Rajkumar Hirani’s PK is a Hindi film that has attracted viewers all over the country in large numbers. It has also drawn the ire of the Bharatiya Janata Party as well as satellites like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and others. The reason behind the Hindu Right’s hostility is that it makes fun, often outrageously, of powerful, wealthy godmen who have for long held Hindu religion, with its very many strands, to ransom. It is an open secret that Indians in staggering numbers, regardless of religion and political affiliations, are in the clutches of godmen and, occasionally, godwomen, because they are unable to obtain justice, even in its rudimentary form, from the state their daily lives.

Addiction to godmen, therefore, is not confined to Hindus alone. Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, possibly Dalit Christians, Buddhists and Parsis, though in smaller numbers, also go to these self-declared messengers of their God in the hope of material and emotional sustenance, often simultaneously, in a society that aspires to the fruits of science but is both unwilling and unable to shed its medieval mindset and its baggage of superstition.

The ruling government, its allies and opponents are united in their plan to maintain status quo arising out of fatalism and apathy since democracy of mind, body and spirit is nowhere in sight. It is understandable why producer-director Hirani and his co-producer [Vidhu] Vinod Chopra are being castigated by the Hindutva brigade and also widely appreciated by the ordinary citizen.

Seeing PK at the Rivoli cinema in New Delhi was a novel experience in more than one sense: first a trailer of a forthcoming feature-film on Guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of Sacha Sauda fame caught one on the wrong foot; the godman was on-screen dressed like a rock star and projecting himself as one. What was on view was a comic version of Rasputin, claiming to be a messenger of God Almighty, and promising the most wrathful vengeance on his critics.

The second surprise was the names of former BJP strongman L. K. Advani and his daughter Pratibha in the opening credits; both were profusely thanked by the producers, Chopra and Hirani. The third surprise, an agreeable one, was the roar of laughter in the dark of the audience as PK (Aamir Khan), the alien from an unknown planet who looks and behaves like a human male, takes on a powerful, hugely influential godman Tapasvi Maharaj played by the very fat Saurabh Shukla, with his devastating though seemingly innocent queries about the human condition in a live television debate beamed across India and, presumably, abroad.

The core idea for PK has obviously been lifted from Steven Spielberg’s all-time hit, ET, which in turn leaned heavily on Satyajit Ray’s profound and poetic unproduced script of his original screenplay called The Alien, which was doing the rounds of Hollywood studios in the late 1960s. Mike Wilson, the supposed producer, had Ray’s script surreptitiously copyrighted in his own name, claiming illegally to be co-author of the script. But that’s another story.

An earlier Hindi film, Koi Mil Gaya, featuring Hrithik Roshan, directed by his father Rakesh Roshan, was also dependent on the idea of an alien coming down to earth and helping to sort out the problems of the autistic protagonist, among others, did extremely well at the box-office. It was limited in its artistic ambitions, unlike PK.

PK, the nude protagonist—they have neither heard of clothes nor wear them on his planet—learns to hide his physical nakedness very quickly and picks up Bhojpuri, holding the hand of a prostitute who speaks it for six hours while with her in a picturesque rural brothel, where he has been deposited by a local tough with a musical mind (Sanjay Dutt) who thinks he can cure his newly acquired friend of his rampant desire to grab by the hand every rural belle he sees. That he can learn a language by touching another human is a gift he possesses as an alien. PK can also fathom the complexities of the human mind by virtue of being an empathetic medium.

It is a picaresque tale, like the Indian experiment with democracy since 1947; an exercise that is sporadically effective. The film, like the prevailing political system, is geared to serve commercial interests. It is money or the lack of it that determines wellbeing. In the film, money, most of it well-spent, brings social issues to the viewer in a funny and largely entertaining manner through its two-and-a-half hour run. What is difficult to accept is its soft centre that deflects from the real issues at hand, or possibly could be so.

The anti-superstition stance taken by the director and his co-scriptwriters Abhijit Joshi and Sreerag Nambiar, is on second thought taken essentially to facilitate the romance between Jagatjanani alias Jaggu (Anushka Sharma) and Sarfaraz (Sushant Singh Rajput), a Pakistani boy she meets in the beautiful Belgian city of Bruges, where both are students. PK is the instrument by which obstacles in the way of their romance can be cleared and their coming together in Holy Matrimony—implied, perhaps as a concession to the militant Hindu elements in the country—in the end can be achieved.

PK has already left planet Earth when Jaggu reading from her book to an enthralled audience where Sarfaraz, in a Nehru jacket, is happily seated next to his father-in-law, also Jaggu’s bigoted, now reformed, father (Parikshit Sahni). They applaud the loudest. PK, in the brief coda, comes down to earth with a fellow alien (Ranbir Kapoor) to give him a crash course in dealing with earthlings and their peculiar ways.

