Two films may be too few to base a theory on, but it does appear that in Aamir Khan and Rajkumar Hirani, Bollywood has found an actor/director pair committed to telling brave, relevant stories, the sort rarely tackled in mainstream popular cinema. After delivering a well-aimed kick in the pants to our myopic, rote-learning education system in 2009’s colossally successful 3 Idiots, the team returns with PK, a film with very big…ahem…testicles. Operating in a country famously over-sensitive about religion, they’ve made a movie that brazenly ridicules our blind faith in god, and exposes the manipulations of godmen who feed off it for profit.
These truths are skillfully illustrated when seen through the eyes of an ‘outsider’, the film’s otherworldly hero, PK (played by Khan), who shows up quite literally in his birthday suit. PK speaks Bhojpuri, and has bulging eyes that seldom blink, arched eyebrows, protruding ears, and blood-red lips from permanently chewing paan. In the film’s terrific first half, we watch as PK tries desperately to recover an item of great value to him that has been stolen. When he’s told that only God can help him, he sets off earnestly to find God, discovering in the process our hypocrisies, our prejudices and our misguided obsession with religion.
Hirani and his co-writer Abhijat Joshi craft clever scenes rich in irony, like one in which PK arrives at a church service with a pooja ki thali, or one in which he attempts to enter a mosque bearing wine. It’s to the writers’ credit that they successfully mine laughs out of scenarios that might otherwise appear prickly.
We’re introduced to other characters along the way, including a well-meaning bandmaster (Sanjay Dutt) who befriends PK early on in Rajasthan. In Delhi, he encounters TV news reporter, Jaggu (Anushka Sharma), who’s at first fascinated by his idiosyncrasies, then promises to help recover what belongs to him when she learns his full story.
But the screenplay weakens post intermission, when the stage is set for a (televised) confrontation between PK and smarmy godman Tapasvee (Saurabh Shukla). Hirani lays it on thick in these portions, and to be fair much of this territory was covered already in the Paresh Rawal starrer Oh My God. Moreover, the entire climax is hinged on a plot contrivance that sticks out in an otherwise compelling film. A hastily pasted-on romantic track between PK and Jaggu feels entirely out-of-place.
Fortunately these speed-bumps don’t derail Hirani’s film, because even when the script fails, his leading man doesn’t. Aamir Khan is riveting, and consistently endearing as the child-man who poses impossibly innocent questions that sting. Never reducing the character to caricature – despite his innumerable tics – Aamir delivers one of his best performances here.
PK sticks faithfully to Hirani’s well-oiled formula, and yet there is no question that it’s a courageous film. Packed with sharp dialogue and genuinely funny moments that offset the lack of subtlety, it is easily one of the year’s better films. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for PK; the director’s best since Lage Raho Munnabhai.