Both Swades and Pathaan are ‘nationalistic epics’ with Shah Rukh Khan playing the lead role. But there is a crucial difference.
This piece contains spoilers.
One of the little joys of watching a movie on its release day in an Indian theatre is the visceral realisation of the precise moment when cinema escapes into the stratosphere of blockbuster. It is usually the moment when people erupt into a spontaneous dance as the end credits roll over a peppy song. Cinematic success is consecrated with a ritual of collective celebration: the screen filled with images of the stars dancing away merrily at the top, with silhouettes of mesmerised fans twerking down below.
On Republic Day, this ritual played out at the end of Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan in theatres across the country, including the one where this writer saw the film. One can understand why the success of Pathaan is being remoulded as a symbolic vindication of the possibility of challenge to the dominant national imagination represented by the BJP.
Shah Rukh Khan is the most beloved Muslim figure of the country. Pathaan is his most personal movie: a kitschy action thriller wrapped in a romantic nationalism whose meta-narrative is provided by the superstar persona of Shah Rukh Khan himself. Surely, Pathaan proves that the Islamophobia of the right-wing gangs, which urged the boycott of the movie over (among other things) promoting ‘love jihad’, has been rejected by the ‘mainstream’ of Hindu society. Much like the movie itself, shot in the aesthetic of a high-definition video-game, that kind of political over-reading should be forgiven as an alluring illusion which bears little correspondence to reality.
A more realistic picture was provided by an India Today survey released on the same day. Fifty-three percent of Indians believe that Muslim men indulge in ‘love jihad’ (the previous round of the survey had pegged this figure at 54 per cent, indicating a stable majority position). As a barometer of the spread of Islamophobia in the country, self-professed belief in an unabashedly Islamophobic conspiracy theory can be seen as a particularly reliable marker. How do we then account for the popular acceptance of a heroic Muslim man who venerates his ‘Afghan family’, while cavorting with his Pakistani love-interest?
The answer is twofold. One, the mythic nationalist narrative of the movie is sketchily written and ambiguously resolved, as opposed to the cinematic narrative centred on the character of Pathaan: a populist action-hero who electrifies the audience with spectacles of superhuman abilities in one scene, and charms them with the lure of forbidden romance in the next. Two, this ‘unreal’ persona of Pathan is fused with the ‘real’ superstar persona of Shah Rukh Khan, which drives the emotional core of an otherwise vapid movie.
The movie not just shares the self-referential abandon of SRK’s previous ventures into a stardom-centred postmodern universe (Om Shanti Om and Fan). It is also more straightforward in exploiting the deep emotional connect that Khan enjoys with the Indian moviegoer. The scene that got the biggest cheers in my theatre was the one where Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan sit atop a train, reflecting on their apparent irreplaceability—the Karan and Arjun duo whose prognostications of decline are inevitably followed by rousing rebirths. The one that got the biggest laugh was SRK’s reprisal of the K-K-K-Kiran dialogue in order to coax an elderly Russian woman back to sleep. It makes no sense, yes, but works as an aura-inducing homage to the central place still commanded by SRK in the Bollywood audience’s cinematic imagination.
The nationalist narrative of Pathaan skirts around the Hindu nationalist vision of the BJP, without ever challenging it. The audience can vicariously revel in the cinematic resolution provided by Pathaan, as well as the political resolution provided by the BJP, to the anxieties and fears underlying Indian nationalism. Bajrangi Bhaijaan, a Salman Khan starrer depicting the emotional journey of a devout Hindu Brahmin and ardent Hanuman bhakt into the core of what binds Hindus and Muslims together, was a superhit at the height of the Modi wave.
The Bajrang Dal (for not hard-to-guess reasons) decided to protest the movie, yet those censorious scowls proved to be thin resistance in front of the effortless melding of the ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ within the capacious, ‘hero of the masses’ persona of Salman Khan.
Cinema lends itself to political readings because it mirrors political themes and social contradictions, but cinematic logic can and often does divulge with political logic. It still remains an open question whether the 1970s ‘angry young man’ persona of Amitabh Bachchan, which extolled the triumph of an outsider strongman against a corrupt social order, found its sharpest political reflection in the populist appeal of Indira Gandhi against the ‘feudal political order’ or indeed in the forces of ‘radical’ student, worker and Lohiaite politics that came to be ranged against her.
