The seat of a fat man’s pyjamas is caught in the crack of his buttocks, a phenomenon that used to be called ‘butterfly’ by the children of Madras. An alien, who is already perplexed by the complexities of human clothing, pulls out the smudge. But then he feels he has probably interfered with the fat man’s sense of fashion, and tucks the garment back into the crack. This moment in PK also describes the aftermath of the reformatory film, which tries to eliminate the distortion of religion in the human mind but then allows all believers to go back home from the theatre with their butterflies intact. Religion triumphs over reformation because it is more entertaining than the reformation.
PK recognises a fact that many storytellers who have something serious to tell fail to grasp because they are preoccupied with themselves. That everyone has a message to impart but a story has to win the right to convey the wisdom. Religion, which is essentially a great story, has clearly laid out how the right may be won — through entertainment. That is the sacred transaction between the successful storyteller and the world. PK does entertain, at times wildly, but because it has chosen as its adversary a more fabulous story — religion — it fails in one of its crucial objectives, which is to be transformative. As a lowbrow commercial creative enterprise, religion is almost impossible to trump.
Where PK succeeds is in a different sphere. It has shown that India is great enough to allow its artistes to make forceful fun of the gods, even Hindu gods. And that we have not been told the complete story of the Wendy Doniger controversy, which has been framed as a violation of freedom of expression while in reality that is a charlatan spin of a type of writers and academics whose allegiance is to the noise of outrage and the pleasure of martyrdom.
We have been asked to believe that an old man from the Rashtriya Swayamswevak Sangh who thinks ancient India had aeroplanes and that yoga should replace sex-education in schools, has forced Penguin India publishers to pulp Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History because he and his types took offence to the book.
But a highly placed executive of Penguin told me, as she did anyone who asked, that the publisher’s decision was commercial — the sales of the book, even after the controversy, did not justify the legal costs and the publisher merely used the imagined clout of the Ramzadons to contain the losses. The liberals then used it in their laments. It went well with another gloss of the times — that some sackings in journalism were caused by the Hindu Right-wing while the truth, far less glorious, was that promoters were getting rid of those who had outlived their uses.
Doniger said that Penguin India was “finally defeated by the true villain of this piece — the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offence to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardises the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book”.
But then, look at the sheer extent of PK’s rebuke of Hinduism and all other religions. An alien played by a Muslim actor pokes unambiguous fun of how deities made by men are worshipped foolishly, how temples are cash-collecting devices, how stupid it is to pray, how believers are such clowns that if you stick the images of their gods on your cheeks they wont slap you, and how godmen are frauds. The alien breaks a coconut in a Church and goes to a mosque to feed Allah wine. He makes fun of the whites of a Hindu widow, the blacks of a Christian widow and of the fact that a Muslim man may take more than one wife.
The gatekeepers of Hindu pride, the whole costume parade of them, took to the streets against the film. They went to court too. But India triumphed over some Indians and granted the film its right to exist. It has enjoyed a full run. PK succeeded because its makers had a high stake in ensuring its fundamental right to exist. Doniger’s book failed to survive in the form it deserved to because the commercial stake for the publisher was low.
PK’s misfortunes have not been caused by radicals or others forms of believers, but by the status of religion as an unassailable story. All arguments against religion are known and are as old as religion itself. PK is at its clumsiest when it tries to educate the human mind through an infusion of commonsense. When a story states the obvious it self-destructs, and PK falls into the trap several times. Religion seldom states the obvious, the reason why it is a superior story.
Also, even though PK’s courage is unprecedented in mainstream Hindi cinema, it is cowardly in its acceptance that there might be an incomprehensible, benign God. And in its acceptance that there might be a similar benign, decent godman. The double-honorific laden Sri Sri Ravi, for instance, whom the film thanks in its credit rolls. Director Rajkumar Hirani says that PK is against only “fake godmen” as though he claims to understand what a genuine godman is. A godman who does not do magic is merely a godman who does not know magic. If there is a genuine godman, as Hirani implies, then there is no reason why PK should exist at all.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel The Illicit Happiness of Other People
The views expressed by the author are personal