I suppose I ought to begin this review with a disclaimer of sorts: My views on God and religion are nobody else’s business but mine.
A while ago, I wrote about Terry Pratchett’s Moving Pictures, and how his strategy for satire was to approach our world through the eyes of characters in a very different one. So the things that we take for granted look strange, even funny to them. And we laugh at ourselves with them.
It is interesting to wonder what would have happened if Terry Pratchett were to have written a novel about people on Discworld discovering/inventing the concept of God and religion. Alas, even in Discworld, this would be a bridge too far, so he assumed that Gods did exist in Discworld, and wrote one about God, faith and religion. It was titled Small Gods, and it remains one of the most interesting and deeply humanistic novels I have read.
Rajkumar Hirani starts with the hypothetical question I just raised: what would an alien make of our belief in God? He strands an alien — the eponymous PK — on earth and leaves him to discover all these concepts in his own way. At some point, someone tells him that God alone can help him, a phrase he takes quite literally. Hence his search for God. And just as our first experience of God is typically not with the abstract concept of an omniscient deity but with the practice of worship through whichever religion we were brought up in, this is what this alien encounters as well. The story follows his arc of discovery, belief, disillusionment and eventual insight. And since this is a Rajkumar Hirani film, the story is told with a certain amount of sweetness and light.
Just to be clear: the film does not have a problem with the idea of God, or even with the idea of religion per se. Its beef is with the way it is practiced, and how our rituals have replaced belief with mindless routine, and how cynical Godmen have found a way to exploit our need for hope in an increasingly chaotic world. This is not a new idea by any means, nor for that matter is the solution offered by our intrepid alien. Personally, I don’t think it’s offensive, but then again, I’m a lot harder to offend so what do I know?
Having said that, I do write a film-related blog, so there is much that offends me when it comes to the movies.
The idea of using PK’s naivete to expose some of the problems we have with religion is not a bad one. Trouble is, what might work as a decent short story feels stretched at feature length. What he learns about the subject and what he deduces seem to be driven, not by plausibility, but by what the script demands at that point, or what seems like an entertaining thing to put in. Somewhere, one begins to feel like the string-pulling is a bit too obvious.
Take a scene at a church: Our hero, having just discovered Hinduism, now walks into a church service, incense sticks and coconut in hand. Their reaction is predictably one of horror, so he gets thrown out. And one of the angry churchgoers ushering him out says to him, “He died for your sins.” To which our man’s response is, “But I just got here!”
Trouble is, I can’t think of a plausible reason why a conversation between these two people would’ve gotten to that exchange at all. Not within a minute of someone attempting to break a coconut at the altar during Sunday mass. That conversation exists simply so that the punchline could exist. And that, I am afraid, is simply bad writing.
Not that the film is all bad. There are moments of beauty in there. And although the film doesn’t have the serrated edge of Oh My God, it is not entirely devoid of bite. One of the first things the alien encounters is a man playing a song on a portable cassette player in the middle of a desert. The song? Altaf Raja’s Tum to thehre pardesi, saath kya nibhaaoge? The story starts with this man stealing the alien’s “ET Call Home” device, leaving him with the cassette player.
Ignore for a moment, the very idea of a naked alien stranded in a hot desert with an Altaf Raja song for company. (Your homework assignment after you finish reading this blog post is to come up with at least three punchlines to describe this situation.)
Instead, consider this: Is the alien the pardesi? Or, from his standpoint, are we the outsiders? Or is it God, whom we shut out through our own pettiness?
There is a line towards the end that goes something like: We taught him how to lie. We did indeed.