‘PK’: Selection bias and political correctness

I finally got to see the Indian movie ‘PK’ a couple of days ago. Made last year, it is described as ‘a satirical comedy-drama film’ directed by Rajkumar Hirani, produced by Hirani and Vidhu Vinod Chopra, and written by Hirani and Abhijat Joshi. It stars Aamir Khan and Anushka Sharma in the lead roles. It tells the story of an alien, played by Aamir Khan, who comes to Earth on a research mission. He befriends a television journalist, Anushka Sharma, and questions religious dogmas and superstitions. Both actors excel in their roles.

Released in December last year in India, after several months of high-octane publicity around the country, it was met with public protests and some localized vandalism of movie theatres by Hindu groups which felt offended at some of its contents and portrayals. It is important to note that there was no attack directed at any person connected with the film, and therefore there was neither injury to any person nor any death to be deplored. Calm soon returned and since then ‘PK’ has gone on to become the highest-grossing Indian film of all time, the first Indian film to earn a worldwide gross of US $ 100 million. Which is of course the primary purpose of all movies coming out of Bollywood these days: as the Indians say, to make the ‘moolah.’ And ‘PK’ has certainly fulfilled that goal in ample measure. I don’t mind that some of my money also went into that figure.

As a result, I feel that as a viewer I have a right to give my views on it and its makers. By now practically everyone would have seen the movie and know the story, so there is no need to narrate it afresh, and I will therefore concentrate on my comments.

The film purports to show the seamier sides of religion, apparently meaningless rituals, superstitions and idolatry. In doing so, there is selection bias and political correctness. Thus, the examples of the latter that are chosen are predominantly from Hinduism, and less from the other religions shown in the film, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism. Did the makers anticipate, or fear, that there might otherwise have been more widespread and destructive violence? Hindus, after all, are known to be more tolerant…

Again, the stereotype is that of the Hindu, Indian girl falling in love with the Muslim, Pakistani boy – the journalist Jaggu with the comely Pakistani employee of the Pakistan Embassy in Belgium, Sarfaraz, when they happen to meet in the city of Bruges. And later, it is he who is redeemed, not Jaggu, who misjudged his intention! Again, this sort of political correctness cannot fail to raise questions about whether Bollywood could leave that to politicians and be, rather, truer to reality. After all, movies are supposed to convey social messages, even or perhaps specially when they use satire to do so, when the impact is likely to be greater. But then, movies is about making the ‘moolah’, right?

At best, and given that the makers are Hindu, ‘PK’ can be construed as being their self-critique of their religion. And that is something which in Hinduism is an established practice from its very beginnings. There is always questioning, and an encouragement to ask even the most outlandish or outrageous questions. For, truly has it been said that du choc des idées jaillit la lumière. Thus, there is even a Prasna-Upanishad: Prasna means question, Upanishad connotes sitting at the feet of a master to dialogue with him in a question-answer format about the nature of man, his relation to the material world of the living and non-living, the origin of the universe and man’s place in it.

If the makers of ‘PK’ had counterbalanced their negative portrayals with at least some more positive ones, the film would have been more in keeping with the Truth – but maybe this would not bring the ‘moolah’? However, given that they have plenty of the stuff, maybe they could consider doing a more serious educational film on these aspects of Hinduism that they have criticized and depicted. There is a greater underlying Truth, and it is impossible that as Indians they do not know that.

One of the best responses to the film has come from the pen of Amish, whose ‘Shiva Trilogy’ has exceeded the two million mark in sales. His views deserve to be pondered:

‘Let’s use the same Freedom of Expression standards to pose some questions to the filmmakers of ‘PK’. Clearly, ‘PK’ is a noble attempt to convince us that naked, humanoid aliens regularly visit India and they can educate us on our relationship with God. In this same spirit of scientific inquiry, ‘PK’ casts some serious doubts on religion. Actually, not all religions; some have been covered perfunctorily. The primary scholarly analysis is on religions that practise idol-worship (note that, theologically, practically all idol-worshippers are also nature-worshippers, for that is the philosophical route).

