Thursday, January 29, 2015

PK: Beyond laughter and controversies

Rahul Vaidya

PK is a 2014 Indian satirical-comedy film which tells the story of an alien who comes to Earth on a research mission. He befriends a television journalist and questions religious dogmas and superstitions[1].

Directed by Rajkumar Hirani, Written by- Rajkumar Hirani, Abhijat Joshi


By this time, enough has been said, written, and rehashed in media, social media, discussions, hashtags and more. As a mainstream commercial film with a successful actor-director finding itself in the ire of RSS and its frontal organizations- that too at the time when their parliamentary face BJP is in power; it is only obvious that it would become a natural rallying point or a battleground of sorts for everyone i.e. the vocal, literate and growing middle classes of India. Besides the controversy about deriding the Hindu religion, making fun of gods etc. or rather on the back of this controversy, PK has crossed over Rs.300 crores of revenues by now and is likely to emerge as largest grossing Indian film ever.

To start with, today when we speak of PK as a topic of discussion and debate, it has already become a part of common knowledge of public sphere. A name with which one’s associations have been formed fairly well (whether one has watched it or not) through the social structures- everyone knows every side and it’s just out there in the open-Secular vs. communal, Liberal versus fundamentalist; or atheist-consumerists-Mullahs versus Hindutva as Nationality. Depending on the spectrum and degree of seriousness; the tone and erudition of the argument changes but effect is the same. Pushing PK as a distinct film product of mainstream commercial film industry behind and playing a projection game of sorts- something in that Samuel Huntington sort of a manner.

Does that mean that the above mentioned battles don’t exist or they are not important? Absolutely not. Rather, they are, like any cultural struggle of long- term and with a much wider agenda, much more important to be played out with a characteristic indulgence in dualisms and empty canards. What is important is to situate and approach any art form as product of historical conjecture and recognize its politics as well as aesthetics. (I would like to highlight here the point of equal importance of politics and aesthetics- favoring one over the other has led us through many follies. More on this follows).
I will first try to argue the case for distinction in Hindutva’s several facets to better understand the controversies of the day and the past. Then I will put forth the novel and not so novel things of the film PK itself and finally what are key takeaways for broader themes of arts and politics.


The point about PK being a mainstream commercial film is important to bear in mind because it will have a large bearing on any spoken or unspoken word about it- consciously or unconsciously. It is not the first time that RSS and its organizations had a go at artists and art forms including films. Deepa Mehta’s films ‘Fire’ and ‘Water, Rahul Dholakia’s film ‘Parzania’ on Gujarat riots are recent examples. M.F. Hussain’s paintings, documentaries, dramas, novels have faced the vandalism on a much greater and brutal scale. Then what is different this time? It is the target- in that PK being a mainstream commercial film with leading act and direction. Rather than indicating blasphemous/revolutionary potential of the film itself (depending upon one’s politics, of course); the controversy, the aggression indicates rather the entrenched positioning of Hindutva project in the state apparatus. What is worth noting is an emboldened manner in which the propaganda and venom have been spread despite censorships at several levels- the state as well as Parivar Patriarch of yesteryears like L.K. Advani finding nothing objectionable.

Crucial point is- Hussain’s paintings, or above-mentioned film/ other artistic efforts which faced Fascist ire, were not aimed for mass consumption, to say the least. It was a testing ground and attention seeking tactic to move beyond the fringe status. Shiv Sena and VHP, the most vocal of the entire lot of Hindutva cauldron realized this sure and easier way following their more violent riotous route of Ram Mandir and Mumbai riots. The distinction between ‘elite’ and ‘masses’ which was articulated in a religious color while attacking English media and parallel arts, proved quite successful- these forces emerged as the parallel state running their own censorship essentially through silent acceptance of people as ‘common sense’ when controversies over films like ‘Fire’ were created in the name of ‘Indian culture’. PK for these forces then is a matter of proving their might and deepening the divide. A film whose protagonist speaks Bhojpuri in the film, is a well-established actor, with the social message presented to lowest common denominator of intelligence levels- the old methods of targeting in terms of culture of ‘elites’ versus ‘masses’ wouldn’t work. Thus, the politics of protest has changed, so should our response.

PK is clearly aimed at mass-consumption, for a wide market, bearing in mind the senses and sensibilities of the time. People who have been going on to watch it need not be perceived as silently voting their way against Hindutva zealots through box office. There’s often a mistake to regard the commercial success of such a venture with successful delivery of the message to people, and more, even a success against fanatics. Often, the liberal intelligentsia falls prey to this market driven manner of journalism with which we have all become accustomed to. Hindutva protests have understood it well. Their attack today, if one goes by the viral social media protests, is less about merits/ demerits of the film, or its scenes and more about the campaigns against the ‘Khan’ having no right to criticize ‘us’. The standard liberal reaction, i.e. dominating in media- print, electronic, social- has been, ‘we don’t care who criticized what. We would fight for freedom of expression and a good work of art’. Keeping the commercial success of the film apart, it would be interesting how many viewers who went to watch the film would view themselves as fighters for liberalism.

