Sunday 4 January 2015

Storytelling lessons from PK

As most other Indians did, I watched PK recently. Religious lessons and moral-of-the-story aside, the movie proves yet again that Rajkumar Hirani and Abhijit Joshi are two of the best storytellers in Bollywood today. The way they set up scenes, creates and resolves tension, joins up threads, and generally keeps the audience engaged is worth learning from. Don’t believe me? Here are some aspects of the movie, analyzed as a story:

  • Most stories, if they play out in an unfamiliar world, require an outsider/foreigner/beginner who serves as the audience proxy. At points where odd things happen, the audience proxy is meant to pipe up and ask, “what’s going on?” whereupon someone (let’s call him the native) tells him/us the rules of the world. You’ll see this motif most obviously in sci-fi and fantasy, though it’s applied pretty much everywhere (think Will Smith in Men in Black for one example). In rare cases, this mechanism is inverted and we identify with the native instead. Hirani has perfected this motif – Munnabhai, Rancho and PK are all excellent examples of foreigners in worlds where us, the audience, is the native. In this situation, the foreigner’s job is not just to understand the world and merge into the larger narrative, but to provoke the natives into rethinking their rules. Hirani’s genius is in having both these streams play out in parallel: we sympathize not just with the foreigner, but also identify and rethink our own worlds as natives.

  • Since the ‘world’ that is to be questioned in PK is our world of rituals and religion, it requires a foreigner who is completely ignorant of these conventions. It’s next to impossible to create a believable earth-man who is so completely ignorant of religion – so it had to be an alien. Here’s what would have happened if Hirani had chosen someone else:

  1. A real foreigner, from outside India? [Let’s say, the plot of ‘Outsourced’, but with a pure religious angle] He’s have to be shown as belonging to some other religion, and it inevitably becomes a competition about whose religion is better.
  2. A (presumably innocent) kid? We don’t want the foreigner to be less powerful (analytically) than the natives. “Cuteness” is fine, because it helps us identify with the foreigner and thus sympathize with his PoV, but not weakness.
  3. God Himself (this is where the ‘Oh My God’ comparisons start): Not only are we implicitly accepting that there is a God, and the God is understandable in human terms, but we’re also putting him into the template of some religion or the other. Straightaway, some of the fundamental questions that PK the movie struggles with: “Did man create God or vice versa?”, “Is not the relationship of God and man like Father and Child?” are answered in the premise itself.
  • Hirani is very good at the construction of scenes, creating and confounding expectations adroitly. Note the way the introduction of Sarfaraz as a Pakistani is handled. At least two times before that revelation, we have Jaggu saying “As Indians we have to help each other” – and we have Sarfaraz talking about his worship of Amitabh Bachchan. When we learn the truth, it’s not just Jaggu, but us as an audience who is taken aback. While we may or may not react the way Jaggu does, the scene is then cut short by Sarfaraz revealing his poetic side and Jaggu overcoming her instinctive reaction. Or, take the scene of the climactic debate, where the Guru – whom we are expecting to lose instantly – sweeps away the audience with a very reasonable sounding argument: “God, whether he exists or not, gives people hope. Who are you to take away that hope?” Although we know the Guru will lose eventually, we now realize this is going to be a real fight – not least because this specific argument is one we’ve all heard and accepted at some point in our lives.
  • Hirani also excels at the running gag and the sound bite. The sound bite is easy: here’s it’s “wrong number.” In Munnabhai 2 it was “Get Well Soon,” and in 3 Idiots and Munnabhai it was several dialogues that resonated immediately with the audience (quick, who do you think of when you hear the words “Arrey Mamu!”). The running gag is something not many Bollywood film makers manage to get right. Here it’s the process by which PK gets his name, the continuous “remote control” and trishul-in-ass reference. The best example was Ria’s fiancĂ©e’s price-tag mentality in 3 Idiots (“meri 3 lakh ki sherwani!”).
  • Hirani’s scripts have really individualistic characters, with enough endearing character tic to drive the story, but not to make them caricatures. From Lucky Singh’s predilection for photos with celebrities, to Jaggu’s weird name in PK, to Munnabhai’s typically tapori way of talking – these tics really brighten up the story.

* And finally, Hirani/Joshi have a lovely command of the language. This must be the first time I’ve seen Kaka Hathrasi mentioned in a movie, and the leap they’ve taken with having pure Bhojpuri dialogues written for PK is commendable.

Now I must point out two of Hirani’s failings, that you really need to swallow if you want to enjoy his movies:

  • The predilection for all-threads-coming-together climaxes. Priyadarshan’s movies are well known for those big bang climaxes with everyone chasing each other, but actually Hirani is guilty on the same count. The most egregious example is, of course, 3 Idiots where literally every thread he’s spawned through the movie – expectations from children, ‘real engineering’ skills, the rivalry between Virus and Rancho, the tacit support of Mona Singh for Rancho, the rain (remember the rain from the funeral earlier?), everything comes together in an over-the-top scene. If you’re willing to go along with it, good for you. If you’re thrown out of the scene, well, that ending can ruin the whole movie for you. In PK, similarly, we have the interrupted love story, PK’s ability to read thoughts, the rivalry with the Guru, Boman Irani’s sense of revenge, Parikshit Sahni’s faith shakeup, Sanjay Dutt’s shoe – everything that happened earlier suddenly comes in. What’s worse, while in 3 idiots it was the ‘real’ engineer thread – the theme of the entire movie – that plays the driving role, in PK we have sudden detective skills that PK brings in: who was the letter really for? What role did the cat play? Those questions could have been asked by anyone who’d seen the scene, they did not need the foreigner, or the guy who drove the religion debate to ask them. The scene was supposed to be about how the Guru’s prophecy was self-fulfilling, but the love story suddenly overrode all that.
  • Using existing jokes. The scene where PK pushes back the pajama bottom is a very well known joke, and seeing that used in the movie that way ruined the moment for me. Also, the sequence with white-sari-white-wedding-dress-black-burkha felt like it was ripped from some Facebook/Whatsapp forward. In 3 Idiots we had the Astronaut Pen story. There are probably other jokes that felt fun (but not necessarily relevant) to me because I hadn’t heard them before. However, what this means is that jokes and funny sequences are being shoehorned into the story, regardless of whether they really fit in or not. This is a terrible idea, and almost never works. Humour in a screenplay needs to be driven by the characters, and not cut-and-pasted. That pajama joke felt as tired as all the jokes in the later Rohit Shetty movies – and probably those movies had screenwriters collecting together jokes from multiple sources and churning out some story that could accommodate it all. Not done.

I’d say that most of the people who didn’t like the movie did so for some variation of the above: knowingly or unknowingly, getting annoyed at a particular scene makes you predisposed to not like what comes next.