Tuesday, December 30, 2014

PK as a reworked Bawarchi, Aamir as oracle, other thoughts

For anyone who has been left fatigued by Aamir Khan’s messiah persona in films like 3 Idiots and Taare Zameen Par as well as in television’s Satyamev Jayate, the obvious joke about his role in PK is that this is inspired casting because in most of his recent films (notable exception: Talaash) he has played an extraterrestrial or an automaton or God Incarnate anyway, the only problem was the film itself didn't know it. (Here is a post demonstrating that Aamir’s intense character in Dhobi Ghat was really a Na’vi.) PK is different. It knows.

But jokes aside, I thought Aamir was quite good in this film, and that the first half had some lovely things in it, especially in the 45 or 50 minutes leading up to the interval. Its best bits, when “PK” tells his story to Jaggu (Anushka Sharma), do what good science-fiction writing does so well (and no, I’m not saying this film is sci-fi ): making the familiar very unfamiliar, providing a fresh look at things we take for granted (so that you may end up asking ‘what really IS so strange about a man pairing a formal shirt with a flouncy skirt?’ or ‘why shouldn’t cars dance?’). For PK, everything has to be learnt from scratch, and his childlike perspective on our vulnerable little world – our pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan put it makes this part of the film very engaging. Plus there is the sweetness of the idea that an alien newly landed on Earth, and unused to verbal communication, might end up speaking exclusively in Bhojpuri because that is the language of the only person he succeeded in “transmitting” from. (Midway through the story, I was expecting that PK would tap into Jaggu’s linguistic reserves as well, thus allowing Aamir to spend the second half of the film moving between Bhojpuri, urbanite English and Hindi. Done well, that could have been light commentary on how our perceptions of and attitudes to people change depending on language and accent.)

In this post Baradwaj Rangan mentions the connection between Hirani’s and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinemas. For me, PK had very clear echoes of Bawarchi, in which Rajesh Khanna’s Raghu – the all-purpose cook and problem-solver, a version of the natkhat spiritual guide Krishna – shows a squabbling family the road back to love. That film announced its allegorical intentions from the
outset, opening with a shot of a stage curtain that parts to reveal the inaptly named house “Shanti Nivas” – much like PK begins with a view of the cosmos, eventually homing in on our tiny planet, clouds parting to reveal the "stage". In one of the most self-consciously beautiful shots in Bawarchi (a film that does not, generally speaking, contain visual flourishes), Raghu walks out of the mist, from a sylvan Vrindavan-like setting – this is a still image that looks like a painting – towards the camera, on his way to the Sharma family’s house (in PK, the alien emerges from a cloud too, or from a spaceship hidden in one).

The bawarchi spends much of the story marveling at the Sharmas’ pettiness, at the little things that create gulfs between them, and the household with its disparate character types (the brothers played by AK Hangal, Kali Banerjee and Asrani don’t even seem like they could belong to one family) can without much trouble be seen as a symbol for a multicultural nation. (“Iss naatak ka sthaan hai Bharat” says Amitabh Bachchan’s voiceover just before the curtain opens in that first scene.) Raghu unites them (much as PK shows Indians of different religions that they are children of one God) but then there is a further union to be effected: Jaya Bhaduri is in love with a man who is not approved of by the family (in the same way that the Pakistani Sarfaraz in PK is an automatic figure of suspicion for conservative Indians). In Bawarchi, this boyfriend, woodenly played by a non-entity, is one of the film’s weak links; in PK, Sarfaraz is played by Sushant Singh Rajput who is a fine young actor, but cast here in a thankless, cipher-like role. In both films the protagonist’s final task is to bring the lovers together. Then he walks back into the mist, in search of other houses that need his intervention (or other planets with semi-intelligent life on them).

