revered is orange clothe that charlatans wear it and abuse it as well. Is the janta stupid? Sometimes. Sometimes innocent people are hoodwinked. But most of the time, Janta (which includes people from all religions and all parts of the world) needs a 'business man' to help them overcome certain difficulties and help them negotiate a deal. These fake 'god' men may not even wear orange. They could just be good orators or philosophers. Hirani-Joshi could have made a much better movie after 3-5 yrs of hiatus. For me PK was drag and boring after maybe first 20-30 minutes. The bhojpuri annd paan chewing stuff was annoying after a while. Shouldn't ET be more sophisticated?