Two years ago I wrote about a Hindi movie OMG – Oh My God and last December Indians released even bigger production devoted to dissecting modern religions. It’s called PK and it’s already became the biggest Indian movie of all time, both domestically and internationally. It’s a comedy and a drama and a romantic story and a social commentary and it has got terrorism in it and there’s dancing and singing and it features big stars and was directed by a big name director and Indians flocked to theaters to see it all over the world.
PK apparently means “drunk” but it’s a bit more complicated than a straight translation. The story is about an alien who loses his home beacon and tries to manage to survive on Earth. He doesn’t know the language and obviously has no Earthly name but people, seeing his strange behavior, kept asking him “Are you drunk” and so that’s how he started to introduce himself.
Apparently, the movie follows a trusted formula and the same director have partnered with the same actor before for roughly the same kind of adventure – a fresh look at some of Indian traditions. In the previous comedy they explored Indian education system and now it’s religion’s turn to come under similar scrutiny.
With the movie being two and a half hour long and covering so many bases it’s hard to decide where to start. Maybe I should look at the big picture and put in context first. So someone decides to pass judgment on religious practices – first question – what gives him the right? Another question – why should we care? The answer to the second one is easy – the movie has become a cultural phenomena, it has struck a chord with Indian population and it simultaneously reflects and guides the public opinion on the subject. Like OMG it promotes a certain view on the religions which is bound to be shared by millions and millions of people. I think none of the neo-atheists in the west had ever achieved that kind of leverage there and if they did we’d be talking about it non-stop. Big moves like that deserve a commentary.
What gives them the right, however? It’s not a question general public would ask but we, as devotees, should examine the roots of the dissent first. It’s like asking which disciplic succession one comes from before deciding how to proceed with a discourse. I don’t know the first thing about the man behind the movie but I think I can guess where he comes from by looking at the result. He presents the views of the newly civilized Indian middle class. People who rose through social ranks thanks to India embracing modernity and western attitudes. The heroine in PK, for example, is a TV news producer, which is a position as modern and as western as it gets, serving as the face of the society and subtly cajoling people to accept the modern value system.
In Indian context these people form a layer that is probably only one generation deep, there were hardly any of them twenty years ago, which is the time usually alloted to one generation. They watched India’s quick rise and transformation from a backwater third world place into a modern, dynamic, and affluent society that can stand up to the world’s best and brightest, pretty much like China. With such success behind their backs they naturally assume the right to pass judgment on everything under the sun and demand reforms in sections of Indian life that haven’t been up to speed.
They made world news with their anti-corruption drive, with their condemnation of traditional “subjugation” of women following horrific rape crimes, and so religion is one of their legitimate targets, too, and they are obviously not going to be too kind.
Since they’ve largely copied their attitudes and values from the west we know what they are going to say and what kind of ridicule they are going to present, it’s going to be an Indian version of Bill Maher’s Religulous and they are going to take things out of context and mercilessly mock them. PK has a fair share of that but, being Indian in nature, it proposes it’s own brand of religiosity rather than straight up atheism of Maher or Dawkins.
On our side, it makes it easier to find weak spots in this approach and capitalize on them if necessary. We do not give any credence to new atheism in the west and so we shouldn’t give any to Hindu revisionism either, not when it comes on the strength of faith in science, democracy, and equal rights. We’ve had enough of that hypocrisy in the west and if they repackage it for Indian market it would still be the same old wine in the same old bottle, just with a different label.
Even on the strength of the movie itself – why should we believe their version of the story? It might not be the most obvious answer but it should be – because the heroine is so cute. She is smart and successful and she is an easy role model to follow, and so whatever she says is gobbled up without thinking.
We first see her riding a bike through a Belgian town wearing a very short dress and all throughout the movie she is not shy to show her legs. In one of the key scenes she also drinks and makes life altering decisions while inebriated. I mention this because if she looked like a slutty middle age alcoholic her preaching wouldn’t be so acceptable. The truth is, these cute young girls DO turn into slutty middle age alcoholics, not inevitably but a large enough number of them to question their decisions. After ten-twenty years they don’t look so cute anymore, their singing and dancing turns people off, and there would also be a period of heavy vomiting before they learn their limits.
When applied to the emerging middle classes – they are drunk with their current success and everything looks good and promises all kinds of hopes at the moment but it’s not going to last. Youth will be lost and dreams will be crushed and they won’t be singing the same song anymore. Far from reforming religion for the better, they’ll be perpetually stuck in trying to defeat corruption and establish a fair equitable society. It’s not long before every election will be run on the theme of change because none of their aspirations would be met.
Incidentally, the governing party in Australia might replace their leader who decisively won elections less than year and a half ago in replay of the same political circus that dogged the previous government. And Japan has seen nine Prime Ministers since the turn of the century. Change is always in the air while nothing ever gets better.
Indians will learn these lessons in no time but until they do we shouldn’t take their hopes, dreams, and proclamations seriously. Right now their new middle class is like a teenager – certainly has shown some abilities, has a lot of youthful vigor, and thinks he figured everything out.