Saturday, January 03, 2015

PK The Movie, Religion and Islam

This blog post will discuss the Bollywood movie PK and the religious points it raises. Spoiler alert: while I do not give out the plot details, if you are going to see the movie and haven't yet, do not read any further - come back after you have seen the movie.

The Aamir Khan starrer Bollywood movie PK [trailer] has grossed Rs 500 crore worldwide, and inching towards Rs 600 crore. There are indications it may even cross $100 million worldwide - it is already on its way to become the most successful Bollywood movie of all time. There are now violent Hindu protests in India against the movie, despite its popularity.

I watched PK last night. Someone I met at a party told me, "Oh, this movie is against Hinduism. We Muslims can watch it, no problem." After watching the movie, I can say that it's a very well made, intelligent, and entertaining movie. If there is one actor whose movies are consistently a bar above the rest, it's Aamir Khan.

PK also raises certain points against religion, and this is what I want to discuss. Even though the main villain of the movie is a Hindu godman, the target of the movie seems to be organized religion as a whole, despite what the makers of the movie say.

First of all, let's me say what the movie gets absolutely right.

If you are a devoted Hindu, or you worship idols, you cannot help but be rankled by the way the movies shows up your beliefs. The very concept that man worships a stone, a statue that he himself created with his own hands, is richly lampooned in the movie. Superstitions that any intelligent man should laugh at are held in high extreme by idol worshippers and pagans, and this is mocked too in the movie.

PK also takes aim at the way the caretakers of temples and majars and other holy places seem to ask for money all the time and say "your work will be done" (God's guarantee!). The seemingly absurd steps sometimes devotees take to make sure their prayer will be answered (such as crawling on your knees across some steps) is shown up to the foolishness it is (as per the movie). There is a scene where Aamir Khan participates in the Shia ritual of Matam. The more extreme Shia practice self flagellation with knives and blades, drawing blood from their bodies [News article with graphic content]. Is there any point to all of that? Some devoted Shia Muslims may say this makes them commiserate with the suffering of Imam Hussain but there is no place for such self abuse in (Sunni) Islam. Self flagellation is a ritual imported into Shiaism from some orders of Christianity that also practice this to commemorate the crucifixion of Christ.

These practices that have crept in religion and are basically a front from men acting in the name of God to collect money are rightly depicted in PK as an affront to the true worship of God. I must also say that the movie makes its point in a very entertaining manner, with songs, comic sequences and thoughtful scenes, and rarely takes on a sermonizing tone. It encourages you to think.

Now let's come to where the movie gets some things wrong, especially when you think from an Islamic point of view.

In the movie's climax scene, the main eponymous character makes clear that he is not against God, but what man has made God to be - in other words, organized religion. Islam, Judaism, Christianity are all lumped in along with Hinduism as "organized religion", and therefore a problem.

Now when atheists who are from a Christian society (such as Richard Dawkins) criticize Islam, they make analogies of Islamic theology from a Christian viewpoint, when there are major theological differences between the two. Similarly, when religious practices, customs and rituals of a pagan, idol worshipping society such as India are being lampooned, we cannot lump Hinduism, a polytheistic religion in the same bucket as monotheistic religions such as Islam and Christianity.

By and large, the superstitions, religious practices, customs of Hinduism aren't common to Islam or Christianity. Yes, some practices such as venerating the graves of holy saints and asking them for prayers rather than Allah, charms and amulets have crept in to desi Islam, but overall Muslims (and Christians) look at prayers, nature of evil, Judgement, destiny and others differently from Hindus. A Hindu man may stand in line with a coconut for two hours and give a few rupees to the temple and the priest will tell him his job is done, and he will believe it. Yet no Muslim cleric of repute can make that guarantee for anyone. For us we don't go through a priest or a medium, our communication is directly to God. And we understand that prayers, while never being rejected, are not always answered the way we want. Perhaps this is why it was easier for PK to make fun of Hinduism and the Hindu godmen, rather than Islam or Christianity since they have fewer of these "silly" rituals.

PK also states about how religion has caused a lot of bloodshed in the world. While this sounds nice to hear and seems a solid argument, a simple count will prove it false. Europe has killed more people since they abandoned religious governments (since secularization and Reformation of the 1800s and the Industrial revolution). Before the religious wars were limited to Europe and they didn't kill as many in numbers. Ever since colonization and the 20th century, the wars have become more and more bloody. Where was religion in the 2nd World War? Vietnam? Iraq War 1? Iraq War 2? Panama? Falklands? What about the ethnic conflicts around the world - such as Rwanda? Was it a religious war?

PK also raises some deep questions that philosophers have debated for eons - such as the nature of evil and why does God, if He is Merciful, allow evil to exist? It seems to indicate a belief that we (all of us) have God wrong. Now I can only answer that from an Islamic point of view, and I will point you to an excellent speech (of around 20 minutes) by Sheikh Yasir Qadhi discussing some of these points.

