Rajkumar Hirani is a born fabulist who has evolved with failsafe flair over four films. In the process, he has sharpened his wit that hits the target with unerring aim while honing his ability to capsule easy-to-digest profundity for our turbulent times. For PK, he draws on many relatable myths and marries them to contemporary India’s intractable problem of competitive religious bigotry, to arrive at a simple and sentimental solution. He delivers a sermon at the end, but makes it so much fun that he sweeps us along on a high tide of emotion and cocoons us with woozy warmth.

Hirani is inventive within reasonable constraints of commercial viability, not straying too far from conventions that are accessible to all. He uses his canny intelligence that has absorbed our narrative tradition and film history to forge a singular voice that resonates with disparate audiences. Raj Kapoor hovers over PK in Chaplinesque body language and through the evocative song, ‘Aasman pe hai khuda, aur zameen pe hum/Aaj kal who iss tarha dekhta hai kum’, as plaintive commentary on a ghastly terrorist attack. Hirani’s expert craftsmanship and cultivated sensibility reach both mass and niche multiplex viewers, all receptive to the feel-good message to take home with them — even if they were unaware that they were actually looking for it along with the promised entertainment.

Aamir khan plays the holy innocent from beyond our ken who asks uncommon questions of common problems that we have collectively relegated to the insolvable category. It is easy for the innocent alien from a far away “gola” to observe and absorb the chaotic contradictions of this new “gola” with goggle-eyed curiosity, relentlessly curious about everything in his pursuit of getting back home. ‘ET, go home’ has been the forlorn cry of all stranded aliens, be it in English or Bhojpuri.

How this alien descended on a stretch of Rajasthan desert, butt naked except for the turquoise pendant around his neck, comes later when the Bhojpuri-spouting PK, darting around Delhi like an energised bunny, tells his tale to the sceptical TV reporter Jaggu (Anushka Sharma, cute in her pixie cut). It is Jaggu, shortened from Jagat Janani (how can a girl’s slender shoulders bear the weight of being an earth mother!), who is the narrator/participant in this extraordinary tale that can strain our credulity but pulls off the con act with panache. There is no heavy duty sci-fi jargon — of wormholes and time travel — to confound our comprehension. Unlike Superman being despatched to earth for his own safety, this alien is a full-grown specimen sent to research similar life on this planet. In his world, there are no clothes, no language — they communicate mentally — and apparently, no currency. The way this wide-eyed stranger looks at our world offers us a new perspective. He thinks people are differently coloured — from the clothes they wear — till he finds otherwise.

Rajkumar Hirani with Sanjay Dutt and Aamir Khan

Rajkumar Hirani with Sanjay Dutt and Aamir Khan

Stories of alien creatures learning about humans seem often like a crash course in consumerism and manipulative soap-opera emotionalism. Hirani opts for an earthier alternative: a plump, accommodative sex worker who lets her customer hold her hands for six hours (she falls asleep sitting) while he takes in all that is stored in her brain. So, PK sticks to Bhojpuri and a smattering of English later on, to burst the comforting bubble of blind faith in god-men who claim exclusive connectivity with god.

‘Gandhigiri’ was the go-to phrase in Lage Raho, now it is ‘wrong connection’. Chaplinesque sight gags careen into screwball comic frenzy in the riveting first half.

PK discovers clothes in dancing cars — as couples make love — and this becomes a recurring gag. His attempts at finding his pendant lead him to shrines of all religions and the ensuing satiric outcome spares no faith. Soon, he discards all the idols, holy beads and threads as fraudulent devices to exploit the gullible, looking for easy fixes for life’s problems.

Jaggu’s reporter’s nose is now twitching at this scoop that can lead to a major exposé, fed up as she is with inane stories of suicidal pets. She has a grouse against god-men. Her budding romance with a Pakistani man in the cobbled streets of Bruges is cut short because her strictly Hindu father (Parikshet Sahni) consults his guru, Tapasvi (Saurabh Shukla, epitome of wickedness who beams benignity) who says Pakistani men are all betrayers. The teary ending in a studio is taken care of by PK’s omniscience and faultless logic. So, we have a happy end to a cross-border love story even though PK has by now fallen in love with the girl. Intergalactic love stretches believability and it is politically suave to unite Indo-Pak lovers. This, after Hirani shows a jihadi train bombing that leaves PK in despair — he loses the first human who befriended him, a Rajasthani band leader played by Sanjay Dutt, the film-maker’s talisman.

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Aamir Khan, blazes curiosity and intelligence in PK

The second half is full of too many threads that need all of Hirani’s editorial expertise to weave into a smooth narrative. It is still engaging, and takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions, though the pace feels flaccid. The arguments of religious managers using the human need for hope get repetitive even though the points made are both familiar and relevant. Tapasvi displays PK’s blue pendant as a piece of Shiva’s damru (drum) fallen in the Himalayas and wants donations to build a glorious temple. The allusion to Ayodhya and the Ram Janmabhoomi temple is unmistakable, and brave in the climate of triumphalist Hindutva.

So far acceptable, even if the simplistic arguments are set in a rationalist’s echo chamber. PK’s arguments are on the well-worn lines of OMG – Oh My God! (the play being far superior to the film). You could say they need repetition in a country where swayambhu idols sprout like umbrellas in the monsoon and god-men take new avatars every other day. Hirani understands and condones our need for hope and how we find it in faith. But, he is no latter-day Charvaka or a follower of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. He does not ask why we need religion at all. Even his protagonist, the holy innocent from an advanced civilisation, validates human need for faith through logically irrefutable questions based on material reality. But, then, that would make the whole clever premise too discomfiting — cerebrally, philosophically and commercially.

It would be interesting to know what Father Gaston Roberge, the distinguished Kolkata-based film academic and researcher, makes of Hirani’s use of the holy innocent as the vehicle of enlightenment (in a limited sense). At a paper presented in Mumbai a couple of years ago, he posited that Rancho of 3 Idiots had Christ-like qualities, and his ongoing research is to survey how students responded to the film. Is religion to be debated in metaphysical terms or at the level of simplistic exposés of god-men materialising gold chains from thin air and jihadists carrying out killings in the name of Islam? The latter choice settles for simple answers that make us feel good about ourselves for agreeing with PK’s logic — it is content to skim the surface and not subvert deeply-held beliefs. We cannot ask for profundity when the director’s intention is to tell an agreeable, entertaining and safely provocative story with grace, wit and superior sentimentality. The operative word is superior.

Hirani’s impeccable casting — from Aamir Khan, who blazes curiosity and intelligence in place of his usual square-jawed earnestness, to a restrained and therefore, far more effective Boman Irani and the ever-reliable supporting actors — delivers and how. Sharp dialogue (with co-writer Abhijat Joshi) and first-rate cinematography contribute to make PK an important film of this decade. The usually brilliant Shantanu Moitra is burdened with one song too many and yet, Swanand Kirkire’s lyrics are refreshingly original.

I have one final thought here. PK is not a sci-fi film in the true sense of the term, nor is it set in some distant future. Unlike films from the West, our imagination distances itself from a bleak future in store for humanity. There is sanguine hope that the world will be a better place despite all the ills that bedevil us. What makes us so optimistic? Now, that’s something to think about.