Thursday 1 January 2015

God complex: "P.K."

Playing a visitor from another galaxy in Bollywood's big Christmas 2014 release P.K., Aamir Khan unveils the strangest human form exhibited on screen for some time. In his breakthrough film Lagaan, Khan appeared squat but resolute; his body was exactly that of a working-class Everyman staying close to the ground he refused to be budged from. A decade and a half on, and at least part of that body has been made subject to the now-standard movie star inflation. Khan's shoulders, abs and glutes - amply showcased after his character touches down naked in the Rajasthan desert - would have made Arnie in his bodybuilding prime look on with envy. Above the neck, however, this pale, pop-eyed, jug-eared figure can't help but resemble Mr. Bean, Ed Miliband or any other figure of comedy: the pieces don't seem to fit together at all.

Fortunately, this offkilter presence is of a piece with the rest of a rough-hewn star vehicle that seeks to explore just how peculiar and interchangeable our lives and customs - and especially our belief systems - really are: Khan's P.K. (it apparently sounds like "tipsy" in Hindi, which suits his altogether spacey demeanour) at one point stumbles into a workshop used for the manufacture of religious icons, and he suddenly seems entirely at home amid the mix-and-match jumble of arms, legs and disproportionate torsos. The film thrown up around him is something like E.T. meets Derek: its plot is a silly, sometimes flagrantly sentimental construction that nevertheless provides a framework within which Khan and writer-director Rajkumar Hirani can explore certain personal concerns.

After the remote he needs to summon his spaceship is stolen, and his efforts to retrieve it are met with a shrugging string of "God only knows", the very credulous P.K. starts a search for this errant God fellow here on earth, handing out flyers to rush-hour commuters and sticking up missing-persons posters bearing the heads of various elephant deities, a move that quickly sees him dubbed a lunatic by all but curious TV reporter Jaggu (Anushka Sharma). This quest will prompt some of the usual Bollywood broadness: wherever he goes, P.K. is followed not just by Jaggu, keen to land herself a promotion by snagging an out-of-this-world scoop, but by the kind of cheap, farting synth theme that used to accompany Vic Reeves' more outre kicky-leg dances on the Big Night Out.

Yet it also cues jokes that are a touch sharper and certainly more daring than the norm, not least because they have organised religion, in all its forms, squarely in their sights. After making a cash donation at a church and getting nothing - earthly or spiritual - to show for it, P.K. proceeds to the nearest police station to file a complaint; later, he's seen flipping over a maternity ward's worth of naked newborns in a bid to find the label that might identify which creed they've been born into. Naturally, he finds none - but the gag sets up a later sequence in which our hero parades individuals in traditional Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist dress before his nemesis and asks him (and us) to identify which one's which. The punchline is that they're all wearing somebody else's garb. Faith is arbitrary, the film keeps pointing out; we should regard one another as people first, and worshippers only in passing.

Hirani previously made the wondrous Lage Raho Munna Bhai, an oddly profound light comedy about a mobster stalked, consequently driven crazy, and then inevitably pacified by the spirit of Gandhi. In P.K., you sense him getting altogether more serious and searching: in his quest to expose what he dubs "wrong numbers" - those shonky connections between man and his gods, and between man and his fellow man - P.K. will take down a self-appointed guru (Saurabh Shukla), who's previously been responsible for separating the Hindi Jaggu from her Pakistani Muslim boyfriend, and has taken delivery of that missing remote for use as one more glittering tchotchke among many.

Beneath the surface tweeness, the film is clear-eyed about the likely consequences of such a project: P.K. gets a slap from Jaggu's father after turning a common-or-garden rock into a profitable shrine simply by adorning it with a splash of red paint. (The hardliner's response has been echoed in certain sections of the Hindi press: "Do not question religion. It's a matter of faith.") And while P.K. is perhaps just a shade too innocent to integrate it as the third-act punch it really wants to land, it's a bold move on Hirani's part to make a fundamentalist terror attack a critical moment in what's ostensibly an end-of-year entertainment. Like its leading man, then, its pieces don't always fit together smoothly, but it has more than you might expect going on up top: beneath the robes of idiot comedy, P.K. is asking a lot of pertinent questions about the things we continue to believe in.

P.K. is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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