‘PK’ is clearly making ‘rational’ arguments against those who love myths, follow living spiritual masters (rather than exclusively prophets/messiahs who lived many centuries ago) and worship idols. You may imagine that only Hinduism answers to this description. You would be wrong. Idol-worshipping cultures proliferated across the world in the ancient era; and most encouraged questioning. Nothing was beyond the pale of criticism because they didn’t believe in only ‘one’ truth. Certainly there are features of Hinduism that can and should be critically examined. But it’s intriguing that the makers of ‘PK’ thought it fit to criticise some strengths of idol-worshipping cultures instead.

The fact that idol-worshipping cultures, normally, have living spiritual masters allows them to change easily in times of fast change. Reform is, normally, easier for such cultures and you will find that among them, philosophies change relatively smoothly with changing times. Admittedly, there are some unsavoury elements among the present-day spiritual masters. But the ‘Muslim terrorist’, the ‘paedophile Western Catholic priest’ and the ‘unscrupulous idol-worshipping godman’ have a common thread — they all suffer from the fallacy of stereotyping. Maybe I’m naive, but one expects intelligent filmmakers to be nuanced enough to not stereotype.

Consider another ‘hard-hitting’ scene in the movie. The protagonist picks up a rock, applies paan masala on it, and says that soon this will become God which everyone will worship. The subtext is clear: Look at these idol-worshipping idiots who will worship anything. Don’t they realise that this is not the real God, who apparently is an ‘external’ entity?

This belief that idol-worshipping is somehow wrong, or at least primitive and tribal, has been around for long. However, few are able to give a cogent, theological answer as to why it’s wrong; except one that you can’t argue with: ‘My God said so!’ Over the last two millennia, some communities, starting with the Europeans, then the Arabs, Turks, Mongols, etc, took this dislike to an extreme level to end the ‘Satanic’ idol-worshipping practice forcibly. There was massive violence across the world to purge idol-worship. Many places of worship were destroyed, others appropriated, and millions of people slaughtered simply because they worshipped idols. The ancient world was dotted with idol-worshipping cultures. But today, most of them — the Hellenic, Khemit, etc — have been exterminated. Hinduism is a rare idol-worshipping culture that has survived. Interestingly, I have not come across many historical examples of idol-worshipping cultures going around the world, killing ‘others’ simply because they were not worshipping idols.

I am not suggesting that idol-rejecting cultures are bad; there are strengths and qualities in them; weaknesses as well. Similarly, there are weaknesses among the idol-worshipping. But there is one immeasurably precious quality that they possess; which is the secret to their inherent liberalism. Surprisingly this is precisely what is portrayed in ‘PK’ as a weakness viz: That idol-worshippers are open to worshipping anything, even a stone.

What is the philosophical idea that underpins this attitude? Why are we willing to worship anything? Because this might lead us to see the divine in everything. There is nothing in this world that is not divine or Godly. This gives someone like me the philosophical grounding to worship Gods/symbols of all faiths. It gives us the philosophical grounding to be able to love and respect everyone, even those among the idol-rejecters who hate us simply because we worship idols. Because we see God in them as well. This gives us the ability to respect nature and the environment with religious zeal, since we don’t believe that nature was created for our use, but that it is God!

What transforms a stone into God? Our belief does it. Can this belief be exploited? Possibly. But, if, as shown in the movie, someone prays to a stone, and if this gives them hope, then what exactly is the problem? Hope is one of the greatest human strengths. And how is worshipping a stone different from someone visiting a temple with an officially recognised idol, or a mosque or a church? You will think there is a difference only if you believe God doesn’t exist everywhere. If, like me, you’re a nature and idol-worshipper, you will find that God exists everywhere. In you, in me, in animals, in trees and, yes, even in that stone in the movie ‘PK’.’


* Published in print edition on 23 January  2015

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