Four films later it’s safe to pass judgment. I can now confidently say that Rajkumar Hirani has assumed the role of India’s moral compass whose lynchpin is Bollywood. He’s our path-pradarshak, our moral guide, and that’s why his films are like a visit to the moral spa.
He begins by relaxing us with sweet nothings. Once all relaxed and a bit vulnerable, he starts massaging us with essential, warm oils. Soon we are smiling, sedated almost. That’s when the exfoliation begins. Dead layers are pealed away till shiny new skin begins to show and glow. Then he packs us into the old but vital Indian jadi-booti values. Finally, as we sit raw and wrapped in his righteous concoction, feeling all cleansed, chaste and elevated, a jet of steam is aimed at us, making sure it all sinks in. We emerge rejuvenated, rid of all sins.
Hirani’s films are not just feel-good. They are curative. They make us feel that having tackled a problem in its many dimensions for a good two to three hours we gaze at our navel, weep for our sins, admonish others we are transformed. They make us feel virtuous having done, well, nothing except pay for the ticket. This is a disservice to the cause he picks up. But it’s super smart film-making.
Hirani’s films operate only on feelings. He’s done the thinking for us, come up with a narrow agenda simple, silly even that’s designed to make us feel, not think. Because feelings alone can levitate us to a higher plane. Thinking can be catastrophic we may actually be compelled to interrogate ourselves, do something, and may even begin not to love Rajkumar Hirani.
It’s sad that Hirani hasn’t dared to take that chance here because his film’s theme is not just incredibly topical, but fundamental to the India as we know and love.
Hirani is a genius, no doubt. And, perhaps, there was sincerity when he began. And lots of fun, too. We laughed when we cried. But now it’s formulaic. His films have an arc that’s all too apparent and are deliberately, deviously exploitative. It’s been like this since he parted with Munna Bhai and found Rancho, and now PK. It’s since then that the fun we had with him has reduced considerably.
We find ourselves in the company of a waif-like girl who stands apart from the world around her because of her name and mane. Or lack thereof. She’s Jagat Janani (Anushka Sharma), Jaggu for short, and she sports a jagged pixie haircut which you’d get if you asked Mowgli for his barber’s number. She’s an outlier then. Bohemian and different yes, but also emotional and vulnerable.
She makes us gaze at the stars and tells us that just as we go looking for creatures like us, maybe, creatures like us come looking for us, too. In this one moment the big hush-hush secret kept so strictly by the cast and crew of PK gets revealed. The film’s big conceit didn’t smack my gob. It’s predictable. We meet the guy we first met on the posters of PK, again in all his naked splendour. But, first, we need to know how Jaggu met PK (Aamir khan). That story begins in Brussels.
Jaggu meets a guy, a Muslim from Pakistan Sarfaraz Yusuf (Shushant Singh Rajput). They sleep, get serious, she tells her parents. Her father (Parikshit Sahni), whose upper body is devoted to sending out coded pleas to the entire Hindu pantheon red tilak, rudraksh malas, sacred wrist bands and thread, rings on all fingers rushes to meet Tapasviji (Saurabh Shukla), who says "these people" give "dhoka". Pakistani dumps Indian. And there we have it, the theme of PK’s Earth tour.
Jaggu returns to India, is disowned by her parents, and starts working for a news channel where we see her holding up a puppy who has been making desperate but failed suicide attempts. Jaggu is irritated. She wants to do serious journalism. So when she spots this googly-eyed, perky ears fellow distributing missing person leaflets with photographs of Hanuman, Vishnu, Shiv, she knows that this is the story.
Slowly PK is revealed to us. How he arrived, how he met Bhairon Singh (Sanjay Dutt), how he learnt to speak Bhojpuri from a prostitute, and that the clothes he wears are gifts from a dancing car, a delightful trope. And, of course, why he’s looking for God. ET, as we all know, always wants to go home. This journey of PK, a tabula rasa, makes us laugh by making us look at our world with fresh eye, especially religion, and it makes us cry when PK asks the most innocent, but basic questions.
Packed in the fun we have when he tries to fix all sorts of lochas, are some interesting ideas: the need to touch, speaking a prostitute’s language complete with the word lul for limp. These could have added interesting tangents, but they don’t. Instead we sink all to soon into a love story that’s, well, lul. The film craves Sanjay Dutt and the energy he brought to the screen. Anushka’s Jaggu is too boring for words. All goody-goody and dull-dull.
What’s also dull is what PK figures and the film is focused on that each God has a company, and each company has managers, and that these managers run their businesses on fear and guilt. Briefly the film interrogates god, in the style of Job, Arjun and Vijay. But it’s not a challenge. It’s a plea to be heard. Rajkumar Hirani’s PK doesn’t have the intellectual muscle to challenge religion. It questions the rituals of faith, not faith itself. God is good. Godmen are bad. Avoid godmen. That’s an easy target to pick and has been picked before. To better effect.
Lage Raho Munna Bhai was the most transformative of Hirani’s films because it took us back to our glory days, to days when we were world-class great. He brought back Gandhiji into our lives and gave us Gandhigiri moral cussedness that was in-your-face but was also endearing, that was both, disarming and shaming. He gave us a DIY toolkit to greatness.
PK is confused. It equates religion with terror, but then focuses only on the middlemen. And every few minutes on this pilgrimage is a moral uprising followed by catharsis. We keep getting emotionally overwhelmed in the way Hirani has now mastered. We are putty in his hands. But his tricks are all too transparent and in the end the emotional drubbing leaves you feeling underwhelmed.
What’s also very disturbing here is that even when the film is saying something important, it’s surrounded by conventional and corny stuff. Weighted down by cliches, the film often feels tiresome. I don’t enjoy watching Aamir Khan very much. His smugness, didactic finger-wagging irritates me. But here he sheds the moral weight he’s been carrying since Tare Zameen Pe and Satyamev Jayate. There’s a lightness and playfulness to his character that’s touching. In the raw state, as a clean slate, his PK is convincing and charming.
And though the flexed face muscles and glassy green eyes seem strange and tense at first, you get used to his face because it’s exactly how he makes us stare at our world we are in wide-eyed shock at our own stupidity. Strangely, heaviness in PK is provided by Anushka Sharma. She’s the one who comes across as fake and alien. And it didn’t help that her lips seem to be in some sort of rebellion.
It’s not nice to pick on someone’s looks, but when it’s so distracting and animated a feature on the screen, it’s best not to pretend that all is well. Anushka’s lips speak of her unease with the girl we fell in love with in Band Baaja baarat. She’s trying to be someone she’s not and that just doesn’t work. It can’t.