This brings us to conservatives’ arguments against social reforms since 19th century. It was a similar position that fought against state’s interventions in the religion. The difference today is however crucial. The Hindutva project today doesn’t rest upon protecting the Mutts, and temples of yesteryears, or even the modern day godmen like Rampal or Asaram. There may well be a continuation of conservatives’ tradition in opposition to anti-superstition bill or justifying killing of Dr. Dabholkar; but Hindutva project today is a purely political project and thus a modern one aimed at capture of State itself. Thus, it is quite possible for an Advani or Savarkar, from having no truck with traditions and ritualistic norms of Hinduism and being atheists to transform and become leading figures of Hindutva. Hence it is even possible for a BJP MP like Paresh Rawal to act in a flim like ‘Oh My God’ (which has many similarities with PK, but incidentally didn’t invite so much of controversy despite being a moderate commercial success) or a L.K. Advani appreciate PK- and both still continue to be part of Hindutva project. Thus, it is not criticism of godmen that is much under fire today. What is at stake is the politics of identity and secularism- whether ‘I’ have right to criticize the ‘other’ and ‘others’. While immediate mention of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ and ‘Je Suis Charlie’ are tempting[2]; I will refrain from digressing there while just flagging off that it is the liberal folly of multiculturalism as well as postmodern turn in the first place which allows a relativism of sorts with skepticism over ‘progress’ and ‘enlightenment’ resulting not in cosmopolitanism but in fundamentalism growing stronger[3].   


Let us turn to the film and its content now. Some film reviews have celebrated it as a ‘rare and one of the occasional socially relevant Indian film[4]’ while others have been more eloquent: ‘PK is a winner all the way, a film that Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt would have been proud of had they been alive. Rajkumar Hirani is without a doubt their most trustworthy standard-bearer’[5].

While there’s some merit in the film being explicit against the business of religion and false promises made in the name of god by the middlemen, it will be extremely ambitious and off the mark to draw comparisons with likes of Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy. My intention is to highlight certain themes and their relative virtues and problems in the broader contexts of politics and art.

First thing is of course about an alien as a protagonist. While some have found it an easy way to convey the outsider’s (read the modern, progressive) view and take about the manner in which ignorant masses have been fooled by religious godmen, others may well criticize it for the underlying exoticism and assumption that possibility of such vision emerging from within doesn’t exist/is dangerous and may face wrath of much greater degree. I would like to look at it as a phenomenon of relating to ‘truth’ as a category and its location in politics. As noted rightly that PK is provocative in that it encourages people to enquire and think- the basis of rationalism essential for modernity. However, as we are accustomed to treat children and their enquiries as something inconsequential, non-threatening and render them a status like invalids; a similar position towards the alien that is PK is built by the film in the minds of viewers. His questions invoke laughter, may even make one reflect, but once the category of invalid and a figure from the other planet/ margins is established, then his enquiries are easy to consume as like that of child. So reminiscent of Gandhian assertion of truth as founding principle of political act, yet steering naively clear of its ramifications in politics of the day, PK goes on to build a fantasy world suited to child-like imagination on the part of viewers and provides answers in the like manner. So all we get is a right number- wrong number dualism and a humanistic fantasy full of do-good messages. Thus, the politics is not missing. Politics is clear: speaking ‘truth’ to power is only possible when that power is not the core essential part of state apparatus. Further, it is possible in a state apparatus of media when it fits the calculations of TRPs. Thus the corollary is simple: this truth is not explosive enough.

The question of truth and politics leads us to second notable thing- the treatment of language as such. PK has come from a planet where there’s no language and people communicate their feelings by holding hands (Read: no class society with hierarchical structures).So the Bhojpuri language he picks up is through a sex-worker arranged by his friend. His encounter of language is fraught with difficulty. The various turns and tricks like pun, satire, mockery that languages have assumed over the course of their development in the class societies pose a serious trouble for PK. Now, it would have been really interesting to see the process of an alien encountering language as well as other complex structures like class, caste, patriarchy in their bare form. In fact, renowned Marathi novelist Bhalchandra Nemade, in his novel ‘Kosla’ deploys this make-believe manner of seeing the present world from outside as a historian would observe and draw conclusions about the past. He does it using a satirical tone and temper questioning the tall claims of present culture, its eternity etc. rendering an irreverent stature to whole effort in the process. The film PK understandably adopts a different route and evidently falls short.

The humor is the most visible and notable aspect of director Hirani’s ventures all through and here in PK as well. The point is clear- it keeps the delivery of the message at a non-hurting level while ensuring that the message is cognizable enough. The commercial reasons are understandable. What about the political ones- i.e. politics of a film, its content, understanding of the makers and their depiction. Is it the only function of humor to reach out to people in a subtle, ticking manner in a way that wouldn’t offend, something which has possibility of reducing it to another ‘comedy with godmen as villain and alien as hero’?Something which renders the film into a commodity proper, like any other, and its consumption by spectators in endless pursuit of ‘entertainment’.