The movie also shows complete disregard for followers actually following the rules of their religion. It seems to tie in with its theme that religion itself is bad and if we only get rid of organized religion itself humanity would prosper. This is shown by a couple who have premarital relations (banned in both of their religions) and marry each other (again not allowed by their religious laws). There are grounds for which some people are upset at PK!

So, overall, what do I make of the movie? It's a good movie, for sure. It has a few scenes (brief nudity, off screen sex being depicted) that can prevent it from being a clean experiences, but over all is a good movie with a good script, entertains and causes one to laugh, and manages to raise some questions we can all think about.


Anonymous said...

Don't you think the number of deaths in wars before 1800s would have been different if they had the weapons they had for WW2, Iraq 1, Iraq 2?

Ravi Krishna said...

The only reason Islam was left alone that the Rajkumar Hirani love to see their neck above their head.

The fact that Indians by and large loved this movie and the movie is on its way to become the highest grosser of all time, shows the tolerance.

Anonymous said...

Did PK talk about Jihad?

mezba said...

@Anon (4.14), without even taking into account weapons, think about the conflict itself. At least when there was religion, there was a reason for the conflict. Nowadays there's no reason at all except greed and racism - the hatred of the other(eg. Nazi). Ask most Americans as to why they were in Vietnam or Panama or even Iraq and you will not get one answer.

@Ravi Krishna, really? You must not have seen Khuda Ke Liya or even Bol. They were made in Pakistan, and the filmmakers are still alive.

@Anon (5.06), why would they have to? They alluded to it though.

Ravi Krishna said...

I must have missed the scene in KKL/Bol when Mohd/Allah was show in bathroom and muslims took it as a joke.

Seriously, after Paris Jihad, you have the cheek to tell muslims are tolerant.

mezba said...

Hi Ravi,

Don't try to shift the goal posts. You said the reason Islam was left alone in PK (not really true) is so that Hirani wouldn't want to die. I told you movies have been made where the religious people who are Muslim are shown in a very negative light (Bol, KKL). Not to mention the thousands of times Bollywood and Hollywood depict Muslims as the bad guys.

As for showing 'God' in a washroom, it wasn't god, it was a guy dressed up as God. Apparently Hindus do it all the time and act as gods in plays.

Finally, all religions have nut cases. You are hardly one to talk - look at India and the Hindus. Gujarat, anyone? Or the thousands of riots and killings in India? Or the Buddhists burning people in Burma or Sri Lanka?

Ravi Krishna said...

"As for showing 'God' in a washroom, it wasn't god, it was a guy dressed up as God. Apparently Hindus do it all the time and act as gods in plays."

Oh yeah. Pls let me know in which movie did anyone acted as Mohd, let alone Allah. I will try to find out whether muslims loved that movie or not.

You seem to be a very knowledgeable person about nut cases in another religion. Pls provide examples of mass killing for cartoons done in another religion. It is amazing how despite 24809 (as of today 3.12pm EST), acts of terrorism done by muslims since 9/11, we are being told that all religions have nut cases, hence there is nothing called Islamic terrorism and intolerance.

Pls label me as islamaphobic/racist. I will concede defeat.

Ravi Krishna said...

You might want to read this news item.

mezba said...

Ravi, when MF Hussain drew nude paintings of Hindu goddess and Bharat mata, why didn't the Hindu community (and their leaders) practice tolerance and abate this as freedom of expression? Remember the painter was hounded, threatened, his exhibitions vandalized, lawsuits filed all over the country and all hell broke loose? No one said "there are laws in place" to handle free speech. Then why did people take the streets and create ruckus?

If Hussain would have continued in India (remember he moved to Middle East) he would one day be killed by a Hindu who is passionate about his country or his religion (not sure if he would be labeled an extremist though).

As for muslim terrorists, read the report by FBI

Ravi Krishna said...

You might want to read this interview of MFH where he mentioned why he moved to Qatar.

I don't see a single line in the interview where he showed anger for Hindus or India. All he had was nothing but love. Not like Taslima who has nothing but contempt for Islam. Do you want me to show a link of her interview after Paris Jihad.

Sorry keep trying to prove that all religious people are thugs in an equal footing, but better luck next time.

In terms of thuggery, muslims beat Hindus by what 100 to 1 ratio in behaving like goons, not only in India but all over the world. You might want to check how right wing parties in Europe talk about stopping muslims from migrating. Want me to send you some links.

Here is one teaser for you: In India Dlilip Sekhar became A R Rahman and had a remarkable successful career. Can you show one example of a muslim leaving Islam publicly in an islamic country and living happily. All ex-muslims are living in the west, like Ali Sina, Salman Rushdie, Tarek Fatah.

