Shah Rukh Khan’s fairy-tale comeback to the big screen is more than a movie; a priceless triumph of love in a climate of hate.
A spectre is haunting India and the world – the shadow of Pathaan. All the powers of good old Bollywood have centred into an alliance to mark a glorious celebration of its revival, and what could be more fitting than for this to be at the hands of its emperor showing yet again that the throne belongs to him?
Jhoome jo Pathaan, meri jaan…
January 25 saw packed movie halls light up with legions of fans hooting, whistling, clapping and dancing as a larger-than-life Shah Rukh Khan reigned supreme on the big screen after spending four years away.
Collecting Rs 57 crore in the first day and reopening dozens of single screen theatres across India for the first time since the pandemic brought the nation to its knees, Pathaan has come as social, cultural and economic juggernaut becoming the Hindi film with the highest opening, even beating the likes of Avengers: Endgame, which holds the distinction of being the highest grossing film of all time.
For me and countless others, Pathaan’s – and more importantly Khan’s – success comes as a personal victory, a reinforcement of a long-held faith in the unifying power of superstardom. In an age where debates surrounding the relevance of movie stars have sprung amidst a sea of big budget movies underperforming critically and commercially, the widespread reception of and love for the SRK-led action flick stems from the piece of molten gold that holds this ailing industry together. This kintsugi is the superstardom, the brand of Khan himself who famously said “I am the last of the stars”.
And yet, the personal is political.
Whether it chose to or not, Pathaan occupies a rather unique and strange place in today’s environment. It is no secret that Khan and the Hindi film industry at large – colloquially referred to as Bollywood – were the targets of a vicious online campaign.
Thanks to the Boycott Bollywood campaign, movies starring some of its biggest stars have failed to deliver the numbers. These infamously include the Aamir Khan-starrer Laal Singh Chaddha, Ranbir Kapoor- and Alia Bhatt-starrer Brahmastra (which also boasted a performance by Amitabh Bachchan), Saif Ali Khan- and Hrithik Roshan-starrer Vikram Vedha, and even Akshay Kumar’s Raksha Bandhan.
Moreover, the trailblazing global success of South Indian movies such as RRR, KGF Chapter 2, Kamal Haasan’s comeback film Vikram, Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan-I and Rishab Shetty’s Kantara demanded many to face the fact of Bollywood’s diminishing allure. An industry that has long been cherished for propagating liberal and secular messages, be it Awaara’s advocacy for a reformist system over penalty in 1951, or Devdas’s devastating rumination of love plagued by the shadows of patriarchal entitlement and caste, or Pyaasa’s humanisation of sex workers and Naya Daur’s portrayal of the alienation of the worker in the wake of the Mahalanobis model of industrialisation. Post-Independence Bollywood paved the path for a narrative based on Gandhian and Nehruvian progressivism; a stark departure from the ruling regime’s advocacy.
But I digress.
Before anything, Pathaan is but a movie. Its success lies in its ability to not take itself too seriously – a trait it arguably imbibes from SRK himself. It is a star-studded, extravagant and bonkers festival that celebrates the joys of filmmaking and the comforting escape of moviegoing. It’s unabashed about its core aim – to entertain in a full bodied Bollywood way. Siddharth Anand has crafted a spy film that’s based on subversion.
But what is Pathaan a subversion of and how does its status as a brainless blockbuster betray the self-referential commentary and conversation between the superstar and his fans?
It starts out with a subversion of who the antagonist is in a light that echoes Farah Khan’s 2004 directorial debut Main Hoon Na; the ‘bad guy’ does not belong to an ‘enemy’ nation. Rather, he’s a man whose tragic loss denied him the honour of martyrdom, one who was wronged by the very institution he sought to protect.
Out to face the titular agent is Jim played by a formidable John Abraham whose blend of a Bane-like physicality and Winter Soldier-esque agility, and a Killmonger-ish origin story make him a force to be reckoned with. Unlike Suniel Shetty’s character in Main Hoon Na, Abraham’s Jim in Pathaan is not a hyper-nationalist on an anti-Pakistan tirade.
It is a rejection of the portrayal of women in action films embodying the trope of the ‘Bond girl’ or ‘femme fatale’. That trope is undone with the towering presence of Deepika Padukone, a capable and empowered Black Widow-like spy with an equal footing in and direct impact on the plot and its twists and turns in the vein of Catwoman driving a Batman story. Padukone channels a winning combination of skill and sultry seduction. The controversy around the orange bikini doesn’t hold a candle to a celebration of femininity that’s comfortable in her own body.
It must be noted that Padukone in many ways was Patient Zero of the boycott epidemic. Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela which was renamed from Ram-Leela following protests from Hindu outfits and Padmaavat’s infamous persecution at the hands of the Karni Sena who accused the film of distorting history and promoting ‘love-jihad’ – the Hindutva brigade’s go-to conspiracy theory. Even her 2020 film Chhapaak, which dealt with the grave injustice of a real life acid attack was subjected to hate and calls for boycott after she visited JNU in the wake of the attack by alleged ABVP goons. The claims used to call for its boycott centred around an imagined swapping of the Muslim perpetrator to a Hindu which never happened in the movie.
