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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.

Cultural Sensitivities

Nevertheless, it must be brought to attention that there is an asymmetry and disproportionality in the satire. While questions are raised in the film as to whether a religion that uses the doctrine of non-believers of a crucified messiah going to hell to harvest converts and a hijab wearing woman criticizes the unfairness of a religion that disallows girls from attending school, it appears to be a perfunctory nod to pluralism. The largest portion of the vitriol appears to be deployed to question its representation in ‘actually existing’ Hinduism in present-day India.

In the contested meanings in PK, all other grievances of the Hindu Nationalists appear secondary to their rejection of the film’s romantic subplot about a cross-border inter-religious romance.

The corporeality of the Divine in Hinduism is deconstructed in many scenes. PK is conned into buying paraphernalia of Hindu deities to aid him in his endeavor with the hard sell that the bigger the idol the more powerful the blessings. Finding his way into the warehouse of a sculptor where there are hundreds of statues and figurines of Hindu deities, he tearfully demands that the true God would speak to him, but of course, there is nothing but silence. A sentiment reinforced by lines enunciated by PK like: “Believe in the god who created you, not the one you created.” In one scene, PK traps a man in the toilet who is dressed as the Hindu god Shiva for a cultural festival, mistaking him for God. When he escapes, PK proceeds to chase after him, and the costumed performer flees. The holymen who institutionalize Hinduism are also lampooned as being confidence tricksters and nothing but self-serving mountebanks who promise deliverance but really only worsen communal tensions.


Shiva in the Bathroom

Seeing the cumulative effect of these representations as directed to hurt Hindu sensitivities, academic Madhu Kishwar points out the lack of even-handedness in the satire (“Sorry Aamir, despite all the denials PK has an anti-hindu undertone”, Madhu Purnima Kishwar, Firstpost, 13 January 2015). She argues that “PK focuses obsessively on Hindu dharma gurus as well as Hindu deities [but] studiously avoids dealing with the frauds within Christianity or Islam.” Yet, she is mistaken in her criticism that the film undermines the core values and theological basis of Hinduism through iconoclasm. Such simplifications are misplaced and tend to implicate all Hindus as being maligned, but the reality is that most Hindus appear to have rallied behind it in support and elevated it to blockbuster status. Only fringe extremists have vocalized their objection to the film. probably because the ideological subject being condemned is not the Hindu faith but Hindu Nationalism — a vital semantic and ideological distinction that must be made in this particular instance of kulturkampf.

Saffron Reactionaries

The most trenchant attack by PK is on the ideological tenants of Hindu Nationalism: institutionalization, primordialism, and ‘Otherization’. Hinduism is unique in world religions for its diffuseness: it has no single founder, no single canon, and no fixed theistic ontology, but rather refers to a set of diverse traditions and way of life linked only by some shared philosophical premises and a common geography. A key invention of the Hindu Nationalist movement was to give an amorphous and unstructured faith an organizational unity and institutional logic. The goal appears to be to instill a sense of a common or bounded Hindu rashtra, or Hindu nation, that can be controlled and sustained for political mobilization in a parliamentary democracy where numbers mean votes and an ever-expanding electoral base means political power can be consolidated.

Groups like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) founded in 1925 and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) formed in 1964 to cover the social aspects of the RSS activities communicate the RSS message to Hindus living inside and outside India and hold conferences for Hindu religious leaders from across the country. Both the RSS and VHP are actively involved in Sanskrit education, the codification of Hindu rites and rituals, establishing the historicity of Hinduism, and converting Christians, Muslims, and tribals to Hinduism. The notions of cohesion, codification, and conversion are very new innovations in the long and vast history of Hinduism.

RSS and VHP provide not only the legitimacy of connections with large religious groups, but also the manpower of the celibate sadhus (holy men) and other Hindu volunteer workers who occasionally also double up as shock troops. Therefore, many of the holy men around India who are in the frontline of introducing these modifications to the faith have clandestine or overt connections to the RSS and VHP. To make a mockery of them, as PK does, is to indirectly challenge their legitimacy as ambassadors of the faith and stymy the efforts to organize the inchoate Hindu nation into a political machine. It is telling that the first English language newspaper of the RSS was called The Organiser, which began in 1947. It was shutdown in the aftermath of Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi’s assassination by an RSS member. In April 2014, it has apparently restarted its publication.

