As I’ve mentioned before, the two downtown multiplexes in Seattle have started showing the occasional popular Chinese or Indian movie in an apparent attempt to lure an immigrant audience. Right now the AMC Pacific Place 11 is showing a Chinese romance called Back in Time (Cong cong na nian, 2014), which is based on a popular novel and internet TV series. Meanwhile the Regal Meridian 16 is showing P.K., which is a Bollywood movie categorized by IMDb as comedy drama fantasy mystery romance. I was intrigued by the premise for P.K., so that’s the one I went to.
I was the only white guy in the audience, which made me feel like an interloper, and I’m sure I missed a lot of the references. Still, P.K. ended up being quite a fascinating movie, although as usual in a Bollywood movie it was stuffed to the gills with stuff that wasn’t all of equal interest to me. What I wasn’t really expecting was the serious critique of organized religion at the heart of it.
The core story is actually more science fiction than fantasy, although it’s very close to allegory, so it’s not as concerned as science fiction generally is with the alien. But P.K. (played by Aamir Khan) is an alien who in the opening scene descends to Earth in his spaceship and lands in the middle of an Indian desert. Very quickly his control device is stolen from him, and he’s stranded in a strange land. After this intro, we’re introduced to the romantic thread of the story, in which a Hindu Indian woman and a Pakistani Muslim man who are attending school in Bruges, Belgium, fall in love and then hit the shoals of family disapproval of the religious differences. The woman, Jaggu (played by Anushka Sharma) returns to her home city of Delhi, where she finds work as a TV personality. Soon she discovers P.K. living on the streets and handing out posters of various gods saying that this god is missing. Jaggu senses there’s an interesting story behind this odd, bug-eyed, floppy-eared person, and she thinks it might be something she can use on her TV show.
P.K., it turns out, is looking for God because humans have been telling him that the answer to his incomprehensible problems is with God. He has made a study of human religion in his efforts to find God and thus find his way back home. This is the type of science fiction, then, that uses an alien to interrogate human practices — to make them seem strange and new again. The film makes some very astute points about how religions come to reflect human biases rather than any kind of sacred knowledge. It is really quite pointed about this, and it bluntly portrays some of the religious figures in the story as crooks who are looking only to enrich themselves. This is not, however, an anti-religious film so much as an attempt to remind people that their faith can be put in service of what P.K. refers to as the Wrong Number. People’s faith can connect them not to the sacred but to a corrupt power in the church or temple.
It’s pretty potent stuff in the middle of the usual silly or romantic songs and dances. The best musical number, to my mind, was one in which a musician who becomes sympathetic to P.K. mistakes his attempts to hold hands as a sexual gesture, when in fact it’s an attempt to communicate telepathically, and starts giving him advice about his sexual proclivities in the form of song and dance. It’s interesting, too, that the mythos of telepathy remains so powerful as a symbol of direct communication of true thoughts and feelings without the distortions of language. In any event, while the romantic element seemed pretty rote (but effectively so in the end), the religious satire and pleas for humane faith (which did end up tying back into the romantic story) were very fresh. Looking at comments on IMDb, this seems to really strike home for the Indian audience. Certainly the audience in the theater last night (mostly young, some with small children) seemed enthralled.
Speaking of cultural references that I didn’t get, the characters in the film called the alien P.K., but this was translated as Typsy in the subtitles. This was part of a joke in which humans thought P.K. must be drunk because of the crazy things he said. I’m assuming that P.K. must be Hindi slang for drunk, but I wonder where it comes from and what else it means.
Update: P.K. earned $3.46 million at the US box office last weekend, which was good enough to make it the 10th biggest movie of the weekend. I wondered if that was the biggest opening for a Bollywood movie in the US, but apparently Dhoom 3 (also starring Aamir Khan) earned $3.4 million last year around this time. In any event, by pure chance I stumbled upon an extremely popular movie. (Well, it probably wasn’t pure chance that this was the Bollywood movie that Regal chose to show.)