The answer might also be ‘both’ or ‘neither’: the ‘angry young man’ translated merely to an ideology-agnostic and action-oriented political style, employing the rhetoric of forceful change to the status-quo.
Pathaan was the second time Shah Rukh Khan has built himself up to play the leading role in the genre of nationalist epic. The first time was roughly two decades back, in the hymn to Nehruvian nationalism that was Swades (2004). That movie had opened to rave reviews but tanked at the box office, six months after the Congress had vanquished the BJP to return to national centre-stage.
Subhash K Jha of Indiatimes gave the film 4.5 stars out of 5 and noted: "Swades is a unique experiment with grassroots realism. It is so politically correct in its propagandist message that initially you wonder if the Government of India funded the director's dream." While Khan subsequently dabbled with the theme of nationalist anxieties in Chak De India and My Name is Khan, Pathaan marks only his second experiment at capturing the spirit of the nation through a mythic narrative.
It might be a useful exercise to compare the rationalist, Nehruvian nationalism of Swades with the mystical, romantic nationalism of Pathaan. Since Mehboob Khan’s era-defining Mother India (1957), nationalist epics have sought to depict the struggles of nation-building through the relationship between a chaste mother-figure (a metonymical stand-in for Bharat Ma) and her ‘saviour’ son. The Bharat Ma of Swades is not a victim demanding to be saved or avenged by her son, but an emotional symbol which, through her selfless devotion, ignites the love of the country in her son. However, the metaphorical Bharat Ma (‘the spirit of the nation’ as Nehru defined it) that NRI Mohan Bhargava, an aerospace engineer, discovers in the feudal villages of Uttar Pradesh is not the idealized village of Manoj Kumar lore. ‘Shameful and repellent she is occasionally, perverse and obstinate, sometimes even a little hysteric, this lady with a past,’ as Nehru had described Mother India, before rhapsodizing on her unbroken and resilient spirit- ‘overwhelmed again and again, her spirit was never conquered…she remains unsubdued and unconquered’.
Although the modernist hero, played with an unassuming confidence by Khan, is willing to be self-critical of the limits of his rationalist perspective, he forthrightly calls out, and takes action, against the casteism, sexism and religious superstition he encounters as impediments to the progress of the nation. ‘I do not believe India is the greatest country in the world, but I do believe that we (Indians) have the potential and the power to make our nation the greatest,’ Khan proclaims in a central speech.
At the end of the movie, Khan joins ISRO, the apotheosis of the Nehruvian vision of state-led scientific progress. Much like Mother India, Swades explores the contradictions between a rapacious and divisive feudal aristocracy and a progressive and unifying developmental nationalism (tractor and irrigation canal, telescope and hydro-electric project, respectively).
Contrast this modern, progressive nationalist narrative of Swades, steeped in social realism and embedded in a historical arc, with the postmodern, romantic nationalism of Pathaan. The film is shot in an array of foreign locales inside of a VFX-inflected spy metaverse, with one hard-pressed to remember a scene depicting “actually existing” India.
The ‘Bharat Ma’ character, while not idealised as the ethnic/racial deity of Hindu nationalism, is still a militaristic figure, exhorting her ‘good son’ to avenge her loss and finish off the ‘bad son’. The mythic narrative has no real notion of history—a past, present, and future of the nation—just the mystical search for an elusive gold-dust (apparently hinted at in Japanese philosophy) that can unite the different fragments of the nation (either the ‘ethic of sacrifice’ or the ‘stardom of SRK’ itself). Moreover, the social contradiction posed by the movie is between a nationalist Pathan (an orphan left in a movie theatre, and raised by the nation) and an absurdist villain who has been stripped of any conceivable echo of socio-political reality (a Richard Branson-type globe-trolling head of a terrorist corporation who speaks in a ‘beyond good and evil’ vocabulary resembling social media quotations of Friedrich Nietzsche).
The choice of the villain (a comfortable plot device chosen to locate the evil ‘Other’ both outside a ‘Muslim’ figure as well as anyone corresponding to a real political reactionary) reveals the lack of any conviction or confidence in representing a tangible nationalist vision, let alone one challenging a dominant paradigm.
