Does the Title of the Bollywood Blockbuster, 'PK', Actually Stand for Performing Kulturkampf?

In the kulturkampf between India’s intelligentsia decrying the ‘cultural terrorism’ of extremists, a film like PK has me wondering, how long can secular liberals retain the moral high ground?

If anyone had any misgivings about whether popular culture should be taken seriously, the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France laid all doubts to rest barely over a week into 2015. Any lingering innocence or naivety, which holds cultural productions to be mediated versions of reality, since the interface between art and life was meant to distort and create representations rather than replicas, was lost. The definition of a killing joke must be when cartoons in a satirical newspaper precipitates a human tragedy: the death of 20 people, including the perpetrators of the shootout, and injuries of a reported 22 others. Not to mention the deepening of antagonisms on a global scale, and reviving debates about the so-called Post-Cold War “clash of civilizations”, theorized by political scientist Samuel Huntingdon in the '90s.

The problem with Huntingdon’s thesis is that it designates homogenous civilizational blocs, based on prescribed cultural principles, perceived to be in conflict with each other at the fault lines where they come into contact. Huntingdon’s theory proposes a model of tension arising from inherently incompatible differentiating features of each civilizational bloc predisposing them to conflict. Instead of being necessarily pre-determined toward confrontation, it now becomes clear that an over-arching similarity often unites these primordial atavistic forces against a common foe that once aimed to supplant them: modernity and modernization.

The nation-state, liberalism, secularism, and industrialization, unleashed by modernity, which tried to obliterate preceding forms of social order, is now being subdued and manipulated by ethno-cultural chauvinists, radical traditionalists, ultra-nationalists, and especially religious zealots to produce their own versions of modernity. As such, rather than looking at our present as a ‘clash of civilizations’, it may be more accurate to see it as a kulturkampf or a ‘cultural struggle’ between liberal secularism and religious fundamentalism, if not a total war between both sides.

The term kulturkampf has its origins in late 19th century Germany when the first Chancellor of a unified Germany, Otto Von Bismarck, proceeded to complete the secularization of the state in a manner inimical to the Roman Catholic Church. Fearing that papal infallibility would be invoked to extend the political power of the Holy See into the nascent Germany, Bismarck opposed the control of schools by the church and church appointments to reduce its influence over Germany’s Catholics. Epitomizing the proverbial struggle between the church and the state, kulturkampf represents now, as it did then, attempts to limit, question, or challenge clerical authority. Although Bismarck was far from a liberal, as the term is understood today, those who contend with reactionary elements all around the world project themselves as the standard bearers of liberty, equality, and fraternity against a dangerous primitivism that threatens to undermine the victories won to curtail the admixture of religion and politics and separate church from the state since The Enlightenment.

At around the time of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, unbeknownst, I was in a cinema watching the much-talked-about Hindi film that provoked a less bloody but no less vehement kulturkampf in India. Director Rajkumar Hirani and Bollywood megastar Aamir Khan, who had become famous outside India for Lagaan (2001) and for his earlier collaboration with Hirani in 3 Idiots (2009), reunite in the controversial PK (2014). Released in mid-December last year to critical acclaim, by the time I watched it, reports had declared PK a blockbuster, and it has since been established as the highest grossing Indian film of all time. However, the representations in PK also triggered the consternation of the Hindu Far Right, fueling debates about freedom of speech and anxieties over the crisis of secularism, given the growing cultural hegemony of Hindu Nationalism after their flagship Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a resounding victory in elections last year.

The reaction by those whom India’s liberals call Saffron terror groups was strident and swift. Some Hindu Nationalist affiliates tried to take legal action to ban PK, critiqued the film’s premise in the media, and mobilized militant Hindu mobs to stage protests by ripping apart and burning PK posters and pictures of Aamir Khan in front of cinemas screening the film to demonstrate their antagonism. Why did Hindu Nationalists oppose PK with such fervent passion while it enthralled audiences with success in Hindu majority India? In the kulturkampf between India’s intelligentsia decrying the ‘cultural terrorism’ of extremists, how long can secular liberals retain the moral high ground? And of course, why did PK’s radical naysayers reserve their harshest criticism for lead actor, Aamir Khan, an Indian Muslim of Pashtun descent? All these questions would help us decode the anagrammatic references behind a seemingly harmless acronym, an etymological exploration that would take us back all the way back to 1947.

Courting Controversy

PK is the story of a nameless humanoid alien stranded on Earth, specifically in India, after the beacon device he uses to control his spaceship is stolen. Since he comes from a planet where there is no verbal communication but telepathic transmission through tactile connection, he is nameless. Once he does discover how to speak the local Bhojpuri dialect, his attempts to find the whereabouts of his beacon device to return to his home planet leads the disbelieving locals to think he’s tipsy, inebriated out of his mind, or peekay. A string of similar incidents causes peekay to become his acquired earthly name; eventually being eponymously acronymized as PK.