Tethered to Hindu Nationalist ambition to institutionalize Hinduism is its fixation on the primordial identity of the Hindu nation. Hindu Nationalism’s foremost ideologue: Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883 – 1966) articulated the ideological basis of Hindu Nationalism in Hindutva. According to historian Christophe Jaffrelot, Savarkar’s intended Hindutva or Hinduness was a doctrine that the majority Hindu community embodies the nation; not only because it is the largest, but also because it is the oldest, and since Hindus are “the autochthonous people of India”, religious minorities who are outsiders must align to Hindutva as the national culture [Hindu Nationalism: A Reader (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2009), p. 15]. In this ethno-religious definition of nationalism, Muslims and Christians must keep their religion private and pay allegiance to Hindu symbols and values in public, because the state follows the nation and becomes a Hindu one.

Traditionally, because Islam and Christianity were religions associated with the invading Mughals and British colonizers respectively in the imagination of Hindu Nationalists, Christians and Muslims are deemed to undermine the unity of the Hindu nation. To the Hindu fundamentalist, because the holy lands, founders, and holy books of Christianity and Islam originated outside of India, their loyalties to India were questioned. However, according to Savarkar, by establishing a Hindutva ideology, wherein Hindu culture, values, and symbols have hegemony over the nation and state, this can be avoided. In the identity politics of Hindu Nationalism, Christians and Muslims are outsiders or for want of a better word, aliens, to be subordinated to the majority, an antithetical position to the equality guaranteed by the liberal secular democracy of the Indian nation-state as intended by its pioneers.

However, PK assaults this primordial configuration of the nation as a Hindu one and religious minorities as ‘Others’. It challenges the imposition of labels on individuals based on prescribed characteristics, a common tool used by Hindu fanatics to exclude Christians and Muslims from the national body politic. In one vituperative scene, PK brings five people dressed in various religious costumes and asks the film’s main antagonist figure, Tapasvi Maharaj, to identify the religion of each of them. The guru does so based on his understanding of how members of each religion fashion themselves. Of course, it turns out that the guru is wrong because PK made the Christian, the Hindu, the Muslim, the Sikh and the Jain switch religious costumes from what they are usually expected to wear to challenge the over-simplified labels that are imposed on individuals. The ensuing confusion of the guru is used to show that outwardly appearances or practices cannot fully define and circumscribe the genuine identity of an individual or a community. PK insists with the passion of a bleeding heart liberal, a true manager of God would not distinguish a person based on superficial coding or labeling but find the common humanity in all of them as children of God.


Guess Their Religion

The subtext that Christians and Muslims cannot be a fifth column just because they may have a different set of practices to the majority Hindus resounds with the liberal understanding of Indian identity that is based on multiculturalism rather than majoritarianism. When Tapasvi Maharaj tries to defend himself against PK’s allegations that he is a false prophet, the guru turns to the favorite ploy of Hindu fanatics: to question the religious background of their critics. Tapasvi Maharaj begins to ask the media what PK’s name stands for: “Pervez Khan or Pasha Kamal?” The choice of Muslim names are telling, Tapasvi Maharaj insinuates that PK is a Muslim trying to humiliate and denigrate a Hindu spiritual leader and should thus, be rejected.

The marginalization articulated by Tapasvi Majaraj is part of the process of ‘Otherization’ by Hindu Nationalists to sideline the rights, the culture, and the voice of minorities because they do not belong to the Hindu nation. In an ironic foretelling of things, some Hindu extremists have suggested that PK was financed by the Pakistani secret service ISI and funding from the petrodollars routed from the United Arab Emirates [“The Facts Behind Subramanian Swamy’s Terror Allegation About PK”, Rituparna Chatterjee, Huffpost India, 30 December 2014]. Therefore, through the conflict-generating plot device in Tapasvi Maharaj, the filmmakers appear to have anticipated the sentiments of their critics extra-textually with pinpoint accuracy.

There Is No Middle Ground

Earlier in the same scene, Tapasvi Maharaj tries to earn the sympathy of the public by faking that he is being victimized for merely trying to build a temple for God on Earth, an avowedly moral duty that makes him faultless when there are far worse criminals out there. The discerning viewer would understand the allusion is intended to invite derision for Tapasvi Maharaji and his ilk because it recalls the Ramjanmabhoomi (Birthplace of Ram) movement since 1990, when Hindu fundamentalists started to protest that a holy temple for the Hindu warrior-god Ram used to be where the Babri Masjid stood. The goal of the movement was to provide a single founder god and establish his historicity to enhance the legitimacy of Hindu Nationalism, and to display the power of Hindutva mobilization against Islam in India.

The very existence of Pakistan – commonly acronymized as PK — has allowed Hindu Nationalists to consistently doubt the loyalties of India’s Muslims.

In 1992, when Saffron terror groups destroyed the Babri Mosque, it caused widespread communal bloodletting between Hindus and Muslims and the loss of lives in the thousands. However, to date, no Hindu temple has been built and a protracted legal struggle between Hindu extremists and the secular Indian state persists, as does communal disharmony. The political violence of the event and the human tragedy that resulted is also indexed in Slumdog Millionaire (2009).

