Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Where are you god?

[Did you actually think I'd be uploading the poster of Aamir in the buff?] 
PK is a light-hearted, completely over-the-top (that's probably an unnecessary qualifier for a Bollywood production), comedic satire that takes on blind-faith, superstition and religion, all firmly entrenched in the multi-cultural, multi-religious panoply of humanity that is India.

An alien (Aamir Khan) from a distant planet (where they mind-read and so don't have language, and don't wear clothes) lands in the Rajasthan desert on a research mission, and has his ship-summoning remote control stolen, leaving him naked and stranded on Earth. His mission to recover his remote -- learning about human customs along the way -- clothes, money, and picking up Bhojpuri by holding the hands of a prostitute, and being considered drunk ("PK" is a play on the Hindi phrase, pee-kay, drunk) -- leads him to Delhi, where he is told that only God can help him.

But which God?

So the fun ensues, as the innocent Bhojpuri-speaking alien goes from temple to temple, dutifully making an offering but not getting his remote in return, showing up at a church with coconut offerings, sending the congregation into paroxysms of appalled scandal (and being expelled with a suitably obvious guilt-inducing caricature of Catholic doctrine "God died on the cross for your sins! He is watching your every move!"), and then on to a mosque with two bottles of wine, and narrowly escaping a beating.

There is of course a heroine (Anushka Sharma), a (fairly mild) love-triangle, song-and-dance sequences, exotic locales (Bruges, Belgium), thoroughly implausible plot twists, a tear-jerking climactic scene, and an opening for a sequel (where, perhaps, Ranbir Kapoor will get to show off his abs alongside Aamir).

The critique of religion is pretty standard (and, this being a Bollywood movie, preachy and as subtle as a sledgehammer) -- religion is built on superstition and blind faith, is opposed to reason, and has fraudulent hucksters that prey on and get rich off the credulity, fear of hell, ignorance and desperate desires of the poor, simple, huddled masses. There is the God who made us all, whose children we are (and who, apparently doesn't do much else), and the God of the managers of the religious-corporations, who are interested only in their own self preservation. Which human parent, in order to grant the wishes of his children, would demand that they first fulfill such bizarre and perverse tasks such as rolling on the ground uphill to a temple, or making long journeys to distant mountains? If a godman (the Indian term for charismatic religious leader) can produce gold out of thin air, why does he need donations of cash to build a new temple? Wouldn't the God who made us all rather that we give milk to a hungry child than pour it on his idol? Wouldn't the God who made us all want us to work together to end hunger and poverty, rather than build a temple? Does the God who made all the worlds of the universe need us to protect his honor (especially by killing people)? Can't he take care of himself? Where is the mark (Hindi: thappa, stamp) on the individual human being that marks his or her religion? Can you tell a naked person's religion?* Isn't religion therefore a man-made way of dividing us from each other?

As such it is hardly earth-shattering, and is mild, compared to the earlier Bollywood film, Oh my God.

The implication of this criticism is that we'd all be better off if there weren't any religion. This is the ultimate point of the secular critique of religion after all. We need a religion of humanity, focused on mutual help and humanitarianism, and not this superstitious, ritualistic nonsense that at best distracts, or at worst, promotes intolerance and violence (or, as some critics contend, is the root of all that is evil in the world, and poisons everything). Some version of this has been internalized in Christianity over the two-hundred year engagement with the Enlightenment, and manifests itself as theological liberalism, first in Protestantism and later in Catholicism, emphasizing ethics and good works over dogma and ritual, and firmly claiming Jesus for the former over the latter.

There is enough evidence among the practitioners of all the world's religions to justify many of the claims of the secular critics of religion. Some elements or dimensions of natural religion (which is a part of human nature, and every human society) seem to be strongly connectedto  tribal, social and ethnic identity, and thus is part of the way in which one group separates from other groups. This manifests in fear and suspicion of outsiders, the need for emphasizing boundaries and ethnic identity-markers, endogamy, strict gender roles, and, quite often, the use of violence to enforce internal conformity to religio-social ideals, and against perceived outside threats or rival groups.

