Why Bollywood’s Most Successful Film Of All Time Has So Many People Upset

CREDIT: AP
CREDIT: AP

A satire that pokes fun at blind faith and faith-based superstitious is India’s highest grossing movie of all time. PK has made more than $100 million in global box office sales since it was released on Dec. 19. The movie has become a sweeping hit despite fiery protests led by Hindu nationalist groups across India.

“This is a warning to all other cinema halls to stop screening this movie. Otherwise, we can intensify our agitation in a few days,” Jwalit Mehta, a local leader of the Bajrang Dal Hindu militant group told media after his organization vandalized two theaters that showed PK in the Indian city of Ahmedabad last week.

The movie centers around the unblinking alien, PK, played by longtime Bollywood star Aamir Khan. Unaware of the ways of earthlings, he is dumbfounded by the the corruption and unquestioning belief perpetuated by organized religion. All this happens as PK, a character reminiscent of Robin Williams’ Mork, stumbles into various religious sites in the north Indian temple city where he falls in the nude with only an old-school boom box for cover.

The movie has earned scorn from some Hindus who feel PK’s irreverent observations ought to be officially censored by the state. One film censor board member said on Monday that he objected to some scenes of the movie, but that his concerns were ignored.

One of the most inflammatory parts of the film exposes a so-called “godman” who is scamming religious adherents of their money with a man dressed as the Hindu God Shiva, who PK sets free. It’s this release that has caused the most scorn among protestors who found it disrespectful for Shiva to “run around like a thief.”

The influential yoga guru, Baba Ramdev is among outspoken critics of the movie. Known as a “godman” himself, he has claimed that he can “cure” everything from diabetes to homosexuality — which he has claimed is “unnatural.”

“People think a hundred times before talking against Islam,” Ramdev said, referring to fears of inciting violence between Muslims and Hindus. “However, when it comes to Hinduism any one gets up and says anything, this is shameful.”

That’s one of the central points that protesters have raised.

India is a secular democracy, and many protesters seem to believe that should entail equal jabs at each of the religions practiced there. The country was created just a day after Pakistan was established as a safe-haven for Muslims, who feared minority status to Hindus should they stay in India. This history, paired with violence wrought around the world and in India by Islamist militancy makes some Hindus feel that the targeting of their faith is misplaced.

In the movie, PK scoffs at the offerings made to Hindu deities and says, “Instead of giving a pitcher of milk to the figure of a deity, it’d be better to give it to a poor kid to fill his stomach.”

One protester who was not named took issue with this bit of dialogue. The man told India’s ABP News, “In India there are thousands of shrines for Muslim saints where Muslims place sheets of flowers to commemorate them. The money for those should be used to serve poor kids too. Why didn’t anyone mention that in the movie?”

Aside from the alleged sacrilege, there’s also the song-and-dance sequences, slapstick humor, melodramatic suspense, and star-crossed lovers that viewers have come to expect of Bollywood — and PK’s director, Rajkumar Hirani.

“Our intention is not to hurt anyone, or to discriminate against any religion,” the director, Hirani said in a statement last week. “I would once again like to assure them that I have the highest regard towards all religions, and that we respect all religions and faiths.”

India has a dark history with censorship. It was imposed on the press during a period of emergency rule in the 1970s, and it’s since seen a resurgence at the hands of private media companies and powerful politicians. In 1988, India was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel The Satanic Verses.