Searching for deeper meaning

Indian comedy PK dishes up a few laughs but fails as an examination of man's relationship with religion

In the Indian comedy PK, an alien lands in Rajasthan, makes his way to New Delhi, and begins looking for god (gods? God, Gods?). Upon his arrival on our planet, the alien's teleport locket is stolen, and he's deprived of the means to contact his mother ship — like E.T., he can't phone home. So he wanders the vast stretch of India, and everywhere he goes people tell him to pin his hope on god ("only god can help you", or "pray to god and you'll be saved"). Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs, Jains — they tell him the same, so the inquisitive extraterrestrial sets out to find that unknown, invisible god-thing upon whom all of us entrust our hopes.

Conceived as a modern fable, the film's intended message is obvious, perhaps too obvious to the point of triteness. PK, as the alien played by Amir Khan is known, is an outsider whose curiosity puts us earthlings on the spot about our spiritual shallowness. He asks a lot of questions, something along the lines of "if your god is so powerful, why can't he solve poverty?" or "why do you give offerings to the gods when millions of Indian children are hungry?" — and these questions are supposed to sound so honest that they expose our stupidity for not having asked them before. For PK, priests, preachers, monks, and imams are "managers" of different gods (theologically, that's not entirely accurate, but anyway), and as he races around town visiting mosques, shrines, temples and churches, he's come to believe — not as atheists do, but as an innocent child trying to find an answer — that these managers have got the wrong number to call their gods.

The film tries so hard to be smart and funny, but at the end its lesson about humanity and how we're all alike despite our different beliefs seems banal and ham-fisted. That faith, or the blind and selfish interpretation of faith, has caused so much grief in the world. PK offers a metaphor that's too simplistic to be taken seriously.

Along the way, sure, we have a few good laughs. Amir Khan, as PK, sports the look of a childlike philosopher, his head jutting out of his body like a turtle, flanked with cauliflower ears. His trusted friend is Jaggu (Anushka Sharma), an impressionable TV reporter who pushes PK's quest for god to become a prime-time scoop, and that gets them tangled up with an evangelical Hindu guru Tapasvi Maharaj, who once destroyed Jaggu's romantic prospect with a Pakistani boy ("All Muslims are deceivers," he intones). The climax is a form of live television debate between PK, with all his doubts about god, and Tapasvi, a bombastic preacher. Their argument also makes spiritual and humanist sense, before the romantic-comedy threads of the plot jump in, rather uninvited, and trivialise everything.

The director is Rajkumar Hirani, who shot to fame with the coming-of-age college drama 3 Idiots, which was a more accomplished film than this latest one. PK was actually released on one screen earlier this year, and because it was quite a success, the film is now re-released on more screens. Maybe the search for god, for an unknown epiphany and salvation, is very much on the mind of Thai audiences these days.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist