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Vanita Kohli-Khandekar: Why PK is OK

Only when films and popular arts are creatively free can a nation have honest chats with itself

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar 

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar

Rajkumar Hirani's PK (2014) is a banal satire on godmen. An alien's remote control is stolen the moment he lands on earth. He is told that only god can help him. Desperate to go home, the alien (Aamir Khan) does whatever he is told - pray, genuflect, offer money, to gods of different faiths. The Hindu right thinks PK denigrates Hinduism. There are calls to ban it and theatres screening it are being vandalised. Both the Censor Board and Supreme Court of India have stood by the film.

A better film on the same subject was the 2012 release, OMG - Oh My God!. Kanjibhai (Paresh Rawal) sues god when an insurance company refuses to reimburse him for the loss of his shop in an earthquake, saying it was an "act of god". While it did raise protests, it did not cause the storm PK is causing.

In a piece, film critic Nandini Ramnath says PK is being targeted because it is successful and the lead actor is Muslim. Rawal of Oh My God! is a Hindu and now a Member of Parliament for the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. The naysayers reckon that a film on Islam or Christianity would not have got away with what PK has.

A few facts at this point. One, both PK and Oh My God! are commercially successful. PK cost an estimated Rs 80 crore against global box-office collections of over Rs 400 crore so far. Oh My God! reportedly raked in Rs 100 crore against a budget of Rs 20 crore.

Two, both these films don't question any religion, but the "middlemen" of religion or godmen.

Three, no religion is spared in either film. That explains why Oh My God! was banned in the UAE. Since Hinduism is the majority religion in India, it gets more screen time compared to Islam and Christianity. One scene in PK shows Khan trying to take bottles of wine into a mosque after seeing priests offering it in a church. Strangely, Muslim organisations haven't protested yet.

The films people have objected to in the past and the reasons thereof are so random that no amount of analysis helps.

Paresh Mokashi's critically acclaimed Elizabeth Ekadashi (Marathi, 2014) is the story of two kids trying to make enough money to get their bicycle (Elizabeth) back from a pawn broker. It got slammed for using an English queen's name along with an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar. Barbers thought the term "barber" was derogatory, so Billu Barber became Billu (2009). Dhobi Ghat (2011) had dhobis, or washermen, in Mumbai up in arms. Haider (2014), Vishwaroopam (2013), Jodhaa Akbar (2008), the list is endless.

If we want a democracy, freedom of expression and all that goes with it is an axiom. And films, television, books and popular arts have been used to question societal norms over the years.

Indian social reformers in the nineteenth and twentieth century questioned taboos such as widow remarriage and female education largely through plays, songs, newspapers and the popular arts. Many people posting online against PK want the internet to remain free of government control - why then shouldn't films enjoy the same freedom of expression?

You could argue that right-wing Hindu sentiments, suppressed for many years, are finding expression: the Mughals ruled us, destroyed temples, and this is payback time. That seems schizophrenic. The English ruled us too, destroying many things. But we seem to welcome foreign investment and better relations with the UK.

All it takes is one look at Pakistan to see what happens when countries start clamping down on the freedom of creative expression to meet some foggy notion of nationhood based on a religious identity. Pakistanis were brainwashed by their textbooks, newspapers, television and films into believing a twisted version of their own history. They are now fighting the devils this has created - including the Taliban. Its film industry is in tatters, it doesn't have a music industry and its news media cannot comment on the real issues that dog the nation. Only now are some liberal voices pointing out that the rewriting of textbooks is a key reason Pakistan is a failed state.

If we don't want a Hindu version of our neighbour, we must keep open minds - even when what we hear or see is not what we like.

Twitter: @vanitakohlik

First Published: Tue, January 06 2015. 21:48 IST