If this reads like a review of the film PK, it isn’t, quite. When a film, in this case PK, with a reformist socio-political agenda creates ripples in a so-called liberal society such as ours, which in reality is a cauldron of discontent divided by superstition, religious bigotry, and rampant exploitation of the overwhelming majority of the poor by a wealthy microscopic minority, there is room for scepticism. For all its cries for a rational, humane approach towards existential problems exacerbated by a blind faith in religion, PK essentially addresses an urban middle class audience, the kind that is upwardly mobile but has to fall back on godmen when aspirations are thwarted.

Jaggu’s father is a blind devotee of Tapasvi Maharaj who named her Jagatjanani or “mother of the world”. Jaggu in a skimpy skirt rides a bicycle in Bruges and has a crackling romance going with Sarfaraz. Both come from conservative families; she from a Hindu family based in Delhi and he from a Lahori Muslim one across the border. Jaggu’s parents, especially her father, with his florid red tikka running down from hairline to the bridge of his nose, cannot take a step without Tapasvi Maharaj’s blessings. Sarfaraz’s parents are never properly introduced. Her parents are dismayed when she tells them via Skype of her desire to marry Sarfaraz.

Poor boy, he is made to disappear by the scriptwriters owing to an ineptly written scene meant to create a misunderstanding between the couple when he does not turn up at the marriage registrar’s. Jaggu’s parents, their conservatism notwithstanding, come across as loving, accommodating beings who have their daughter’s happiness uppermost in their minds.

Such parents do exist, it is hoped, even among the arch conservatives in India; otherwise, the social landscape would bleak and unrelieved. Indian parents, cutting across religion and caste, believe their aulad is the greatest masterpiece of nature, particularly if it happens to be a male. Such “auladbazi” is taken to extremes even if the child in question shows signs of being sadistic and demented! In PK it is a genuinely loving daughter who is being celebrated regardless of her unusual choice of husband who belongs to the “other” community. When Jaggu returns home to Delhi to join a top-notch TV news network, her parents are relieved. So is Tapasvi Maharaj, who predicted that her quest for love would come to naught. He is not aware till then that PK, a creature from another planet, would appear out of nowhere, thanks to Jaggu, and expose him for the utter fraud that he is.

Tapasvi Maharaj is a “chocolate box” version of the godmen thugs without whom politicians, policemen, bureaucrats, small and big businessmen, many members of the judiciary, doctors, lawyers and others cannot lead their day-to-day lives with any degree of satisfaction. They attribute all their worldly success to their chosen “guru” who intercedes on their behalf with the Almighty, as and when required. Thus people like Asaram Bapu, Rampal Baba—both are currently in jail—and Guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh can, year after year, enjoy power and the patronage of the ruling class and the immense wealth made possible by this connection. The daily life of India is virtually held to ransom by such people.

Complete dependence on charlatans claiming direct access to the maker of the universe is to be understood in its proper context. In a country where the vast majority of natural resources are controlled by two per cent of the population, what else can be expected of those who wish to join “the chosen ones” and those who already belong to this band? The first lot think a judicious mix of political skulduggery combined with “mystical” intervention can do the trick; the second, obviously exclusive set, knows that it is so for they have been perpetual beneficiaries of such machinations.

Tapasvi Maharaj is no master of “heaven and earth magic”, although he claims to be so, especially after acquiring PK’s remote which glows like a priceless stone; he bought it from a drunken folk musician who snatched it from a bewildered PK on his landing in picturesque Rajasthan. He had jumped aboard a sand-laden goods train. The loss of the remote control device ensures that PK remains on earth until he recovers it in the end from Maharaj after a clumsy, comic tussle and returns to his own planet in the vast unfathomable universe, but not before leaving a note for Jaggu saying that he loves her and, of course, paving the way for her happiness.

The problem with PK is that it lacks conceptual rigour and, possibly because of it, a sense of reality. It is neither an effective political parable nor a fairy-tale love story. Its politics is, to put it mildly, naive. The manner in which Jaggu and Sarfaraz come together in the end is improbable and sentimental. Thanks to PK’s intervention, contact is established between Jaggu in the Delhi TV studio and a large audience and Sarfaraz in Lahore contacted via the Pakistan embassy in Belgium after a false start. It is as if the Indian and Pakistani governments are in tacit agreement that the lovers must be united! The godman may thus be seen only as a temporary stumbling block in the happiness of Jaggu and Sarfaraz, and not as a force of evil who can and does like others of his ilk bring misery upon the innocent.

Clearly Rajkumar Hirani and his associates are unaffected by such a reading of their film, as they are laughing all the way to the bank if the reports on its phenomenal box-office success are true.