"Who says idiots don't make it?" I wonder, after a screening of Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
For there's no doubt that the Salman Khan character in the film is low on the IQ scale, somewhere between 'moron' and 'imbecile'. Only he could, with perfect innocence, bandy about terms such as 'brahmin', 'kshatriya', 'Mohammedan' to identify people in these politically correct times. He is the dolt who stops to ask for permission when the audience is urging him to get on with the task at hand. This is the dimwit who willingly hands over a six-year-old girl to a stranger. Only we seem to know that the next scene will be in a brothel, not the Indo-Pak Border. The idiocy doesn't just end in the film -- after all, this is the character we collectively paid three hundred crores plus for.
Bajrangi is not the only one to find success in being an idiot. Others that have made the idiot a hero are My Name is Khan, Barfi!, and PK -- and that's only in recent times. What was Raj Kapoor's clownish common man but an idiot venturing where a wise man would fear to tread? As was the earnest but simple-minded Anil Kapoor character in Eeshwar. Chaplin built his career entertaining us by playing the fool. And much to the chagrin of film lovers worldwide, 20 years ago, the imbecilic Forrest Gump had knocked out the cerebral The Shawshank Redemption out of the Oscar race by simply... being imbecilic.
Bollywood and the Khan troika have taken the idea of idiocy to interesting new levels. The pagal in Hindi cinema has no single definition. Whether severely retarded or merely slow, he is usually an object of derision and a source of humour. My Name is Khan (2010) was perhaps the first film to give the premise a scientific setting. Shah Rukh Khan's character Rizwan Khan deals with a crippling Asperger's syndrome, thereby giving him a reason to see the world in a different, unique way. He is not merely paagal in the Hindi cinematic tradition. He is a tragicomic hero who takes his mother's words literally; her moral science lessons from when he was 10 years old become his compass for life. And so, he persists with all the clichés. The truth has to be told, no matter the consequences. And all men are essentially good. This idiot's journey is different from what ours would be. We see the world through his rose-tinted perspective. We know this is just a false filter; the real world is harsher and does not function like this.
Even so, we root for Khan, all the while hoping we are never as foolish as him. And of course he wins. Not that he doesn't have obstacles. It's just that in his autistic wisdom, he refuses to see them as such. And is idiotic enough to endure. We are smart, so we give up. We have no burning need of forcing presidents to listen to self-evident platitudes. Or in the case of Bajrangi, breaking barbed wire barriers, bringing together people and countries, whose unity is but a pipe dream in the hearts of bleeding liberals.
But even conditions like autism are sometimes not enough to put into perspective a world gone mad. So Aamir Khan has to go further. His idiot in PK is an alien, truly not of this world. Only an otherworldly creature could believe in the goodness of the prostitute and the bhakt with equal fervor. Only he is fool enough to carry liquor to a mosque, or get into a slanging match with a blue costumed actor believing him to be God. Only he can see the evil and delusion of both man and godman as a benign wrong number. His belief in his own logic and his unnatural (for us, but never for the alien idiot) faith in the goodness of the human race means he, and the truth, will ultimately triumph.
Why do we like Bajrangi and Rizwan Khan and PK ? Because they don't give up? But then neither do Milkha Singh or Mary Kom. And they actually work hard for their modest successes, not bumble from one roadblock to the next. True their end results are not as grand- uniting countries and people, communities and hearts, but merely a couple of medals. It seems that real heroes can win the little prizes, but it takes a real idiot to win on a grand scale, to defeat the antagonistic universe.
The audience is not an idiot, whatever the trade pundits may say. And it is a commonly held belief that the characters we most identify with are people like ourselves, the little guys who linger in the small towns of Dum Laga Ke Haisha or Masaan. Or the aspirational ones we want to become, the Karan Johar/ early Yashraj NRI or the Zoya Akhtar character in designer distress. What then is the appeal of the idiot alien of PK, the paagal Pavan of Bajrangi, the autistic Rizwan?
"[B]ecause we are not idiots, we keep our mouths shut, and our real thoughts to ourselves. "
Could it be that we just want to laugh and so we laugh at their expense? And then go home thinking, "I may be bad, but not as big an idiot as him." Or does the idiot speak for us; say the things we would never dare say. Not just cliched generalisations like "She's fair, therefore Brahmin", or "Meat eater, ergo Muslim". Things that political correctness will never let us say. Or even larger truths we all recognize, but dare not verbalize, like PK does of our Gods being not more than self defense, stuck on to prevent the wrath of people. We are scared in equal measure of the believer, the moral police and the political correctness brigade. And because we are not idiots, we keep our mouths shut, and our real thoughts to ourselves. No wonder we applaud the idiot, who says what to everyone else (and us) is unthinkable.
More than anything, we look for meaning and purpose in our lives. We have a variety of goals, many in conflict with each other. And a bucket list for the future. But Bajrangi has only a single-minded purpose, to get the girl home. Nothing distracts him, not the love of a good woman, nor the censure of community, not even a barbed wire border, because he is focused on the task at hand. Rizwan Khan too journeys for one reason only. To make his truth known. Neither love nor family throws him off track. And all PK wants to do is get home. In the process he helps others find meaning, but he himself seeks none.
As every intelligent person knows, life is a beautiful, finite thing, whose ultimate purpose is happiness. So we toil and fight and sweat to attain that goal. And however much we grasp, it is always just out of reach. And then we look at the idiot. And he is always happy. In a world where we all think we are geniuses, maybe it's better to be an idiot after all.