Indian cinema’s attempts to take on the science fiction genre have been patchy, misconstrued and at times downright embarrassing. Certainly, recent Indian science fiction films have operated in the realms of ‘sci-fi’, focusing on familiar superhero tropes. Given Rajkumar Hirani’s illustrious track record at the box office, each of his films tends to accumulate an undeniable anticipation consequently raising his films to a national event. Hirani is an unashamedly populist filmmaker, pandering to the sentimentalities of the audience but in a way that doesn’t make appear him crass or crude like his fellow contemporaries. In fact, Hirani has a nimbler comic touch, abjuring the 1970s cinema of Amol Palekar, Basu Chatterjee and Hrishikesh Mukherjee in which a more erudite style of comedy was contrasted to a mantic societal dynamic. Having said all this, Hirani’s skills as a director over his career have been modulated by his on-going collaboration with producer-director Vidhu Vinod Chopra. He’s not really been given the credit that he deserves. Hirani writes, directs and produces, which makes him a chiefly noteworthy mainstream filmmaker. Comedy is the one genre that is problematic to discuss given it subjective nature. It is also a genre that masks attempts to impose an authorial framework since it is not taken as seriously as other film genres. Comedy films are dismissed a lot more readily than say films from either the crime or religious genre. While Hirani’s comedies are some of the best-loved mainstream Indian films of recent times, Munnabhai MBBS and 3 Idiots, they have a complicated ideological relationship with the audience that taps into dialogue about the nation-state, which yet again obscures Hirani’s authorial contributions.
PK is indubitably Hirani’s best film, mainly because it comes nearest to the work of Raj Kapoor who had the propensity to merge comedy with the social to create a special kind of melodrama. In the films of Raj Kapoor in which we find a variation of Chaplin’s tramp figure, the lovable rogue, it was always the outsider who could see most clearly the injustices of the city. Hirani is smart enough to eliminate the iconographic spectacle of science fiction so that it cannot become a criticism with which to hurt the film’s credibility; a wise choice indeed. Instead, he takes the simplest of narrative situations; stranger arrives in a foreign land (India) only to collide with a secular culture complete with its many religions, rituals and traditions. Hirani then situates romantic entanglements and cross border politics into a framework that uses satire to bravely critique religious dogma. For a mainstream project of this stature the polarising ideologies on display is a risky proposition. I’m not saying all those involved were taking a gamble (this is a critic proof film) but Aamir Khan’s association with the project and Hirani’s track record, social satire must have been a logical approach to take and they do just about enough to pull it off.
The discovery phase of the film in which we find PK (Aamir Khan) naively interacting with daily life is marked by Hirani’s well-honed observational mode, finding pathos in the everyday. This is the perfect star vehicle for Aamir Khan, showcasing his underused comic skills while acting as a filmic extension of his Oprah style hit TV show in which he debates the ills of Indian society. In fact, the film culminates in a ‘TV moment’ in which nationalism, religion and co-existence are scrutinised, mirroring the public persona of Aamir Khan as social campaigner. Hirani takes broad swipes at everyone really: organised religion, the media, demagoguery; you name it. Nevertheless, the symbolic cross border love story between the Indian Jagat (Anushka Sharma) and Pakistani Sarfraz (Sushant Singh Rajput) advocates a much needed message of co-existence between the two nations. Regrettably, Indian Cinema’s repeated advances to enter into some kind of cinematic dialogue with Pakistan have always been met with a vitriolic response from religious groups in both countries.
There are some flaws with PK; it is too long, the songs are generic, the cross border romance is depicted stereotypically and the film’s pacing is uneven. However, PK does works as a blithe social satire but this is a film that is going to be admired for other reasons too. It is the first Indian film to cross the $100 million mark worldwide. This might be a landmark for commercial mainstream Hindi cinema as it points to the potential of Indian films to increase their box office on a global scale which seemed unattainable in the past. The cultural phenomenon of PK also reiterates Aamir Khan as Indian cinema’s most interesting and bankable of film stars, surpassing both Salman Khan and Shahrukh Khan. Innovation has been key to Aamir Khan’s success and his excited ability to respond to both independent and mainstream cinema has seen him negotiate commerce and art with a sensibility that has won him the affections of both his peers in the film industry and Indian film audiences. Expect more from Hirani and Khan in the future.