Tapasvi Maharaj the Charlatan Has the Beacon Device

PK’s frantic search for the remote control device leads him to New Delhi and he crosses paths with teletabloid broadcast journalist, Jaggu. After initial misgivings about his origins, she is convinced he is indeed an alien as he professes, and resolves to help him in his search. Because this is a Bollywood film, there is a romantic subplot about Jaggu’s failed relationship with a Pakistani Muslim man in Belgium leaving her heartbroken, much to the relief of her orthodox Hindu family. While PK aspires to fill the void, allowing the intrusion of a song and dance number with Jaggu as part of commercial requirements, he realizes he cannot do so as she is still heartbroken. And that is just half the bloated narrative.

On the surface, the central conceit of the film is nothing new in world cinema or science fiction; it may even appear to be a pastiche of forgotten cult classics about aliens stranded in an inhospitable world. The print to screen British cult film The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), the humanoid predecessor of the alien in the Hollywood classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and the Bollywood adaptation of E.T. in Koi…Mil Gaya (2003) had already conventionalized the trope of other-planetary creatures walking among humans. By creative primogeniture, the urtext of the genre may have been the The Alien, a forgotten Indo-American collaboration trapped in development hell since the late '60s, scripted by India’s greatest filmmaker Satyajit Ray, and said to have inspired ET. PK’s giant ears and cat-like eyes as a maker of physical anomaly and use of telekinesis to communicate recall the characterization of another humanoid alien with uncanny deformities in the American indie film, The Brother from Another Planet (1984).

Ideologically, and herein begins the problem, PK is in many ways reminiscent of another cult Hollywood film, They Live (1988). The latter castigates the state apparatus, politicians, media, and the capitalists in the United States as exploitative alien parasites in a humanoid guise that can be see only through special sunglasses. Conversely, the benign alien in PK, with his superior cerebral faculty and ability to read minds through touch, is used as a mouthpiece to target another section of the ruling class responsible for the false consciousness that misleads the masses: the clergy in India.

In the first half of PK, both opportunistic and well-meaning people advise the humanoid alien to refer his search to God. Alien to the concept, PK presupposes God to be an all-powerful earthly authority, forcing him to embark on a quest to find God. Soon he realizes, that there are various religions in India and begins to participate in a variety of rituals, undertaking severe austerities, and propitiates the Divine in all sectarian forms to invoke his presence in a montage scene accompanied by what is known in India as a devotional or spiritual song. He neither makes God appear, nor does he find his beacon device. In a scene common in Indian cinema, he begs God for deliverance but to no avail.

PK starts to distribute leaflets looking for a missing God. Soon PK realizes that God is a spiritual being and is uncontactable because of false emissaries or “managers” who are causing people to dial the “wrong number” to God. Goaded on by Jaggu and her network owner-producer Cherry, symbolizing a cynical liberal media that is suspicious of spiritual leaders and godmen in the country, PK becomes part of a media crusade to expose godmen to be charlatans that con people. Both Jaggu and Cherry have a personal vendetta, Jaggu disagrees with her wealthy parents’ blind devotion to a Hindu holyman guru, Tapasvi Maharaj, while Cherry has been attacked by a mob and has scars on his buttocks because he was poked by a trident, the weapon of choice for Hindu militants

Predictably, PK’s device is in the hands of Tapasvi Maharaj, the guru to hundreds of thousands of feverish Hindu followers. PK wins a wager to expose Tapasvi Maharaj’s fraudulent methods, gets back his beacon, unites Jaggu with her Pakistani lover, reconciles Jaggu with her family, and finally returns home in a Hindi film style happy-ever-after closure. Ostensibly advertised as comedy-drama, if we map the genre terrain the film traverses: PK commences as a science fiction film, makes a U-turn into chick flick territory, turns right to become a spiritual film, then turns left to become a satire; it even finds time to squeeze in some bromance. Highly entertaining and occasionally very funny, Aamir Khan hams it up as the socially alienated titular protagonist, so the film’s popularity comes as no surprise.

The controversy surrounding the film should be unsurprising, too. Audiences are bombarded with many sensational scenes of PK’s bewilderment at religious practices in India for comic effect as though intending to provoke some kind of introspection. PK brings fruit and flower offerings on a platter to a church, as he saw in a Hindu temple, breaks a coconut at the statue of Christ, and gets thrown out by churchgoers. Confused, he tries to bring wine into a mosque, because it was offered in the church, and gets kicked out of the street by Muslims. The suggested irrationality of Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, and Jain rituals are seen through the unencumbered eyes of an alien who questions the necessity of such overt displays of religiosity that justifies self-mutilation and mortification. One sympathetic Leftist interpretation of the film may be to show that those who chastise the alien as being tipsy are the ones who are truly intoxicated by the opiate of religion.

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