In the contested meanings in PK, all other grievances of the Hindu Nationalists appear secondary to their rejection of the film’s romantic subplot about a cross-border inter-religious romance. Militant Hindu demagogues have tried to pander the conspiracy of “love jihad” that Muslim men in South Asia are egged on by radical Islamists to seduce, romance, convert, and marry Hindu women. In Hindu Nationalist propaganda, “love jihad” is a grand design by Islamists to contract the Hindu rashtra by targeting its women-folk for creeping insidious conversion. PK, of course, rejects these conspiracy theories by suggesting that a romance between an Indian Hindu girl and a Pakistani Muslim boy does not have to be politicized as a tit-for-tat struggle for power in South Asia, but could be genuinely based on love.

The liberal view in PK blames the Hindu Nationalists for demonizing Pakistan as a chimera ‘other’, the two nations can co-exist without mutual antagonism. In fact, liberals in both India and Pakistan are trying to curb the excesses of fundamentalists on both sides of the border in order for other more pressing developmental and social problems to be addressed, rather than to invest in exorbitant defense expenditures exalting muscular nationalism. Hindu Nationalists have traditionally treated Pakistan with extreme disdain since Partition in August 1947 bifurcated India. Since the geographic imagination of the Hindu rashtra harkens back to pre-Islamic times and also includes territories in present-day Pakistan that were under Hindu principalities before the arrival of the Mughals, its loss serves as a reminder of the incompleteness of the Hindu nation.

The very existence of Pakistan – commonly acronymized as PK — has allowed Hindu Nationalists to consistently doubt the loyalties of India’s Muslims. Perhaps the reason Aamir Khan, an Indian Muslim himself, decided to feature himself as a humanoid alien challenging Hindu holymen is to self-reflexively synecdoche the fallacies of Hindu Nationalists allowing him to counter their venomous propaganda.

In the final analysis, the ire of Hindu extremists is only ostensibly about representations of Hindu gods; they have always been fluid and corporeal, anyway. The Divine in Hinduism can be manifested in anthropomorphic or material forms and has no fixed identity, amenable to being worshipped in a variety of expressions. Hindu gods are represented on television, films, comics, and even cartoons without being seen as blasphemy or apostasy. Unlike other religions, in Hinduism, the Divine can be both incorporeal and incarnate, or as it is known in the Bhakti sect movement since 6th century AD: nirguna “a god without attributes” or saguna “a god who has attributes”. The Bhakti movement in Hinduism advocates spiritual enlightenment or experiencing the Divine through “personal devotion to a god” and a personal relationship with God rather than ritualized systems of belief.

If anything, as filmmaker Hirani has pointed out, PK is a homage to the Saint Kabir (1440-1518), a key poet from the Bhakti movement, venerated in both Hinduism and Islam. In his songs and verses, Saint Kabir gestures bhakti “towards a formless nirguna deity combined with a religious and social iconoclasm that rejects ideology of the caste system as well as many of the beliefs and practices of both Hinduism and Islam.” [David N. Lorenzen, “Bhakthi”, The Hindu World, ed., Sushil Mittal & Gene Thursby (New York: Routledge, 2010), pp. 185-209]. Rather than repudiating Hinduism or the Hindu faith, PK finds source material for its liberal message in those philosophical movements that sought to invigorate Hinduism and create a renaissance from within. Both the bhakti movement and PK reject those who claim to be its custodians, a view shared by many liberal and moderate Hindus. As historian Vinay Lal points out about Saffron terror groups, “Hindutva has nothing to do with Hinduism, but only with the exercise of power… if Hinduism is to emerge resilient and resplendent, it shall have to be safeguarded from those who posture as its most vigorous defenders” [See: Vinay Lal, Borin Van LoonIntroducing Hinduism (London: Icon Books, 2005), pp. 167-171]. A cross, which India’s secular liberals appear all too happy bear.

Je suis Khan?

Aamir Khan, who belonged to the triumvirate of Khans together with contemporaries Shahrukh and Salman, who fronted Bollywood’s growth and global expansion in the ’90s and ’00s, has of late, positioned himself as public intellectual voice within the parameters of commercial Hindi cinema. The star system in India that has traditionally tended to dichotomize between ‘the artiste’ (a category to pigeonhole thespians, method actors, and serious performers, as opposed to ‘the star’) the populist entertainer circumscribed by an image trap to appease legions of fans for box office receipts, Aamir Khan comfortably straddles both typecasts, occupying a unique position. While he is not averse to trying out the occasional action-masala film, his oeuvre as producer and actor has started to veer towards socially responsible and aesthetically meritorious filmmaking.

