The significance of PK and the return of Liberal Rationalism

Harish Wankhede27 Dec 2014

PK may not be Hirani's best film, but its intellectual engagement with the current socio-political conditions is a sort of watershed in popular cinema. The author talks about the significance of PK in today's times and what it means for mainstream Hindi cinema.

Three super hits directed by Rajkumar Hirani, which are arguably modern classics too, have been widely acclaimed. Hirani's latest film PK was anticipated with high curiosity. His genius in using humor with a moralistic message has worked with the audience and has bought the warmest emotional delight to them. As an artistic expression, PK may not be rated as Hirani's best film ever, but its intellectual engagement with the current socio-political conditions is a sort of watershed in popular cinema. The film is made with emphatic brio and great wit pitching unapologetic attacks on the institutionalized religion. Hirani, however, is careful in that the film cannot be termed blasphemous or even an atheist's activism. It is a courageous attempt, especially at a juncture when religion is the most used commodity for social and political show-off. The film intelligently demonstrates how it is imperative to question the applicability of religion in building a civilized world.

PK is a rationalist critique of religion- subtly satirical with farfetched human drama. For PK (Aamir Khan), the questions are not metaphysical (Does God exist?) --but of material need (getting back his stolen remote control without which he cannot go back home) – which triggers in him a logical scrutiny of popular religious institutions. More than addressing religion as a philosophical system of spiritual enquiry, PK is interested mainly in decoding the man made institutional and ritualistic practices that govern our subconscious. PK is shown as a victim of circumstances, a needy innocent 'outsider', who engages with the order of religions to assess its logical applicability in solving fundamental problems od day to day existence. He is soon disillusioned by the mafia type functioning of religious middlemen as they exploit the desires/hopes/needs of the individuals and never solve their basic problems. His rational engagement exposes the flaws and limitations of religious practices in bringing fair justice to the victims of religious corruption.

PK's morality is humane and logical. PK's attack is on the economy and power of the corrupt religious middlemen that bewitch the common religious folks and hardly allow them to explore the true meaning of religion (I probably mean spirituality here). The lost 'remote control' of PK is a metaphor for many crucial material necessities (food, employment, security) without which one cannot survive. This metaphor then exposes how the institutionalized systems of faith have almost no qualifications in redeeming our daily problems. The film also has a sub-plot depicting a love affair between Indian Hindu girl and Pakistani Muslim boy; thus touching one of the most difficult/dangerous themes in contemporary politics. This section of the film qualifies humanity as the most virtuous human trait that crosses all nation-state boundaries and escapes the religious control to find true love and absolute freedom.

PK showcases religion's acute banality, corruption, treachery and illusions that it offers. The film hurls doubts on the human race for putting their faith in such a criminal institution that neglects our daily miseries and pains. PK doubts the faith/belief in supernatural power; criticizes the religious middlemen 'managers' and also questions the irrational rituals. It may not be truly 'radical and revolutionary' in its appearance (I do not know which are the other films in Bollywood can qualify this test) but can be termed as a beautiful secular assertion in one of the most terrible times of communal polarizations.

For Hirani, it seems that religion is not a spiritual experience but a social institution with multiple flaws. Religion is based on superstitions, irrational rituals and is controlled by corrupt and criminal Gurus. Earlier too, Oh my God (2012) set a precedent that religion can be publicly scrutinized with rational outlook. Here, PK offers a dignified recall to our religious consciousness and pokes us to check our religiosity on the fundamental human values of rationality and humanism. PK categorically supplements the great legacy of rationalist-reformist school and brings back the value of critical inquiry within the discourse on religion.

PK's alien condition is powerful tool to represent the necessary freedom required for a fair inquiry of religion. His abstract neutrality makes him an ideal judge to investigate the dependency of individual over rituals and God-men for abstracting the needed benefits. Further, he gets his language and knowledge about the world from a sex worker, who we believe that does not discriminate between her customers based on ascriptive identities. Thus, his neutral-alien position is unaffected by any historic conditionality and allows him to act on the basic principles of impartiality and rationality to fulfill his needs.

At the end of the story, in a meta-theatrical move, the characters challenge the audiences' capacity to derive more meaning than merely enjoying the 'satirical-humorous' content of the film. The film does have multiple technical and artistic glitches: average music, predictable plot and mediocre performances; however its philosophical attire with satirical bling hides its limitation and brings you a solid lesson on humanism. At a time of growing religious fanaticism, PK offers us the necessary pause to rethink over the idea of 'being human' away from the given categories of being Hindu or Muslim. It is important to have such films, especially at a time when the mainstream cinema has almost forgotten its ethical responsibility to work as a crucial agency for social change.

Tags: PKAamir KhanRajkumar HiraniAnushka SharmaOpinionReviewFeature

Dr. Harish S Wankhede teaches Political Science in Delhi University and has regularly contributed research articles and commentaries on films, politics and society in some of the major newspapers and magazines. He can be contacted on

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