As a journalist who once graduated college with a degree in engineering, I have often been asked whether my career choice was inspired by Rajkumar Hirani's 3 Idiots (2009). After all, it was in that runaway hit that Rancho (Aamir Khan) told, as it would seem, a generation of young Indians to follow their heart when it comes to choosing a career.
Did that concept never exist before 3 Idiots? Yes and no, in the same way that India apparently did not have a habit of reading before Chetan Bhagat came around.
Hirani's latest, PK, released in theatres on Friday. His trademark style -- broad emotional strokes, blatant sermonising, and chess-board characterisation -- is on overdrive in his fourth film, fuelled by the massive box-office returns that they have earned (Rs 500 crore would be a conservative estimate) and making light of the divide between the so-called 'multiplex' and 'single-screen' audiences. A flappy-eared and wide-eyed Khan, plays an alien named PK, trapped in our world and unable to 'phone home' because an amulet that calls his spaceship has been stolen from him. Very soon, he discovers that the only way he can get back what he lost is by doing what countless human beings throughout history have done: set out in search of God.
It is a great premise (so what if it isn't particularly original) brimming with so many possibilities for biting satirical movie moments, even though 2012's extremely watchable OMG (Oh My God!), starring Paresh Rawal and Akshay Kumar, touched upon most of the same points. But PK's screenwriters, Hirani and Abhijat Joshi, throw nuance out of the window as they recycle scenes from 3 Idiots and Lagey Raho Munnabhai to hammer their ideas home, presumably keeping the average 5-year-old in mind. A facile climactic sequence, set in a TV studio and featuring a moment of India-Pakistan unity that seems all too convenient, abandons logic entirely. Khan's effervescence is infectious and it allows the first half to breeze by; post-interval, however, the film becomes too preoccupied with telling us things, rather than showing them. Essentially, PK comes across as a big-budget episode of TV show Satyamev Jayate, if Hirani were to direct it.
And yet, the reviews are largely positive, the word-of-mouth is great, and if early box-office reports are to be believed and projected, the film is on its way to being a massive hit. In a year that showed much promise early on with some fairly good theatrical releases--Highway, Queen, Aankhon Dekhi, Haider--it seems a little sad that the year will probably end with PK in the memories of film-goers, rather than the others.
Here's my counter-point, though: I am an atheist and a staunch opponent of organised religion. That alone makes me want everyone--indeed, as many people as possible--to watch this movie.
Only days ago, the heinous attack perpetrated by the Taliban in Peshawar cost the lives of 132 innocent children. Enmities and the religious divide between India and Pakistan were temporarily forgotten as the hashtag #IndiaWithPakistan trended, with many denouncing the far-reaching effects of religious fundamentalism. For a brief moment, humanity took centre-stage.
Cynicism is easy and often true, especially in India, and it doesn't take a genius to point out that these sentiments were probably not echoed by the vast majority of Indians (and Pakistanis) who have been indoctrinated for far too long, by parents, teachers, religious leaders, a biased media, and inept governments.
While watching PK, even as I cringed and facepalmed at all the schmaltz on display, I remembered people I've known and how they might react to it. A scene involving Anushka Sharma, Sushant Singh Rajput, and Saurabh Shukla reminded me of a girl I once knew, from a well-to-do South Mumbai family, who was asked by her family 'guru' to stop dating a boy she liked, or else she would go to hell. Another friend was advised by another guru to give up bathing and sleep on the floor for a number of days after her worried father asked for a solution to her job-hunting woes. These are tales from upper- and upper-middle-class Mumbai--from families that are well-educated, who travel abroad, and appear far more liberal than the vast majority of India.
For better or for worse, the Hirani-Aamir combo seems to be a combo that India loves and listens to, no matter how simplistic their message is. If 3 Idiots, currently the third-highest grossing Bollywood film of all time, could start a national conversation on career choices, then surely PK could start one on the futility of blind faith and the pitfalls of organised religion?
From an aesthetic standpoint, PK is awful cinema. But it is possibly the best public service announcement we could get at a time like this, when Indian society seems to be simultaneously progressing and regressing with equal urgency. In a nation where public discourse is often shrill and lacking in maturity, a conversation-changer probably needs to possess similar characteristics to even be heard, let alone considered.