In the Indian film “PK,” a space alien lands on Earth and goes in search of the earthlings’ God only to find Him missing. Something must be haywire with this “God” everyone claims to know but seems to have completely different ideas about, he concludes.
This sweet but often pointed Bollywood comedy about religion and the artificial differences it creates among people is such a widely anticipated film in India that Disney-owned media giant UTV has decided to take a chance on a simultaneous North American release just before Christmas.
One thing the film has going for it is its star, the hugely popular Aamir Khan. Alone among Bollywood superstars Khan often acts in or produces independent films as well so he is familiar to American audiences for such films such as the Oscar-nominated “Lagaan” and art-house hit “Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Dairies).”
“PK’s” lessons in religious tolerance and the inanity of fanaticism and hatred may get slightly sugarcoated, yet still hit home with unusual force in a country that has suffered more than its share of virulent religious strife.
The nearest equivalent for North American viewers is Hal Ashby’s “Being There,” where Peter Seller’s guileless innocent makes such simple statements to supposedly sophisticated human beings that his comments take on an aura of profound, clear-eyed wisdom.
The writer-director behind the phenomenally successful Aamir Khan comedy “3 Idiots,” Rajkumar Hirani, has his alien hero land in the Rajasthan desert butt naked as is the practice on his planet. In his first encounter with an earthling though he has his only attire, flashing green pendant, stolen.
Since this pendant is a remote control devise that allows him to call his space ship for pickup, he is stranded. In his search for this precious object, he is told by one and all that “only God can help you.”
In Delhi, he appeals to God in all his houses — temples, mosques, churches — only to receive such mixed signals that he is constantly chased by mobs of enraged religious folk.
His questions strike everyone as so bizarre, he keeps getting asked if he’s “tipsy,” or in Hindi the expression “peekay” (or PK), meaning drunk. He gradually assumes this is his name.
PK tells his story, well into the film and therefore in flashback, to a female TV journalist while in jail on a petty charge. She is played by Anushka Sharma, a very attractive and talented young actress done up in a distinctly western style and seemingly destined for stardom.
The movie in fact begins with her character’s story in Belgium, where she falls in love with a Pakistani student at school only for religious differences to keep them apart. An apt framing device for comedy about religious intolerance.
With her help in his search for God — PK posts wanted posters around Delhi with the likenesses of various Indian gods that proclaim them to be “Missing” — he concludes that priests, imams and pundits are all calling “wrong numbers.”
Thanks to the reporter’s media campaign, this becomes a catch-phrase throughout India: Whenever a priest or guru makes absurd demands on his followers in the name of God, this becomes known as a “wrong number” — a false god reached instead of the wise and compassionate God promised.
He then gets challenged by a charismatic holy man, Tapasvi Maharaj (Saurabh Shukla), a character reminiscent of the late Sai Baba, who had adherents in the West too as he would conjure gold out of thin air as a magic trick for the easily impressed.
A televised debate between these two will prove whether tricks and tricky demands by holy men are wrong numbers or not.
All this unfolds in a fairly tale-like world unlikely to offend even the religious where the absurdities of religious differences and hypocrisy are clear and PK’s questions have the ring of truth.
(Why, he asks, do holy men need constant fundraising among the faithful if they’re capable of pulling gold out of the air? A logical question.)
Khan plays the man-boy with amusingly distorted eyebrows and ears and a thick regional Rajasthani accent (due to the fact he learned Hindi from a Rajasthani prostitute whose hands he held to “download” the language).
It’s a marvelous performance that keeps the buoyant comedy afloat even at its silliest and during the de rigueur musical numbers of a Bollywood comedy.
The movie’s characters are vivid stereotypes of corrupt officials, religious leaders, media types, concerned parents and sagacious peasants. For all its long running time — another staple of Bollywood cinema — time flies by and the comedy is bright and inventive.
(For instance, PK invades a maternity ward to examine infants looking for the labels that might help him determine who are born Christian, Moslem or Hindu.)
Hirani, who directed, edited and co-wrote the story (with longtime partner Abhijat Joshi), expertly weaves together the strands of social commentary, Bollywood buffoonery, romantic interludes and goofy comedy so the tone remains consistent and strong through a convoluted story.
One can only hope “PK” blazes a pioneering trail for the release in North America of Indian movies in a few non-Indian theaters. Distributors tend to ghettoize such films by releasing them only in Indian cinemas or areas with large Indian populations.
There is potentially a much larger audience here for masala films such as “PK” or the vibrant indie films made on the subcontinent in a variety of languages and traditions. If they were more readily available to non-Indians, these films could build a loyal following just as French or Chinese films have in America.
Next month Anurag Kashyap’s monumental crime film, “The Gangs of Wasseypur,“ will receive a North American release that may continue opening up the market here for Indian films. A “Godfather”-like saga of corruption, murder and power spanning three generations, the two-part film played in Cannes over two years ago to rave reviews.
So fingers crossed.
Opens: December 19, 2014 (UTV Motion Pictures)
Production companies: Vinod Chopra Films, Rajkumar Hirani Films
Cast: Aamir Khan, Anushka Sharma, Boman Irani, Saurabh Shukla, Sushant Singh Rajput, Sanjay Dutt
Director/editor: Rajkumar Hirani
Screenwriters: Abhijat Joshi, Rajkumar Hirani
Producer: Vinod Chopra
Executive producer: Sanjiv Kishinchandani
Director of photography: Murleedharan C.K.
Production designers: Rajnish Hedao, Sumit Basu, Snigdha Basu
Music: Shantanu Moitra and Ajay – Atul (Tharki Chokro)
Costume designer: Manoshi Nath, Rushi Sharma
No rating, 150 minutes