While watching Rajkumar Hirani’s daring flick PK recently on DVD was sheer delight, it was disappointing to see the goons inspired by the Saffron Brigade vandalise the cinema halls in India. In Pakistan, the reaction would be worse. More likely, no Pakistani director would ever venture into a film idea that challenges the misuse of religion at the hands of scripture-wielding clergy.
Two years back another brilliant movie from across the border, OMG, directed by Umesh Shukla, touched upon a similar theme and brought priesthood belonging to major creeds into the courtroom.
Both movies deserve a comparative analysis, but before that two other great movies from Hollywood made in the first and second halves of the 20th century come to mind that persuaded the audiences the world over to think logically.
The first in this category was Intolerance (1916), directed by D W Griffith (1975-1948), that giant of a director who had just one year earlier produced one of the greatest masterpieces of the silent-era cinema, The Birth of a Nation. It made pioneering use of advanced camera and narrative techniques and became immensely popular, but was criticised for its extremely controversial negative description of African Americans and portrayal of slavery and Ku Klux Clan with a positive lens. The racist philosophy it promoted invited not only the ire of film critics and social circles, it was subject to boycotts and caused riots in several theatres.
That reaction against bigotry showed the American people were not ready to tolerate hate-mongering through the medium of film. Griffith’s response to his critics came in the shape of a three-and-half hour epic Intolerance. It intercuts four parallel storylines separated by several centuries and combines contemporary melodrama of crime and passion with stories of intolerance from the Babylonian Empire to St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572. Griffith used shots of a figure representing Eternal Motherhood rocking a cradle as an instrument to link scenes.
In contrast to the monumental success of The Birth of a Nation, initial commercial failure of Intolerance devastated Griffith, but he did receive positive reviews as a consolation prize. Now this film appears on most lists of the best 100 films ever made.
The second film, Inherit the Wind, appeared in cinemas in 1960 depicting real events from 1925. In Dayton, Tennessee, a biology teacher John Scopes starts teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution inviting the wrath of local fundamentalists who favoured creationism over evolution and claimed that a state law forbids any teaching of evolution in schools. The official name of this case was Tennessee vs. John Scopes, but it became known as the Scopes’ ‘Monkey Trial’ alluding to the idea of lower primates such as monkeys evolving into human beings, a notion that the creationists found ridiculous.
Thirty years later, in 1955, playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee wrote a play that was loosely based on that episode. It shows a complex world where people search for meaning through different belief systems that come into conflict. These systems might be religious, scientific, or political, but the struggles that exist within and between them is reflective of a cultural conflict that may never be resolved. It is a story of twelve exciting days in a Tennessee courtroom and builds a narrative of people who struggle to come to grips with the forces of change.
The play was converted into a movie in 1960 by Hollywood director, Stanley Kramer (1913-2001) who would later bring Nazi criminals to screen courtrooms in Judgment at Nuremburg (1961) and highlight the hitherto taboo subject of interracial marriage in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).
Inherit the Wind came in the wake of McCarthyism that was haunting the American people including Hollywood personalities who were suspected to have leftist inclinations. This film used the conflict between scientific and unscientific thought to show that the dominant stream of thinking in a society is not necessarily the right one.
Such tendency to challenge the dominant discourse through cinema was shown in the so-called ‘social films’ in India such as Achhoot Kanya (Untouchable Girl) in 1936 that dealt with the social position of Dalit girls; or in Pakeezah that focused on prostitution as a career and changed the way people look at the profession. It featured legendary tragedy actress Meena Kumari, who died weeks after the release of the film that took 14 years to shoot.
The parallel cinema or ‘art films’ of 1970s and 80s carried the torch forward but probably no other Indian movie had challenged the dominant religious discourse the way OMG and PK have done in the past two years. Oh My God or OMG is a satirical comedy-drama film based on a Guajarati stage-play titled Kanji Virudh Kanji. Probably the main idea of OMG was derived from an Australian film The Man Who Sued God in which lawyer Steve Myers (Billy Connolly) takes up fishing for a living but his fishing boat is struck by lightning and explodes into pieces, burns, and sinks. His insurance company declines his claim on the grounds that the boat was destroyed by an Act of God. He files a claim against God, naming church officials as representatives of God.
Adapting almost the same story in India, OMG features Akshay Kumar and Paresh Rawal in the lead roles along with Mithun Chakraborty in pivotal role. A blend of satire and fantasy, OMG not only earned critical acclaim but was also declared a blockbuster.
PK, an Aamir-Anushka starrer released in the closing weeks of 2014, generated a much stronger reaction from Hindu radical groups prompting an inquiry into the film’s content amid protests. PK takes a swipe at Hindu gods, god men and superstition at which right wing groups such as Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad got offended.
Directed by Rajkumar Hirani — who belongs to a Sindhi migrant family and gave us comedies of Munna Bhai series — KP takes on religious bigotry head on and has emerged as the highest-grossing film of all time in India, beating 3 Idiots, another of Hirani’s highly entertaining movies.
PK is a humanoid alien who lands in Rajasthan and loses the remote to his spaceship; people dub him ‘pee-kay’ due to his strange tipsy behavior. Looking for his remote, he is directed to request god for help but is confused at the multitude of gods in India’s various religions and their confusing traditions. The movie questions meaningless rituals and incites the viewers to think rationally. In one of the most thought-provoking scenes PK inspects newly born infants for any mark of religion on them, proving that it is a social construct rather than an eternal truth.
In comparison, PK is much bolder than OMG but still falls short of candid questioning of Inherit the Wind where fundamental authenticity of scriptures comes under scrutiny. Yet, the Indian cinema is coming of age, to use a cliché; and has started demonstrating signs of maturity touching on subjects other than romance. One wonders when will the Pakistani cinema come out of gujjar, puttar, and badmaash themes and graduate to less banal topics.