Bawarchi has the intimate, TV-drama feel of much of Hrishi-da’s post-1960s work, and needless to say it isn’t anywhere near as technically sophisticated as PK. But even in its weakest moments – when it fails to find a balance between big-picture lecture-baazi and telling a small-canvas story – it has nothing quite as heavy-handed as the Live TV show scene in the climax of Hirani’s film, where Tapasvi Maharaj (Saurabh Shukla) is exposed as a charlatan. This was one of the most tedious and stretched out sequences I have seen in a major film in a long while – it got so bad after a while that I was feeling embarrassed on behalf of the writers and director.

My problem wasn’t with the implausibility or lack of “realism”: the nitpicking questions like “how could they do all this on a Live show, shifting the cameras to Jaggu and bringing her romantic past into it?” Because it’s understood that the film is now in a symbolic, courtroom-like space where everyone gets involved, positions and counter-positions are furiously debated, and souls may be at stake. (Of all things, the framework reminded me of the climactic scene – the trial in Heaven – in Powell-Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death.) But the sequence is astonishingly static, has no regard for storytelling economy – there are far too many flashbacks and reaction shots – and invests too much time and dramatic energy in the supposed suspense around what really happened when Jaggu and her boyfriend were supposed to get married. Watching it, I keep wondering how an overwritten, over-performed scene like this even made it out of the editing room in this form, at a level where people like Hirani, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and “Mr Perfectionist” himself were involved. How could no one notice that the scene was sucking the life out of the movie? Even knowing that the film was trying to simplify a delicate subject for a mass audience (with the Parikshit Sahni character being a stand-in for the gullible Godman-junkie whose eyes need to be prised open), it could have been so much sharper.

And don’t get me started on the forced romantic track near the end. Or on poor, poor Sushant Singh Rajput, who does the crestfallen, St Bernard-caught-in-the-headlights expression so well even in his good roles, it can take a while to realise how poorly done by he is in this one.


While trying not to fall into the critic’s trap of reviewing the film he was hoping to see rather than the one the filmmakers set out to make, I’ll say this: given the available raw material and at least some of what is actually on screen, including Aamir’s strangely affecting performance, this film could have done other things. The whimsical, montage-like, tourist-guide-to-this-weird-planet tone of the first half could have been sustained. Yet, after those early scenes with the alien’s-eye view, it settles down into handling a Single Important Issue, and in doing this it becomes leaden and treats the audience as dolts. (Which, to be fair, many people in this country are when it comes to religion. And this returns us to the old question “Is it okay for a narrative film to occasionally discard subtleties like the Show, Don’t Tell principle and instead turn into a public-service show?” My instinctive answer is “No”, but I do sometimes wonder.)

Much like Chetan Bhagat, who has self-consciously moved from being “just” a storyteller to being a writer who Sets Out to Make a Difference and Herald Change, Aamir now has a clearly defined image. In an email exchange, a friend who is something of an insider in the film industry made this observation about the difference between PK / 3 Idiots and Rajkumar Hirani’s Munnabhai films: that the relatable, human qualities of Munnabhai and the detached, nearly omniscient status of PK and Rancho are offshoots of the personalities and approaches of the lead actors – Sanjay Dutt being a malleable, non-cerebral performer who won't ask many big, weighty questions like “What is the ultimate purpose of this scene?” and Aamir being a control freak who will try to ensure that everything he does is Meaningful in a clearly observable, quantifiable sense. With Munnabhai, we are invested in his own personal growth and we don't feel like the film is preaching at us through him; with the Aamir roles, it is hard to escape the sense that we are being talked down to. No wonder PK starts to slacken (at least for those of us who think we are already knowledgeable about the hazards of Godmen etc) around the point that the protagonist goes from being a wide-eyed outsider learning new things to being the smug know-it-all spreading the message of peace and oneness.

[Related posts: Sagan's inquisitive alien, new ways of looking at the world, a book about Aamir]


  1. For me the most jarring note in the whole movie is the conclusive fact that aamir khan's character is an alien. while watching the movie I was thinking that if that part was kept ambiguous, it would have looked much better, like k-pax. it would have been better if the viewers were constantly thinking that pk might or might not be an alien. it might be completely in his mind and he firmly believed that he was. but the audience was not sure. the message could have been delivered still then and it would have been interesting. the movie could have started from bruges affair or from the metro train in delhi.

