March 12, 2015

Satirising religion is tricky business. Religion, by its very nature, is deeply personal and any perceived attack on it tends to elicit extreme emotional reactions, so a satire on religion is like walking through a minefield.  You do not know how many people you will offered along the way. But just because it’s tricky doesn’t mean it can’t be done, or done well.

Two Bollywood films, made in the last two years, have attempted to satirise the ritualistic trappings of religion and the ridiculousness it could lead to: 2012’s Oh My God, starring Paresh Rawal and Akshay Kumar, and 2014’s Amir Khan-fronted PK. Both films use unusual premises to satirise religion, and both do it with varying degrees of success, PK is decidedly the better of the two.

Oh My God (adapted from the popular Gujarati play, Kanji Viruddh Kanji — which is evidently inspired by the Australian film, The Man Who Sued God) revolves around Kanjibhai Mehta (Paresh Rawal), an antique-store owner who does not believe in God and is full of scorn for anyone who does. When his shop is destroyed in an earthquake, and the insurance company refuses to cover the costs on the grounds that he isn’t covered against accidents caused by “an act of God,” Kanjibhai decides to sue both God and the insurance company, insistent that one or the other must pay for the damages. Representing God in court is an assorted bunch of sadhus, maulvis, priests, and holy men — people Kanjibhai refers to as God’s “salesmen” with their “dhanda” being religion. Over the course of the court case, Kanjibhai makes an argument against blind faith and the growing commercialisation of religion. Along the way, he acquires a new houseguest, who happens to be none other than a modern-day incarnation of Lord Krishna himself (played by Akshay Kumar).

The premise of PK is similarly kooky. The film begins with PK (Amir Khan), an alien from a distant planet, landing in the middle of the Rajasthani desert wearing nothing but a large glowing necklace that will bring back the spaceship that will carry him back to his planet. This being our crooked world, the necklace promptly gets stolen, and with it any chance of PK returning home. In his pursuit of finding the necklace, PK repeatedly gets told he should ask God for help and thus he begins his search for this mysterious entity everybody seems to believe in. Along the way, he meets a well-meaning bandmaster (Sunjay Dutt) and a TV reporter, Jaggu (Anushka Sharma), who decide to help him.

While both films’ premises are outlandish but entertaining, of the two Oh My God uses its premise much less effectively. The idea of suing God doesn’t propel the narrative forward as much as it should; instead, it often becomes a vehicle for Kanjibhai to go on his rants against religion. The arguments he makes are compelling, but they are a bit all over the place.  It is unclear what their aim is: is he criticising how organised religions make money off their followers, or how having faith makes you a stupid person, or is he in fact emphasising God’s existence by asking him to pay? While watching Kanjibhai taking manipulative religious leaders to task is heartening, and Rawal does a great job of it, you still wonder how what he is saying is relevant to his winning the court case.


On the other hand, PK’s questioning of the mindless rituals of religion which have very little to do with faith, makes perfect sense in the narrative and propels the story forward in clever and unexpected ways. In fact, making PK an otherworldly being, with a clean slate and no prior beliefs, was a brilliant move because only such a being could question the fundamental tenets of human society credibly. PK also benefits from clearly establishing a distinction between having faith in a higher power and following the inane ritualistic trappings of organised religion — criticising the latter but avoiding being scornful of the former.

Both films are also different in the kind of humour they employ. In Oh My God it is biting and harsh, and filled with scorn. This works occasionally — some scenes where Kanjibhai attacks religious leaders for the way they essentially peddle religion for profit are hard-hitting and on the mark — but at other times its shrill tone is joining on the nerves. The religious leaders, too, are dangerously close to cartoonish caricatures. On the other hand, the humour in PK is low-key and more compassionate. It draws attention to the seemingly crazy things one can do for religion, but does so cleverly. This approach, in fact, renders the criticism more effective. It also doesn’t hurt that Amir Khan is in excellent form, playing up the child-like innocence of PK without letting the character veer into caricature.

However, PK is not perfect either. While the first half is skilfully constructed, with the perfect blend of humour and narrative momentum, the film falters in the second-half. There is a hurriedly tacked-on love story that makes little sense and adds nothing to the narrative; also, it becomes a tad preachy towards the end — a trait it shares with Oh My God.

But despite their flaws, both films are significant because they articulate a growing need to question the manner in which religion is being used as a divise force to create distances between people.  Both films emphasise how alike everyone really is, despite their beliefs — an idea that is extremely relevant in a world that is riven with dissension and intolerance today.

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.