The first quarter of Rajkumar Hirani’s PK is set aside for a fairly straightforward exposition of the female protagonist’s background: a student in Brussels, love, heartbreak, and a hint of the religious and cultural conventions upon whose criticism the film is built. The heroine (Anushka Sharma) flees Europe, trying to escape her memories, and finds herself in a liminal space: rejected both by the romanticism of the foreign and the conservatism of her home. In other words, she finds herself on the Delhi Metro, travelling glumly from an apartment she occupies alone to a media job that doesn’t offer her as much as she had hoped. So far, so straightforward. But at the end of this sequence, the titular character (Aamir Khan) is reintroduced to the plot with a statement of glorious symbolism. Bursting through the Metro doors to music and a pace that breaks from the film’s early tone with glee, PK blazes through the carriage handing out bright yellow ‘MISSING’ posters with pictures of various deities.
Immediately, the symbolism might whisk the reader back to Europe, to a passage of Nietzsche from 1842: ‘Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”‘ PK, as we know from the film’s opening scenes, is not a madman: he is an alien stuck on earth. His consequent relationship with the society he finds himself in, however, is uncannily analogous to that between Nietzsche’s Madman and 19th-century European society. At the end of Nietzsche’s piece – ‘The Parable of the Madman’ from The Gay Science – the Madman resigns himself to the fact that what seems so clear to him is not yet understood by others. Throughout PK, Khan’s character exudes an air of incredulity in trying to explain what he takes to be evident. Most importantly, both characters are dispelled from realms of legitimate discourse in the same way: the Madman, of course, cannot be believed because he is mad; ‘PK’ comes from the Hindi pee-kay, essentially meaning ‘having had a little too much to drink’. The basis of marginalization is, therefore, that neither of the characters can ‘think straight’. And yet, the authorial intention in both cases is clearly to have these very characters convey the ‘more legitimate’ opinion.
In the opening chapter of Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault briefly considers this trope of the enlightened madman as it surfaced in European literature:
In farces and soties, the character of the Madman, the Fool, or the Simpleton assumes more and more importance. He is no longer simply a ridiculous and familiar silhouette in the wings: he stands center stage as the guardian of truth-playing… if folly leads each man into a blindness where he is lost, the madman, on the contrary, reminds each man of his truth; in a comedy where each man decieves the other and dupes himself, the madman is comedy to the second degree: the deception of deception: he utters, in his simpleton’s language which makes no show of reason, the words of reason that release, in the comic, the comedy.
How does the madman become an embodiment of reason? Foucault’s analysis calls it a ‘deception of deception’, whereby the chaos of the ordinary world is only recognized by a chaotic element. Another way to understand it, however, might be to return to the point of marginalization. Both Nietzsche’s madman and PK hold, as Foucault himself puts it, a ‘liminal position… confined within the city gates; his exclusion must enclose him… he is put in the interior of the exterior, and inversely.’ That is to say, while in one sense ‘society’ works to exclude them, in another, it has to include them to maintain its own sense of rationality; the rational is only so in reference to the mad. The marginalization of the madman is then marginalization in the truest sense: not just exclusion, but confinement in the margins. And it it precisely from this vantage point – from the furthest edges of society – that the madman is able to see the world for what it is.
Of course, it would be obtuse to regard this as an ultimate or even entirely comprehensive explanation for the madman trope. For starters, Foucault’s assertion is only a glancing note in the opening chapter of a book that goes on to explore in depth a rather different facet of the understanding of madness; it is by no means an exhaustive examination of depictions of madness in literature. Even more importantly, while Nietzsche’s Madman probably does fall under the tradition of depictions Foucault talks about, it would take more than conceptual similarity to ascertain that PK, a film very much in the style of the modern Bollywood canon, draws heavily from that same Western European tradition.
That said, it does seem possible to point to an emerging trend in Bollywood cinema wherein, over the last seven or eight years, there have been several high-profile, very high-grossing ‘social issue’ films that take the marginalized (in the Foucauldian sense of the term) figure as their point of reference. An early example can be traced back to 2007’s Taare Zameen Par, Aamir Khan’s directorial debut which examines the plight of a young dyslexic boy, and through him becomes a commentary on the education system and the attitudes it breeds towards success. Other examples include another Hirani effort from 2009, 3 Idiots, which also stars Aamir Khan, this time as an aspiring inventor from a destitute background, and 2010’s My Name is Khan, which stars Shahrukh Khan as a man with Asperger’s Syndrome trying to find redemption for the death of his stepson. All of these films translate the narratives of their central characters into critiques of systems: Taare Zameen Par criticizes attitudes towards children in education, 3 Idiots is an even more open attack on the higher education culture of and attitudes to success, and My Name is Khan tackles racial attitudes in a post-9/11 world. The significance of the marginalized protagonist’s recurrence is likely more than a coincidence: in the same line of reasoning as above, I am asserting that it is a narrative strategy built upon particular epistemological principles.
What these principles are is hinted at by my interpretation the Foucault passage above: the device of double-deception functions to lay bare the folly of widely held beliefs: the madman, or the abnormal, is used to critique the normal. As an extrapolation of this, however, I would also assert that the character of the madman, by essentially being free of the implanted presumptions of a ‘normal’ socialization, is used to embody a sort of unhindered rationality. For example, in PK, the criticisms Khan’s character makes of earthly affairs is supposed to be regarded as fundamentally neutral or unbiased precisely because, as an alien, his perception is unaffected by human presumptions and blind beliefs. The madman, then, and even more so the alien, is a pure being: able to see things for what they are because they are uncorrupted by misconceptions.
This article was written by Abiral Phnuyal. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: PK Movie