The poverty of the narrative construction and resolution, then, has to be compensated with emotionally bloodless spectacles and the meta-narrative provided by the stardom of Shah Rukh Khan. The slogan ‘Ask not what the country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country?’ is indeed a clever draping of stoic symbology on what appears to be a (quite reasonable choice of) pusillanimity in the face of a dominant nationalist paradigm that brooks no challenge or dissent.
To think that Pathaan disturbs Hindu nationalist hegemony is to misunderstand the nature of hegemony. Hegemony does not entail the colonisation of all cultural space or enforcement of uniform narratives, it merely represents the power to set up boundaries on mainstream discourse. Having failed to successfully challenge the discursive boundaries of an ‘idealized Hindu social collective’ in 2004, Shah Rukh Khan is right to forfeit any attempt to do so after two decades of almost unremitting ascendance of Hindu nationalism.
Even in 2004, the political scientist Suhas Palshikar had cautioned against readings of an ideological defeat in the BJP’s electoral debacle, using survey data to conclude that the middle ground had in fact steadily moved towards political majoritarianism (“Majoritarian Middle Ground?”, EPW, 2004).
Film scholars have emphasised that the shift from the grand narratives provided by ‘landlord/moneylender villain’ of the 1950s and 1960s to the self-contained spectacles of ‘good vs evil’ melodrama provided by the baroque collection of villains in the 1970s (with no common motivation or denominator except for fulfilment of plot devices), reflected changes in the political economy and the nature of State power.
The decades of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi saw the increasing empowerment of middle caste farmers (such as Jats, Yadavs, Kurmis, Marathas) who resisted the depiction of rural India as a den of social backwardness, along with an evident disenchantment with the Nehruvian project of rapid industrialization and removal of material poverty. Since patriarchal, casteist or religiously-reactionary components of Indian social order are no longer appropriate themes in the nationalist epic genre (which now focuses on an imagined Hindu historical or militaristic war themes), one can only surmise that it is not the result the removal of these pathologies from the Indian nation, but probably of its firmer re-entrenchment.
It would be unfair to saddle a ‘masala’ entertainer with the task of propagating political progressivism, especially one fronted by an aging Muslim star whose patriotism has repeatedly come under question over the last few years. So would be the force-fitting of ‘love versus hate’ political narratives on its resounding success. If the success of Pathaan represents anything, it is the resilience of the charismatic appeal of SRK.
Over the last three post-liberalisation decades, Brand SRK has reflected an effortless blending of modernity and tradition, of material aspirations and romantic love. Like his idol Michael J Fox, whose popular sitcom ‘Family Ties’ fanned his earliest desires for acting, SRK could channel a contradictory mix of sincerity and irony, purity and permissiveness, everyman struggles and fantastic dreams.
The New York Times had once described the playful sincerity of Michael J Fox as exemplifying the postmodern spirit of 1980s American pop-culture where ‘either-or’ had been replaced by ‘both-and’.
The persona of Shah Rukh performed a similar task for the post-liberalisation middle classes who needed a hero who didn’t hammer down on grand truths but reconciled the psychological tensions inherent in rapid socio-economic progress, while also delivering on the family entertainment essentials of song-and-dance, laughter-and-tears melodrama (for instance, the choice between romantic love and career advancement framed the plots of Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, Pardes and Yes Boss).
While celebrating Pathaan, film audiences are not celebrating a doughty Muslim actor under fire from the Hindu nationalist establishment, but their own personal-cinematic journey over the last three decades, exemplified by the persona of Shah Rukh Khan that forms the self-referential core of Pathaan’s emotional resonance.
For the urbane intellectual class, the charm of SRK has always lied in his elegant-yet-ironical demeanour, which makes the saccharine emotions of his movies not just digestible but also part of a deeply-felt personal experience, unburdened of the usual intellectual pretensions of ‘taste’. His success is yet again being projected by this class as the triumph of cosmopolitan Hindu-Muslim brotherhood, no matter that this brotherhood is increasingly elusive outside the four corners of the silver-screen. Pathaan is a testament to the power of SRK’s cinematic charisma which still lords over the silver screen, eight years into the political dominance of Hindutva. But it is no more than that.