Towards the end of P.K., Rajkumar Hirani’s new film with Aamir Khan in a lovable lead role, a Hindi film song about human values, sung by Mukesh, starts playing accidentally on a chunky tape recorder. It is the simplest of ironies considering the scene—nobody can miss it—but the juxtaposition of song and circumstance buttresses the film’s thesis in the most charming, non-confrontational way possible. This is typical Hirani.

His three earlier films, Munna Bhai M.B.B.S (2003), Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) and 3 Idiots (2009), too combined the collective agony over systemic rot with a unique sense of childhood wonder and imagination. Buffoonery and physical humour are not ruled out.

It works, even though it might mean breaking down an idea or argument to such a skeletal degree that intellect ceases to matter. It is argumentative, activist cinema softened by farcical humour and elemental emotions, and can appeal to the intellectual and the philistine alike if they are generally okay with the hyperbolic trappings of mainstream Hindi cinema.

P.K. is firmly in that mould, although it presents its case better. Hirani and his writing partner Abhijat Joshi write a deft screenplay on the rationalist’s or agnostic’s argument: that propagators of organized religion thrive on the fear of those who flock to them.

Aamir Khan plays the title role, an unworldly character torn between logic and faith, perplexed by his inability to understand the ways of faith and dogma. He meets a journalist, Jagat Janani or Jaggu (Anushka Sharma), a reporter with a television news channel who finds potential for a provocative story in PK’s journey from a Rajasthani village, where the burly head of a local brass band (Sanjay Dutt) sheltered him, to consumerist Delhi. PK is in desperate search of a remote control, and to get to it, he has to deal with the manipulations of religious heads, including a guru who “communicates" with God and offers remedies for any life-threatening problem.

Jaggu convinces her editor (Boman Irani), a market savant more than an editor, to let PK begin a conversation about organized religion on their channel. The media team pitches PK against the guru and forces a national debate. PK is unwittingly the rationalist, and clearly represents the writers’ voice and world view.

The lengthy film, spanning about 3 hours, progresses in vignettes, all emphasizing PK’s point. We see PK approaching the doors of a mosque clutching two bottles of wine, barrels of milk spilling over oversized Hindu gods, PK walking into a church filled with devotees with a Hindu pooja thali and incense sticks, and an unforgettably funny sequence of PK’s encounter with a performer painted blue as the Hindu god Shiva, in a public toilet.

The gentle ironies do not hide the film’s unflinching view on majoritarianism and religious oppression. I don’t remember the last time a Hindi film-maker made such fun of the devout Hindu. It is a splendid thing to happen once in a while in cinema, because idol worship and religious taboos play out routinely in most films.

Khan is immersed in PK’s innocence and staunchness, though he uses staple tricks to communicate the oddball mannerisms of his character. The overarched eyebrows, widened eyes and pursed lips seem laboured in some of the scenes, though the sharp dialogue makes it easy to ignore this. We have seen Khan as an impossible amalgamation of philosopher, gentleman, superhero and comic in 3 Idiots. Here too, the projection of a man who knows it all without knowing anything about the world has an exalted aura. But PK is still an extremely lovable and winsome fellow, and Khan has much to do with that.

Sharma’s Jaggu is a competent act, without frills or gimmicks, and in their small roles, Dutt, Irani, Sushant Singh Rajput and Saurabh Shukla leave their mark.

The plot begins to bloat after the interval and the histrionics of staged debates, reiterating the theme, scene after scene, argument after argument, begins to tire. But even so, PK’s potential triumph over an exploitative godman, the villain of the film, is a climax worth the wait.

Through the movies of Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy and others, Hindi film lovers of a certain vintage are familiar with romantic ideas like love for humanity and rejection of religious and nationalistic barriers. But with a cross-country, inter-religious love story in their screenplay, Hirani and Joshi are closer to Nehruvian ideals of rationalism, scientific temper and socialism.

P.K. is a dialectic on religion on the big screen, without much of the splendour of cinematic technique. It is rooted in dialogue, scene and character, like Hirani’s other films. But the director’s biggest feat is the idea, its effortless translation and its politics. Someone in the broad-stroke canvas of populist Hindi cinema has finally spoken on behalf of the agnostic. Given the news headlines, how much more relevant can that get?

P.K. released in theatres on Friday.

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