Why Does the RSS Fear PK?

What accounts for the immense popularity of the Raj Kumar Hirani film ‘PK’, starring Aamir Khan? The film has broken box office records, emerging as the highest Bollywood grosser ever.

Certainly, the film’s timing is a huge factor. The popularity is testimony to the fact that the film touched a chord with people sick of politics and profiteering in the name of faith. And every call for boycott and ban, every act of vandalism by RSS and BJP outfits and the likes of Baba Ramdev served only to cast them firmly in the role of the ‘wrong numbers’ conning people in the name of faith.

How does one react to a movie whose narrative on the one hand challenge certain ritualistic practices while on the other hand, the daily papers show the director himself engaging the same practices prior to the release of the movie? ‘PK’ stops far short of challenging faith in God. At least one reviewer has assumed that the film is a critique of idol worship, and has tackled it on that premise alone. But it would be a mistake to judge the film by rationalist standards alone, or to assume that its main target is irrational rituals or idol worship. What gives the film its bite is its extremely contemporary sallies against the ‘godman industry’, and communal politics.

PK’s ‘thappa kahan hai’ question (asking where is the brand marking newborns as belonging to one faith or another) speaks quite directly to us, at a time when Mohan Bhagwat declares all Indians to be Hindus, or Asaduddin Owaisi declares all newborns to be Muslims first.
‘PK’ begins with what seems to be the story of a Pakistani Muslim boy dumping a Hindu Indian girl, thereby living up to the ‘love jehad’ stereotype, and the predictions of the girl’s family Godman. But the film ends by revealing that story to be entirely a product of the seeds of prejudice sown by the Godman. So, it turns out, it is not Pakistani Sarfaraz but the pious Tapasviji who is the conman. This busting of a myth that is a current favourite of the Sangh Parivar, accounts in very large part for their ire against the film.

Moreover, Sarfaraz is a refreshing change even from the general run of macho heroes who ‘snatch’ their lady loves from the constraining family or community; or even the tragic heroic Devdases. Sarfaraz is gentle, patient, and respects the woman’s choice, even if this means a rejection of him – thereby breaking the stereotype not only of Pakistanis or Muslim men but of men in general.

Another favourite Sangh tactic stands brilliantly busted by ‘PK’. When PK asks Tapasvi uncomfortable questions about a temple he’s building, the latter promptly insinuates that ‘PK’ could be ‘Parvez Khan from Pakistan’ who, being Muslim, is conspiring against a Hindu temple much as Mahmud Ghazni came to plunder the Somnath temple. When Subramanian Swamy insinuated that ‘PK’, starring Aamir Khan, was funded by Pakistan’s ISI, his tactic was greeted with instant recognition – as one that had already been exposed by the very film against which he was using it! The Sangh’s time-tested code words to sow suspicion and hatred – ‘Pakistan’, Muslim names, ‘Ghazni’ – have suddenly been stripped naked. PK is like the child who showed that the Emperor (in this case, communal politics and godmen) wore no clothes. People could no longer look at the Emperor with quite the same eyes.

It is not true, as many allege, that ‘PK’ takes down Hindu shibboleths alone. It is natural for a movie that tries to target the conning by God-men, to draw from the dominant religious context of its location. Just as ‘Khuda ke Liye’ or ‘Bol’, made in Pakistan, critique Islam, it is Hindu examples that, in ‘PK’, merit more frequent referencing. But ‘PK’ spares no institutionalized religion. PK’s prayers are answered neither in temples nor in churches nor in gurudwaras nor in mosques, nor by the Buddha. He is shown following the ‘rules’ of every faith – including praying at the Jama Masjid – in vain. The film shows bomb blasts perpetrated in the name of Islam. But what the Sangh can’t stand is that these criticisms are made with care not to stoke hatred against Muslims or Christians.

The topic of terrorism has been handled in a way that could – but does not – stoke Islamophobia. Taking responsibility for a bomb blast in which PK’s friend is among those killed, a terrorist outfit claims they did it to ‘protect Khuda’. Soon after, when PK confronts Tapasvi in a televised debate, Tapasvi echoes the same phrase: ‘If you challenge our Bhagwan, will we not protect our Bhagwan?’ And PK drives home the message – that the groups unleashing violence to ‘protect’ Hindu religion and Hindu gods, are mirror images of those that unleash violence to ‘protect’ Islam and Khuda.

PK says he has no quarrel with people’s personal faith in the God whom they believe created humans. So, faith in religion isn’t what the film seeks to take down at all. PK nails it when he says that the self-appointed human ‘managers’ of religion have created God in their own image – corrupt, dishonest, divisive, stoking prejudice, fear and hatred for profit.

PK evokes another chord of appreciative recognition in audiences when he shows how institutionalized religion exploits fear. In times when self proclaimed religious Godmen have established corporate empires by selling ‘God’, here is a movie that says that feeding hungry and taking care of the ill is more important than following irrational diktats and building grand temples. No wonder the movie presents itself as a threat to the present day corporate God-men and their political patrons, the same patrons who also patronized the killers of people like Narendra Dhabolkar, who fought against perpetuation of superstition and irrationality.

In times, when upholders of hate have been up in arms against public and spontaneous display of affection or love, here is a movie that boldly asks that why is it only display of passion or affection that disturbs, even as violence and hatred are expressed unrestrained and in full view of all.

There are some scenes where ‘PK’ too panders to stereotypes and contradicts its own logic. For instance, PK himself questions religious divides by asking ‘thappa kahan hai’, to show that faith is not inscribed at birth. It follows that if one is not born into a faith, one should be free to change the faith that one’s community has assigned to one. Yet, the film shows a man rebuking a Christian priest proselytizing, by saying ‘If God meant me to be a Christian I would have been born in a Christian household.’ Elsewhere, the film shows the typical stereotype of a Muslim man having three wives. But these stereotypes are very different from the ones deployed by the Sangh, because they are devoid of hate.

The Sangh’s very public attacks on ‘PK’ make a mockery of its posing as ‘free speech’ champions in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The ‘trishul’ marks in the backside of the media person played by Boman Irani symbolizes every book, every film, every painting that the Sangh has attacked with their weapons. In spirit, how are those attacks any different from that on Charlie Hebdo?

Despite there being points of disagreement with the film, it comes as a hope when, while watching the movie in a non-multiplex cinema hall, one hears the audience break into thunderous applause as PK takes on Tapasvi in the movie and calls him a ‘wrong number’ or when Hindu woman is reunited with her Pakistani Muslim lover. ‘PK’ can open windows for discussion of many very necessary issues that confront us today.

Liberation Archive