One wonders what role these complex language mechanisms can have in relation to truth and politics- especially when the state turns increasingly authoritarian. As an aside, it is worth to note that Zizek uses jokes not to expose the hidden terrain of individual psyches but ‘to evoke binds of historical circumstances hard to indicate by other means’[6]. He has noted the use of jokes by survivors of Nazis in Poland which included raped women as well as Holocaust survivors, this probably is the only way one can speak up to the Big Other). Certainly Zizek is referring to jokes and puns of other kind with explicit politics on his sleeves. But the Big Other and his concern for unavailability of any other linguistic tool to speak truth to powers is worth acknowledging.

Once again, invoking Charlie Hebdo and political satire is critical. While condemning the attack on the office and killings, many have expressed their right to criticize the intolerant humor the magazine used to direct at minorities and poor. Rather than celebrating satire as an end in itself as freedom of expression as bourgeoisie would have it, it is necessary to see the direction and target of the jokes and satires. Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray was a renowned cartoonist himself who mastered the art of political satire through his cartoons and speeches. We all know the kind of double victimhood which was imposed on the targets- first the direct political physical violence, and then a satire or a joke to nail it in people’s common sense memory. So while not being dismissive about potential of political satire as tool in the struggle, we need to be aware of the dangers as well.


As with every social content film, we inevitably come to the point of discussing its aesthetics. ‘Is this art’ is a question not often hurled at other commercial film ventures which do not go beyond the rehashing commercial formulas of romance, violence assuming they won’t be bothered with it or better, they are not worth it. But a film with social content, with a certain more degree of politics evident, has to face it at one point or the other.

As we have noted earlier, PK avoids being tagged as an ‘elite’ film with inaccessible/unintelligible content for common people. Moreover, its status as a popular product is affirmed by ever growing box office collection by the day.  But is it a good work of art? A film which has earned accolades both from critics and common people may be an unusual choice for asking this question, but this question is highly relevant especially due to its posturing as a social content film.

I had in the beginning pointed that what is important is to situate and approach any art form as product of historical conjecture and recognize its politics as well as aesthetics. Just because a film that suits our political motifs needn’t necessarily mean that it is a ‘good’ film. What is more, as Hobsbawm has asked ‘how much passion for a piece of music or a picture today rests on association- not on the song being beautiful but on its being ‘our song’? we cannot say.[7]

While this proposition may seem a bit odd, especially in politically charged times such as ours, what is more, one may even sniff a bit of bourgeoisie traces of literary-cultural criticism which romanticizes over ‘good’ art as such. My point is not to lapse into such futile exercises. Suffice it to say that if one is not careful to have aesthetical criteria along with politics, it is easy route to hippie hood and not a serious meaningful social change.

Perhaps, an art product having unity of content and form while providing direction of change for either is one of the feasible criteria with which one ought to reckon a ‘good’ art. As a product of its settings, the form of fantasy tale adopted by PK, its language, humor through an alien, etc. is apt for a commercial product aimed at a wide audience. However, in terms of providing a direction of change, an art has to be provocative enough, meaningful enough, and political enough to question the audience and not just cuddle up to them. The logic underlying such efforts, the ideological narrative itself is fractured with blindness in not seeing the people as active social beings capable of change, but as passive ones to be awakened; blindness in offering a rationality of practical everyday materialism (when everyone practices it, consciously or unconsciously) and its logical extension of questioning everything without seriously opening up to historical roots of social evils. The property relations are not noticed, even by an alien who finds from clothing to language to religion to every small detail like crows, sparrows, traffic as striking. It is these failures which make the endeavor one-sided and preachy at times. 

Preachy-well,the adjective had to be invoked. Does it indicate a failure of sorts in terms of its form? Or some of its content simply cannot be packaged in a palatable manner? The package and the content certainly don’t match at times. But more than that, what is important and welcome is the film makes us think about art and its responsibility of social change. Can a film carry a message is one question. Can it succeed delivering that message is another issue. And both are deeply political questions.While our mainstream films have steered clear of them for quite some time, it is certainly welcome sign that we are getting the opportunity to raise them. For all its shortcomings, PK is one such effort worth applauding.

[2] Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical weekly featuring cartoons, polemics, jokes etc. Its office was attacked on 7th January and 8 employees were killed by terrorists for regular depictions of prophet Muhammad.
[3] For further discussion about multiculturalism, refer to Slavoj Zizek- Multiculturalism or the cultural logic of multinational capitalism?, New Left Review, Sept-Oct.1997
Etienne Balibar, Gunew Sneja Haunted Nations: The Colonial Dimensions of Multiculturalisms, Routledge
[4] R. Arun Kumar, ‘What is controversial about PK?’  
[5] Saibal Chatterjee, PK- Movie review,
[6] Open Culture, May 16, 2014
[7] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Fractured Times’, pg. 19 

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