    1. Oh yes - that thought occurred to me too. How intriguing it might have been if they had omitted that opening scene, begun with Jaggu in Belgium instead, and then introduced PK exactly as Jaggu sees him - so that when we get his story in flashback, there is a possibility that it is all made up.

  2. Raju Hiraanni has stated more than once that he is a huge admirer of Hrishikesh Mukherjee's films, In fact considers watching 'Anand' as a life changing experience for him.

    But he needs to be a little subtle than he was in this film, Hrishi Da did not bold and underline his films the way Hiraani does, I understand that he wants it to be accessible to most people but that feels too contrived and forced which makes it a dishonest piece of work despite noblest of intentions.

    “Is it okay for a narrative film to occasionally discard subtleties like the Show, Don’t Tell principle and instead turn into a public-service show?” My instinctive answer is “No”, but I do sometimes wonder.)

    My instinctive and a thought out answer is 'No' because history has been very kind to Hrishi Da and he showed us the contrast between Amitabh Bacchan and his Doctor friend (Ramesh Deo) in Anand without making him look like a corrupt individual who did not mind manipulating the vulnerability of the rich who were paranoid about their health.

    If people 30 years ago could go and watch Hrishi da's films , I am sure Hiraani could not undermine today's audience.

    But like you have stated 'Aamir Khan' seems to be a greater influence over how the story needs to be told, which reminds me of how different TZP and Stanley ka Dabba were, Both written by the same guy but poles apart in terms of how the story was told.
    Remember watching Stanley ka Dabba and saying to myself 'Now I know why Amol Gupte was asked to leave Director's mantle'

    1. Hrishi Da did not bold and underline his films the way Hiraani does

      Not in his best 10-15 films certainly, and especially not in the ones where the predominant tone was light or humorous. There are some exceptions among the well-known films - Kisi se na Kehna, for instance, and the endings of Khubsoorat and Jhoothi - but even there the film isn't trying to be all Big Canvas and preaching to the nation using a particular character as a schoolmaster figure; it is operating at ground level.

    2. Have not seen 'Kisi se na kehna' & 'Jhooti' so cannot comment but yes agree with you on Khoobsurat, So what exactly is happening are we less evolved than film goers 30 years ago that we need a school master sort of a device to appreciate films on such issues, whether it is Rancho, PK or Ram Nikhumb.

    3. I don't know about that. In some ways - in matters involving religion, for example - this country is probably less tolerant and more willing to "be offended" than 30-40 years ago. But I don't think I'd say we are "less evolved" in some overriding sense. Right now it just so happens that we are comparing HM and Hirani - but back in the 70s and 80s there were heavy-handed films being made by other filmmakers, and likewise today there are subtler, more nuanced films being made too.

      Also, the comparison can't be in a vacuum anyway. The 70s were a different time from the post-liberalisation years in terms of how the middle and upper-middle classes behaved, and what their principal concerns were.

    4. 'Less Evolved' as a film goer and less tolerant as you have rightly stated is what I was trying to say and not in a generic sense.Not sure how to put this, May be the main stream cinema then wasn't as limited as it is now and I think the audience has a had huge role to play in this, More nuanced and subtle films are being made no doubt about that but just feel the main stream was more accommodative and was wider in its definition then it is now.

      I could be wrong as I have watched cinema since 90's and do not have a first hand experience of the time I am talking about.

    5. but just feel the main stream was more accommodative and was wider in its definition then it is now

      Oh yes. I just saw that you left a comment on this review I did a few weeks ago of MK Raghavendra's book about the New Bollywood - that makes a few points about how the mainstream Hindi film of the past decade and a half has been meant mainly for multiplex audiences.