Certainly the practices lampooned in the movie -- superstition, blind faith, fraudulent gurus milking the credulous -- are quite widespread in India. A Catholic can in good conscience side with the secular critics here. Faith is not opposed to reason, after all. [Read Pope Benedict on the pathologies of reason and the pathologies of religion. Another view on that.] The protests that have greeted the movie in many parts of India only seem to help reinforce its central idea that religion doesn't like being questioned. One contention of the protesters is that the movie only targets Hindus, who tend not react to such things (there's a contradiction right there!), or do not react violently (not quite), or not as violently as Muslims (no contest there at all). It's not an unfair critique. The main thrust is against Hindu godmen. Catholicism gets caricatured -- there's a scene of a priest preaching to a family, while a voiceover says, "they say you must get baptized if you don't want to go to hell. But if God wanted me to be a Christian, why wasn't I born in a Christian family?" There's also a safe, mild criticism of Islam, regarding the education and status of girls. Sikh & Jain practices are portrayed in passing. Apart from a cameo by one solitary Tibetan Buddhist monk, Buddhism gets no mention.

However to suggest that this is all that religion consists of, misses the full reality of a phenomenon that is very much an essential part of unique human nature. Animals, after all, do not worship.

What is this fuller dimension?

Well, perhaps the film itself can teach us something here. The story's central plot device is PK's quest to recover his stolen remote. It leads him to search for God. God, here is the one who can give PK what he wants. Isn't this a way of looking at the religious instinct in man? What Msgr. Luigi Giussani has called the religious sense? The difference of course is that what he is looking for isn't just some thing, his property (a lost remote control device), but the meaning of everything, that which ultimately gives direction and significance to his existence, to this "I," this self, that he finds himself to be. His existence is a quest for an answer, one that he cannot escape from, no matter how much he try.

There is a poignant scene in the first half of the movie, where a deeply distressed and frustrated PK is standing in the midst of what appears to be an idol producing workshop. All around him are idols of the various gods of Hinduism, in different states of finish. He pours his heart out, begging that he be given back his remote, so he can go home. He is met with stony silence. In a frenzied rage, sobbing heavily, he tears off the various pendants, necklaces, amulets and other religious articles he has collected on his quest.

However, what if silence is not the final word?

What if God has indeed spoken and revealed Himself?

Earlier in the movie, the heroine, Jaggu, a TV news reporter, is begging her boss to let her chase this lead she has stumbled across (i.e. our hero, PK). Her boss states flatly that it is the station's policy not to meddle with religion. He takes off his pants (it's Bollywood!) and points to his rear. "I was chased by an offended mob once and have three marks here where a trident pierced me!" Then, he adds, "Man seeking god, that is religion. Now, if he finds god -- that will be breaking news."

Indeed it will.

Good News.

It is indeed past high time that the Church (and Christians) -- the recipient and bearer of this Good News -- stop acting simply as another sociological and cultural reality in the vast and diverse landscape of human religious experience. In my own circles in India, I've encountered this attitude -- Catholics who are concerned with maintaining ethnic purity above all things (I'm not kidding); those who lament their son falling in love with a Hindu girl, because the social disapproval is unbearable; those who lament their daughter falling in love with a Catholic boy from another Indian Catholic subculture! This is not what Catholicism is about. This is not the religion that is pure and undefiled (James 1:27). This is not the religion of Jesus Christ.** We are here to proclaim and live Good News, not act as just another tribal grouping of homo sapiens sapiens.

The controversy has only helped the movie's producers. It is now the highest grossing Bollywood movie ever, having raked in over 3 billion rupees already.

Some reviews of the movie:

The Hollywood Reporter (flattering, almost unctuous)
Rediff (laurels!)
Great Bong (disappointing)
NYT (sweet, innocent, not offensive)
* Actually, in some contexts one can. In India, male circumcision is practiced along religious lines, only by Muslims. This fact has been used in religious pogroms to find out members of the victim group who might be disguising their religious identity. 
** The whole "Christianity is not a religion" trope (Google the phrase), central to many evangelical Christian narratives (and made [in]famous by Bill O'Reilly), does have some merit. It is incomplete, and follows the errors of the liberal Protestant critiques of religion, which were, essential, critiques of Catholic religion. Two good Catholic responses -- Jimmy Akin and Marc Barnes

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