Rajkumar Hirani has often spoken about his admiration for Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films, and it comes as no surprise. Hirani’s films, from the two Munnabhai entries to 3 Idiots, are essentially reworkings of Mukherjee’s films like Anand, Bawarchi and Khoobsoorat, where a free-spirited outsider breezed through stuffy surroundings and made people rediscover what they’d lost. In the charming Ferrari Ki Sawaari, which Hirani co-wrote, there was an echo of the scene in Guddi where a student is late to school and ends up leading the choir in prayer. In the quirkily named pk, the narrator (Jaggu, played by Anushka Sharma) writes a book on the titular character – and that’s what the Amitabh Bachchan character did in Anand. (His book was named Anand; Jaggu’s book is named pk.) But consider the title itself. It goes back to the joke in Chupke Chupke that transformed the initials of a character (P.K.) into the Hindi word for “intoxicated”.
The outsider in pk is played by Aamir Khan, and he’s named pk because people hear him speak and think he is intoxicated. But the truth is that he hails from another galaxy (he’s an alien, the outsider to beat all outsiders), and as the Dharmendra character in Chupke Chupke expressed befuddlement about the intricacies of English, pk is puzzled by the workings of Hindi. (In a hilarious scene, he ponders over the various meanings of “achcha”.) pk is more puzzled by the workings of religion. Like many earthlings, he wants to find God, but his is a more immediate purpose – he thinks God can help him return to his planet. (He’s stranded on earth, like the alien in E.T.; Jaggu is his Elliot.) He prints “Missing” posters with the images of various gods on them, and he wants them found – for only they can help him. And how does he know this? Because he’s been told repeatedly: “Only God can help you.”
This bit is pure genius, and it is revealed in a flashback, the film’s best stretch. It’s truly joyous, and a textbook example of combining a message (how mystifying our religious practices are) with entertainment. The magic touch that Hirani displayed in the Munnabhai movies (and which deserted him in 3 Idiots) is back. The laughs are plenty (“dancing car”, “rotation” of chappals in temples), and Aamir plays the character beautifully. I wasn’t too taken by the controversial nude poster for the film – he came off too muscled, too chiselled. But this look suits the character, making him look a little otherworldly in the midst of the portly men in Rajasthan, which is where pk lands. His wide-open green eyes and raised eyebrows (he looks perpetually astonished) and even those protruding ears look just right, and he’s amazing in a song sequence (Tharki chokro) where he robotically replicates the dance steps of a newfound friend (Sanjay Dutt, as a bandmaster named Bhairon Singh).
This song sequence is itself quite amazing, filled with the whimsy that is such a part of Hirani’s cinema. pk’s means of communicating with earthlings is by holding their hands, and when Bhairon Singh refuses (he’s a guy, and guys don’t hold other guys’ hands), pk looks around for women, whose hands he thinks he’s allowed to hold. Of course, this causes all kinds of mayhem, and hence the lyric – Tharki chokro. They think he’s a horny bastard, and this time, they’re the ones unable to understand him. But gradually, as pk realises the futility of searching for God, the laughs subside and we get the song Bhagwan hai kahan re tu – his plight in the face of God’s silence is truly moving. If Bergman had made a Bollywood music video, this is how it might have turned out. Hirani is one of the handful of filmmakers left who still likes his song sequences to say something, mean something. Even the use of older songs is perfect. After a bomb blast perpetrated by religious extremists, we hear the Phir Subah Hogi number Aasman pe hai khuda aur zameen pe hum / aaj kal woh is taraf dekhta hai kum. No further commentary, no more dialogue is necessary.
But apart from the flashback, there aren’t many scenes that stand out. (And some scenes look downright forced, like the one where pk teaches Jaggu to shrug off sadness by launching into a “cute” dance.) There’s the moment where Jaggu is stranded without cab fare, and pk offers her money – he knows what it’s like to not be able to go home. It isn’t a big scene, and the emotions aren’t exaggerated – the offhand quality of the staging is enough to make us empathise with pk. A latter sequence with Sarfaraz (Sushant Singh Rajput) is also very nicely pulled off. His early scenes with Jaggu are alarmingly bland and I wondered why they even needed to be there, but this arc is resolved most satisfyingly. The biggest relief is that the heavy-handed lecturing from 3 Idiots has been replaced by a gentler form of hectoring – we’re still staring at a wagging finger, but at least, for the most part, we aren’t being beaten over the head with a bludgeon.
The smaller problem with pk is that it’s reminiscent of OMG – Oh My God!. But that’s forgivable – after all, we do keep watching variations on, say, love stories all the time. As long as we are entertained, we shouldn’t really care. The bigger problem is that the film practically reeks of formula. Hirani has become some sort of Madhur Bhandarkar, telling, essentially, the same story and simply focusing on a different facet of society. If the enemy-establishment was the medical profession in Munnabhai MBBS and educational institutions in 3 Idiots, it’s now the religious right. If the catchphrases earlier were “jadoo ki jhappi” and “all is well,” it’s now “wrong number.” And as with 3 Idiots, the Aamir character is practically deified. It isn’t enough that we, the audience, know that pk has fallen for Jaggu – she has to find out too, and shed fat tears about his sacrifice. (In many ways, her character is a conflation of the Madhavan and Sharman Joshi characters from 3 Idiots. The film keeps cutting to her reaction shots each time pk says or does something.) These similarities are exacerbated by the casting. Hirani likes to keep using the same actors (in big and small roles), but sometimes they seem to be playing the same parts – Saurabh Shukla, who plays a godman here, played a similarly manipulative guru in Lage Raho Munnabhai. The result is endless déjà vu. Someone should remind Hirani that Hrishikesh Mukherjee liked to repeat a winning formula too, but in between Anand and Bawarchi and Khoobsoorat, there was also a Buddha Mil Gaya, an Abhimaan, a Namak Haram, a Mili, an Alaap, a Gol Maal…
* Anand = see here
* Bawarchi = see here
* Khoobsoorat = see the whole film in about 15 minutes here
* Guddi = this is the song where she’s late to school and ends up singing
* Chupke Chupke = try keeping a straight face through this bit here
* chappals = slippers
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.