The art film Dhobi Ghat (2011), a Künstlerroman about an aspiring actor’s struggles, and the dark satirical comedy Peepli Live (2011) based on farmer suicides and agricultural ruin, were both produced by Khan. The performative idiom that thematizes a social activism and advocacy for neglected social causes, also emerges in his commercial films like Earth (1998), Rang De Basanti (2006), Fanaa (2006), Taare Zameen Par (2007), and of course, 3 Idiots. Not to mention that Khan has also hosted his own Hindi television talk show, Satyamev Jayate (Truth Alone Triumphs) since 2012, bringing to light social problems in India like “female foeticide, child sexual abuse, rape, honour killings, domestic violence, untouchability, alcoholism, and the criminalization of politics” according to one assessment.

Khan’s commitment to a liberal civil society was inspired by his great grand uncle, nationalist leader, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad who was also India’s first Education Minister. Azad subscribed to the multicultural vision of postcolonial India that is inclusive to both majority Hindus and religious minorities through democratic safeguards for individual freedoms. It’s an ideological disposition he shared with his fellow Indian National Congress comrades: India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi, the forebears of the present-day Congress party who are the main opponents of the BJP.

Khan, though not a member of any political party, has been at loggerheads with militant Hindu outfits since he voiced his opposition to BJP policies in the state of Gujerat years ago and is seen by the BJP as a Congress supporter, even though the actor rejects these allegations. Last year, Khan even delivered a lecture entitled “Maulana Azad: His belief in secularism and his foresight” (“Aamir Khan wants to make film on great grand uncle Maulana Abul Kalam Azad”, PTI, India Today, 9 January 2014) to mark Abdul Kalam’s 125th birth anniversary. Equally importantly, the lecture reveals that Aamir Khan has succeeded in importing into PK’s narrative his own political and ideological position.

Yet, it is instructive in this age of kulturkampf to question the necessity of allowing such instantly misconstrued representations to be purveyed in the media under the pretext of freedom of expression. If the artiste is aware that altercations between secular liberals and the cultural extremists are almost certain to erupt, it appears foolhardy to construct a narrative abandoning all subtlety and circumlocution that would earn immediate disapproval and bludgeon the fragile sensibilities of the already over-sensitive religious fundamentalists. The charge of ‘cultural terrorism’ is to be expected when creative forces think scandalous representations are good for marketing. The ‘all persons fictitious’ disclaimer at the start of films no longer provides sufficient shielding or a convenient caveat from brickbats if subsequently all messages appear to be based on social realities and summon recent memories of actual tragedies.

While the humanist vision held by Aamir Khan is admirable and relevant in our troubled present, the methodology employed must be palatable, or it ends up exacerbating already fissiparous tendencies within sections of society. A positive message obscured by sensationalized packaging is likely to invoke a rancid response. In a kulturkampf where both sides are locked in a struggle for meaning, representation, and identity, there can be no innocents, and if unaccommodating secularists expect to occupy the moral high ground, they are just as misguided as their detractors.

The reason for this invective against both sides of the ideological spectrum is often because the consequences of kulturkampf are not just brought to bear on those directly involved. When the levels of hate escalate into political violence and acts of terror, innocents also get hurt physically, emotionally and culturally. By nature, terrorism is not directed at the main targets of animosity, but at its indirect stand-ins, who serve as convenient scapegoats. Undeniably, freedom of speech, with its capacity to rationally probe and interrogate the excesses of any belief system, has been crucial to the promotion of human rights. However, an unaccommodating and pugnacious secularism is antithetical to its own aims of promoting social progress, and some measure of temperance must be exercised. Radical religious fundamentalists have a tendency to direct their ire against not just the cultural intelligentsia or literati who hold that the pen is mightier than the sword, but at anyone they deem guilty by association.

Thankfully, the reactions to PK have not heightened to the point where lives are lost, and Hindu fanatics have maintained surprising restraint. But nobody knows when the tipping point in a kulturkampf will be; that itself should force both sides to rethink their respective persuasions.

As I write, extremists in Pakistan and Niger have claimed innocent lives and ruined places of worship on top of unleashing social unrest in the name of protesting against the most recent Charlie Hebdo publication caricaturing Islam’s holiest Prophet. Those killed had nothing to do with Charlie Hebdo but must suffer the rage of mobs nevertheless in the ‘age of extreme discord’ that Hindus call the late Kaliyuga. In the kulturkampf of Kaliyuga, there appears to be no end to the polemics as a primeval zealotry with an edgy siege mentality pits itself against an insensitive secular fundamentalism that rejoices in icon bashing and irreverence for the sake of it. In-between, it’s difficult to find a middle.