    6. I did read that, But my perception about the changing definition about mainstream is not so much around Anglophone audiences and Multiplexes as Mk Raghavendra has stated.
      This is not the right place to comment, I'll comment under the relevant post.

  3. Loved this line. "the obvious joke about his role in PK is that this is inspired casting because in most of his recent films (notable exception:Talaash) he has played an extraterrestrial or an automaton or God Incarnate anyway, the only problem was the film itself didn't know it."

    On P.K and 3 Idiots both, I am confused. I’m not sure if Hirani’s own understanding of problems affecting our society is as bad as his movies depict or he just does it to make the movies successful.

    The point of 3 Idiots is - it is okay to not go for high paying private jobs if one can invent great things in non-descript part of this country. Why not say that it is perfectly fine not to get into high paying corporate jobs and yet not invent anything? This is very much on the lines of Taare Zaaemin Parr, where a kid who is bad at studies makes himself acceptable and makes his parents cry only when they realize how well he can paint! Why not say that a kid should be acceptable to parents no matter what?

    In P.K., much fuss has been made about folks on this planet wearing clothes while Aamir’s parts are not shown. In the same way, Hirani says, “number galat hai”. Clearly, he is saying the way to approach God is not right while he avoids commenting on either religion or God. Given that religion, the way it is practiced, is to a huge extent parents’ fault, it will be natural to say that character played by Sahni himself is as bad as the religious baba himself, but Sahni is not shown like that.

    To my mind, TZP, 3 Idiots, P.K. do not tell us what is wrong with our society by showing it in their narratives but by being what they actually are.

    1. Pessimist fool, you’ve articulated what makes me uncomfortable about Hirani/Aamir Khan’s films too.

      In Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots – the definition of success is still external – the kid still has to “win” a painting competition, it’s not enough if he’s shown simply enjoying painting for painting’s sake. Similarly the Aamir character in 3 Idiots “wins” over the Omi character by becoming a super successful inventor who makes the other grovel for a signature –it’s not enough that he just enjoys inventing and that alone is his reward. We, the audience, are exhorted to study for the love of knowledge but we are still assured that this will lead us to conventional success. We are never really invited to examine why this success is so important to us.

      PK shares some of this hypocrisy – by painting the fake godmen as convenient villains he ensures that the average Indian viewer never really questions their own beliefs. PK’s definition of “winning” in religion is the rejection of fake godmen and artificial rituals – but why do we believe these godmen in the first place? If religion is not about external expression (through rituals, modes of dress, etc) – then what is it about? PK’s failure lies not in the fact that it doesn’t have the answers but that it fails to ask these questions.

    2. In Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots – the definition of success is still external – the kid still has to “win” a painting competition....

      Yup, I think I made that point in my Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots posts too.

    3. Anonymous : Religion is very much about external expression. It is a communal phenomenon. A signal of communal conformity. A source of identity. Its never about what "you" really believe. Yes, there's a certain amount of hypocrisy in the process. But that's inherent to it. Civilization is about hypocrisy! The common set of values that we all believe in as a society have come about because of millennia of social conditioning (largely driven by religious thought-movements).

      Let me give an example. As a society, we punish people who kill human beings (even if they are paraplegic and brain-dead and hence "useless" from a rational standpoint). But as a society we do not frown at the killing of healthy chickens. Its regarded as perfectly normal even in a vegetarian-dominated society like India. Is that hypocrisy? To value a disabled human's life higher than that of a healthy chicken? Yes. But our religious beliefs and morals dictated by those beliefs have made us accept this hypocrisy as the "normal" and "right" thing. That's civilisation. That's life. Civilization is not just about logic or reason. Its also about shared beliefs and value systems that have come about as an outcome of religion primarily.

      "Why do we believe in those god men in the first place" - That's a flawed question. Because since time immemorial, men have looked up to sources of inspiration among their own. If Baba Ramdev is a god man in your view, so was Gautama Buddha - who helped spawn a religion followed by hundreds of millions today.