I see that you have conveniently not referred to the news item I showed and countless acts of terrorism committed by muslims IN THE NAME OF ISLAM. I understand your embarrassment. You seem to be a nice person, only embarrassed by what your fellow coreligionist do in the name of religion. Please speak up. Tell muslims to renounce Jihad as it has no place in this day and age.

ps: I am an agnostic/atheist who thinks all religions are man made concoctions and I do have issues with hinduism too. I am only happy in one aspect, we are far more liberal and tolerant than muslims. After 9/11 muslims have all but destroyed their name in the western countries.

Sarmad said...

This is a well balanced commentary from an Islamic perspective. I find it strange that a lot of Muslims have uncritically accepted the movie. As you pointed out correctly many of the criticisms of religion are also applicable to Islam e.g., spending money on pilgrimages is applicable to going to the Hajj, the problem is evil (Yasir Qadhi has an Islamically sound argument but it is not philosophically sound), let us also not forget that outer appearance of a person does have a great deal of importance in Islam etc. We as Muslims also believe things which are not rational which is fine. The willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son by his own hands can only be explained by faith and not by logic. In short, let us not universally embrace PK and thank you for your commentary.

Ravi Krishna said...

This is in the same city which itself faced terrorism less than a month ago.

Anonymous said...

"Superstitions that any intelligent man should laugh at are held in high extreme by idol worshippers and pagans". What about haj? Do you consider consider it as a belief of superstition? Do you laugh at the belief that travelling to a distant non-descript place enduring the hardships to kiss a stone and do other rituals will absolve one from all sins?

mezba said...


If you keep shifting the goal posts and running away to a new argument every time you are cornered, there's no point in debating. Let's recap:

You started by saying no one (Rajkumar Hirani) would make fun of Islam because they like to be alive. I showed you there were movies produced and released (in Pakistan, and India) where they take a critical look at Islam and make fun of religious Muslims. No one died, as far as I know. Your argument didn't even last a simple fact check.

Two, you then tried to say those movies were not as serious as PK because PK made a Hindu God in a bathroom! I told you that even Hindus are not finding that scene offensive (because Hindus regularly perform plays where they act the part of God). You then tried to steer the conversation as to why Muslims don't have a scene like that.

Next, you posted a news article of something from 1986!!! That showed Muslims rioting over some offensive material. I don't know what it had with PK or your original argument, but whatever. Then I showed you MF Hussain, a much more recent news, who painted Hindu goddesses nude and had to flee India. The fact that he doesn't hate Hindus shows his goodness. Can you honestly tell me no Hindu was upset or didn't protest MF Hussain?

Suddenly you shifted to terrorism and terror activities and tried to prove all terrorists are Muslims. And again, sorry to burst your bubble, but again a fact check (from the FBI) proves you wrong.

The fact that you desperately (and pitifully) try to give me news articles to prove whatever you are trying to prove at the moment doesn't work. Just because the ethnic cleasing in Burma by Buddhists are not in the news, doesn't mean it isn't occcuring. Overall Numbers and facts triumph over single incidents every time.

I will make a prediction for you. Come Valentine's Day, there will be some Hindu thugs in India who will go after celebrating couples because "it is against our culture". And let's not even go after the horrible rape numbers in India. What have they got to do with PK and your original argument? Nothing, of course.

mezba said...

@Sarmad, thank you. Yep, as I said there are some criticisms of religion (and Islam) from PK and that can only be explained away by faith. After all, religion is a faith based activity!

mezba said...

@Anon, at 303.

I grant you that Hajj has some faith elements that "could" strike as superstition to people who don't believe in it.

Yawar Amin said...

Just watched the movie. Very enjoyable--Aamir Khan keeps trying to do unique movies and it really pays off. Although, now that I think about it, SRK did something very similar with My Name is Khan, i.e. a story of a 'simple'-minded person who shows people their own hypocrisy. (Oh, and then Ranbir Kapoor with Barfi.)

I think on the whole PK really doesn't go after the spiritual aspects of the religions--it sticks with the material aspects. So yeah, we see send-ups of idolatry, but we're also forced to think about the 'desi' and 'imported' Islamic practices which you mentioned. So I think it consistently goes after one aspect of all religions, kind of proportionately to the relative sizes of the religions in India.

About religion causing bloodshed--I just watched the movie in parts over the past two days so I may be forgetting something--but it didn't seem like they say anything about religion causing bloodshed; they do point out that religion separates people from each other into arbitrary ('us-vs-them') groups.

Also I don't think the depiction of interfaith marriage is a criticism of religion, it's just a portrayal of what's happening in reality. There are interfaith marriages happening in India and in Pakistan and I think the movie just tries to show that it was just the 'us-vs-them' mentality that was stopping these people from finding happiness.

Overall, I have to say I was amazed at this movie. To talk this frankly about religion in a country like India seems incredible. Frankly, this kind of talk is getting people killed in Bangladesh right now. So the way they portrayed this critique of religion, is really commendable. I hope that Aamir Khan makes a sequel, since he left the possibility open.