Aamir Khan’s movies over the last five years (especially 3 Idiots and Dhoom 3) have set the box office ablaze both in India and in the diaspora markets of Europe, Middle East and North America. Along comes PK. At press time, this Christmas 2014 release had already demolished many records; the biggest global Indian movie ever, biggest domestic release in India’s history and biggest haul for a Hindi movie in just about every international market. In an extremely rare alignment of ginormous box office and valid social commentary, the Hirani-Khan vehicle PK, which is essentially a satire of mass religion, has become Exhibit A on the list of all-topics Indian ever since.
A common stereotype of extraterrestrials is that of little green men with pointed ears, which is close enough. In PK, the arriving alien is short, bug-eyed, has off-white skin, baby-elephant sized ears (which might be doubling as interstellar satellite dishes for all we know) and is as naked as the day he was either born, hatched, or constructed in some intergalactic DNA cauldron. The naked visitor has no knowledge of Earth customs and through a series of gives (he loses a precious gizmo needed for him get back to his planet) and takes (he learns to steal clothing to end his naturist ways), the visitor becomes a surrogate for channeling how earthlings acquire knowledge, discriminate right from wrong and, perhaps most importantly, have prejudice, bigotry and xenophobia instilled in their world-view. A tall order indeed.
Presumed to be DOA (drunk on arrival) by by-standers in the Rajasthan desert where the alien lands, the visitor is mistakenly christened “Peekay”—from the Hindi word for someone who is sloshed, PK for short. PK’s misadventures eventually lead to him crossing paths with Jagat Janani (Sharma), who goes by Jaggu, a TV reporter trying to re-connect with her lost love Sarfraz Yousuf (Rajput), a Pakistani student she fell in love with while studying in Belgium.
To find his lost intergalactic beacon, to help Jaggu get in touch with Sarfraz and overcome the double-whammy taboos of an India-Pakistan romantic alliance juxtaposed over a Hindu-Muslim relationship, PK must first confront Tapasvi Maharaj (Shukla), a Hindu TV religion guru who makes a cushy living filling his coffers by exploiting Islamophobia amongst his vast audience.
Khan is cast perfectly as the awkward, bumbling, new-to-everything and yet all-knowing otherworldly humanoid. For support, Khan has Dutt as a traveling troubadour who befriends PK, Shukla as the hate-spewing TV so-called god-man, and also Sharma and Rajput along with Irani as Cherry Bajwa, a TV media captain (and Jaggu’s boss) who has a personal grudge to settle with the TV guru. It is smartly scripted and follows a generous comic dose of coming-of-Earth-age transgressions boosted by a four-star cameo as the camera is about to pull away at the end.
Backing up to the mega-charting box office for PK, it is the first Indian movie to gross $100 million globally (on a $13 million budget), a profoundly unheard of figure considering the vastly smaller economies of scale in India compared to Hollywood. Disney, which acquired India’s huge UTV studio in 2011, no doubt has to be very pleased. With such mega-buzz in its wake, the movie’s release was not without controversy. In India, some conservative groups asked India’s Supreme Court to block the release on grounds that the script is insulting to, amongst other things, the traditional Hindu veneration for cows.
The request was turned down. This cleared safe passage for a (mostly) uninterrupted 4,800-screen domestic release in India along with international rollout that included 300 screens in North America, 75 screens in Surinam (in comparison, James Cameron’s Avatar released on 65 screens in that small South American nation) and a record-setting 70 screens in Pakistan. With his Munnabhai installments, Hirani already has the third highest franchise box-office haul, behind only Yashraj’s Dhoom movies and Rakesh Roshan/Hrithik Roshan’s Krrish series. Now he also has the biggest Indian blockbuster of all time.
On terra firma, we are rooting for PK’s E.T. to locate his interstellar phone so he can call home. PK is as much satire as it is fantasy clamoring for a one-world, nay, a one-universe outlook. Brilliantly devised spaceships aside, in the PK alternate reality, India and Pakistan are diplomatic BFFs and phone calls to the embassy are answered at the first ring by an all-wise voice that knows everything about anything. While PK is not the greatest movie in recent times, it is certainly a transformative moment captured, albeit sophomorically, in the anti-glow of today’s biggest headlines—which in turn harken to the clash of cultures within the human family.