'It is beyond him to understand how human beings can say the same thing to mean so many different things,' says Mohammad Asim Siddiqui.
Is PK a subversive film?
The protests by some radical Hindu groups over PK seem to suggest that the film has hurt religious sentiments. On the other hand, Bharatiya Janata Party veteran leader L K Advani found the film 'wonderful and courageous.'
Unmindful of protests, most viewers have enjoyed the film and it has not done Raj Kumar Hirani's and Aamir Khan's reputation any harm.
PK does promote the spirit of scepticism despite being monotheistic in spirit. It does take a stand against superstition and blind faith.
In fact, the film's light-hearted mockery of the anthropomorphic conception of religion can be problematic for many though in the universe of the film it appears perfectly convincing and enjoyable.
However, PK is not only an attack on organised religion and spurious godmen. The film offers a very interesting view on the role of science in our life; it presents an equally valid perspective on the role language plays in our life. It establishes beyond doubt that man is both, to use Frank Palmer's terms, homo loquens and homo grammaticus.
In other words, human beings have at their command their language and grammar. To add to their distinction, they create many other codes which function like a language. And here lies the root of many of their problems which remain hidden from the popular view and probably an alien is needed to highlight these problems.
In recent times the less than satisfactory ranking of Indian universities on the world stage has generated a lot of discussion about the value of research in sciences. In these discussions extension of knowledge appears synonymous with work in sciences and the value of social sciences and languages is not stressed properly.
Raj Kumar Hirani's film PK offers an interesting perspective on the value of social sciences and languages in our day to day life.
PK's problems in the film result not from his lack of understanding of science. In fact, he understands science too well.
As an astronaut he is so comfortable with his machines that he can even use human bodies as machines. But PK, to begin with, is a bad student of semiotics, the science of signs.
PK would not have understood the film PK, or any film for that matter, because he would have failed to understand image discourse that the movie offers.
The connotative value of Raj Kumar Hirani's film would have been lost on him because PK is not very good at deriving a language from the sequence of images. He cannot understand filmolinguistics.
He also does not understand how rhetoric functions in our world. It is beyond him to understand how human beings can say the same thing to mean so many different things. He cannot derive a discourse from a text. He would have been very happy to give his nod to Esperanto, a language which was especially constructed by linguist L L Zamenhof to create understanding between people.
Despite ours being the age of communication, communication is a major problem in our age. Judgments can be passed on the basis of preconceived notions. To make it more complicated human beings communicate through different kinds of codes which function like languages. Food, fashion, colour and shapes are all pressed into service to communicate.
PK must learn all these codes to survive in our world. In one scene in the film PK wears a man's coat and a woman's skirt. His dress is not good or bad; it is ungrammatical from the point of view of fashion. Rhetoric also works because it uses all these signs and codes very effectively.
Understanding of codes is not natural but is acquired by a person born and brought up in a culture. Even in our use of language intonation, stress, and even silences play a very important role.
The gaps in PK's knowledge of the world are filled once he becomes a master at understanding different codes in the world. He becomes adept in our world once he starts becoming a good student of semiotics and social sciences. Then he not only understands others, he also stats discovering the fault lines in the theory and practice of others.
He also starts understanding how rhetoric can be used to arouse false hopes and create unfounded fears in a lot of people.
He shows his insights of social sciences when he refuses to accept the language of stereotypes and when he refuses to reach hasty conclusions. He demonstrates this knowledge when he proves that a beard and a burqa is not reducible to a Muslim, a turban to a Sikh, a tilak and a sari to a Hindu and a name does not announce an entire religious community.
We may take pride in our knowledge of science and our use of the latest technology. It is a different matter if we also have the scientific viewpoint. People like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan were not men of sciences, but they certainly possessed scientific viewpoint. They made a distinction between superstition, blind belief and rational thinking. There were godmen and 'wrong numbers' in their times also, but they were not taken in by their rhetoric.
PK's experience suggests that the identification of the 'right numbers' requires an understanding of the codes of a culture, seeing through the loud rhetoric all around us, and a dispassionate attitude to view things.
This alien is surely the 'right number.'
Mohammad Asim Sidiqqui teaches at the Aligarh Muslim University.
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Image: Aamir Khan and Anushka Sharma in PK.