      You can't say - hey...With Gautama its different. He was fine. But the god men of today are somehow despicable. That's just ridiculous reasoning. As in any era, we have god men who have something useful to say, we also have god men who just cater to the lowest denomination. It is the free market that will decide who survives the test of time and leaves a lasting legacy.

      A few wise men like Hirani and Khan are ill placed to be judgmental about these things. Its for the society to decide what works for them. Some get inspiration from a god man, some get it from weed, some get it from watching sport. Let people make their choices. To each his own.

      Ofcourse one is not denying Mr Hirani's right to express his astonishment at the way the world works. But it would be nice if he comes to terms with it instead of continuing to pontificate (in a manner that mainly betrays his ignorance of the strange ways of the world).

  4. I haven't seen this film, but have endured Bawarchi. A very annoying, self-righteous film. And Bawarchi itself is a very very poor imitation of Gregory La Cava's great masterpiece "My Man Godfrey" - which is among the greatest films of all time, in my book

    1. Shrikanth: it isn't my favourite HM film by a very long way, but there are good things in it. And "imitation" is a very strong word to use - the similarities between Bawarchi and My Man Godfrey aren't all that pronounced. (Btw, in a 1971 piece, the young Khalid Mohamed - then writing snooty letters to magazines denouncing the current Hindi cinema - claimed it was inspired by Mary Poppins.)

  5. Jai : Maybe its RK's annoying mannerisms that put me off. I haven't seen Mary Poppins yet! Yes, the similarities with Godfrey are not pronounced in the screenplay detail, but I do see a very clear inspiration. (it would be good to confirm the same with some source close to HM)

    My favourite HM film is Satyakam. A powerful experience.

    And yes, even HM's relatively poorer efforts are easier to watch than the Aamir Khan monstrosities which pontificate in such an annoying way.

    1. Agree with you. Among the most surreal experiences for me has been watching few minutes of one episode of 'Satyamev Jayte' on youtube. Mr. Khan starts by asking, like it is a quiz show, "How many % of Indians have been sexually abused?". People raise their hands, like they are school-kids, some say 30%, some say 50%. I was wondering, how on earth can someone take it seriously

  6. I watched PK it's nice movie yes it has shades of Koi Mil Gaya and Oh My God but it's made under very refreshing manner.

  7. "this country is probably less tolerant and more willing to "be offended" than 30-40 years ago. "
    I was watching chupke-chupke; and there is a line where Dharmendra says that "He is not making fun of Hindi"; It was irrelevant for the movie but very much relevant for the audience.

    1. Yes, that was the one pedantic moment in Chupke Chupke, and it was completely out of place in that film. And no, I don't think it was relevant for the audience at all - it was only "relevant" for the swollen-headed people on the censor board (in the Emergency era) who believed that every such thing had to be spelt out for the audience. In that same year, the ending of Sholay was utterly ruined by the same people.

      If every book and every film has to incorporate narrative-disrupting moments like that "He is not making fun of Hindi" line just to assure the reader/viewer about "intentions", then that's pretty much the end of artistic integrity.

  8. Hirani should have taken leaf from Spielberg's ET. ET there is lovable and different, endowed with ET like 'powers' where as our Hirani's ET looks paan-chewing-bhojpuri-speaking baffoon at best, instead of an ET! Less said about Anushka, the better. Fake godmen is not really a 'problem' because in any time, in any country, in any religion, these business deal makers will persist as long as people are looking to make business deals (with god or godmen) and not really interested in any sort of truth seeking or exploring/knowing about God. The business man aka godman will take his cut and the 'bhaktas' have no problem with that either. I don't think that in itself is worth making into a movie insead of say cleanliness, pollution, corruption and other real problems that exist in the society. Just like SMJ, we could have many-many-many 'pk' visits in future, each pk discovering new problems and 'highlighting' it for us. I will be ok, as long as they don't take ms pillow lips with flying short skirts and tacky hair in heroine role.