Additionally, through Pathaan’s ostentatious welcome of his Afghan “family”, is a rejection of the traditional portrayal of Afghans – for one that humanises a nation’s people upon whom the stereotype of terrorists and backwardness has been forced by a post 9/11 world order shaped by a 20-year ‘war on terror’ that ended with a renewal of the status quo with the reinstating of the Taliban in August 2021. The narrative and tragedy foregoing their rich architecture, poetry, language, clothing, and the majesty of geography.
Pathaan is also a silent subversion of the traditional manner in which mainstream Bollywood chooses to tell the story of the conflict between India and Pakistan. A reframing of the Modi government’s abrogation of Article 370 – not hailed as a celebratory move but the trigger of a larger conflict – packed in the trappings of a masala entertainer which silently rejects jingoistic nationalism for an unwavering patriotism that is unafraid to call out the wrong when the system falls short. It is a rejection of the binary portrayal of the nation as an all-good entity in questioning its systemic flaws. While SRK’s John F Kennedy moment skirts around the brand of nationalism that’s championed by a politics where 56 inches is the unit of valour, the chest-thumping nationalism is replaced with high-octane action sequences in video game splendour, charismatic performances and a refreshing self-awareness seldom seen in mainstream Bollywood.
At the heart of its reception is a denial of a politics of hate championed by the vitriolic boycott campaign to which Bollywood and Khan himself have been subjected to – be it the #JusticeForSSR campaign or the media trial of Aryan Khan following his alleged drug bust in 2021 and the infuriatingly tragicomic spawning of controversy designed to create targeted attacks to discredit an actor who wears his cosmopolitan Muslim identity on his sleeve and refuses to let anyone define or question his patriotism. The stakes were personal with political overtones so ostentatious that it shunned an ‘apolitical’ industry.
Battered. Bruised. Broken. That is how we meet Pathaan; our first glimpse of Shah Rukh Khan after a four year hiatus since 2018’s Zero – which ironically added the same value as the eponymous digit.
But enough about what Pathaan is a rejection of. Here’s what it is an ode to.
First and foremost, it is an ode to the superstardom of Shah Rukh Khan.
Pathaan recounts his origin as promised in the date announcement for this film that he was found abandoned in a movie hall and ever since he has been the nation’s son. The movies are Khan’s home and he’s here to throw a Gatsby-esque party.
It is conscious of what it has set out to achieve. It is clear in its treatment of the stars and shows director Siddharth Anand’s understanding of the kind of relationship his movie stars and the audience share. Having previously worked with Hrithik Roshan on 2019’s War and 2014’s Bang Bang! Anand knows how to capitalise on his actors’ stardom and precisely why the audience comes to watch them on the big screen.
Pathaan is Anand’s love-letter to action filmmaking and franchise building that pays its unsubtle homage to the many big budget action flicks of the west. The wisecracking and beaten down vulnerability of Daniel Craig’s 007 and Dame Judi Dench’s M’s relationship find a nod here through Dimple Kapadia. It borrows the shaky cam and quick cuts in the opening hand-to-hand fight from the Jason Bourne movies. The elaborate gravity-defying stunts and heists of Mission Impossible, the illogicality of Fast and Furious, SRK’s look resembling that of Keanu Reeves from the John Wick franchise and that of the wounded cowboy, John Marston from Red Dead Redemption, and much like Marvel, this is YRF’s attempt at building a shared cinematic universe that already has industry bigwigs such as Salman Khan and Hrithik Roshan.
Pathaan neither aims nor claims to be an endeavour in ‘serious’ filmmaking that lends its metric of seriousness from a western theoretical lens. While films like Everything, Everywhere, All At Once and Top Gun: Maverick have shown that action filmmaking need not forfeit a strong emotional core to its narrative, what critics of Pathaan (and its blatant disregard for physics as an homage to John Woo’s Mission Impossible 2 and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) arguably fail to recognise is the difference in the anatomy of its emotional resonance; not on-screen but transcends it, lying in the audience’s connection with Shah Rukh Khan and its collective enamourment with a sentimental and unapologetically Bollywood phenomenon of superstardom. And that is reflected in Abbas Tyrewala’s clever meta commentary between SRK’s Pathaan and Salman Khan’s Tiger as they discuss their apparent irreplaceability in the industry made evident by the whistles and hoots of approval from packed movie halls, showing to naysayers that Bollywood can have Kings, Badshahs and Sultans but belong to the people at the same time.
Will Pathaan resolve any of the underlying issues of the polarising times we live in? No.
The instances of vandalism of theatres screening the movie show that.
Had gone to watch the first day show of #Pathaan. Movie stopped mid-way, #JaiSriRam slogans raised, posters destroyed, zero security. People left the hall and returned after 10 minutes. Movie is resumed. Business as usual. So much for tolerant India. pic.twitter.com/kmtrWNsdGS— Sarah Khan (@notsayrah) January 25, 2023
But the celebration of its resounding success is a brief but welcome reminder of the resolve to rise above the corrosive because the very process of its making owes to the boulder-like shoulders of three actors– one Hindu, one Muslim, and one Christian – coming together to revel in a mythic, bombastic celebration of their Indian-ness.
What does Pathaan teach us about the brand of the Bollywood blockbuster?
Counterintuitive to the intellectual exercise of ‘trusting your audience’ with subtlety, a movie like Pathaan trusts its audience with maximalism; with the visceral shock and pleasure like a booster jab of adrenaline. With cinematic maximalism as seen in the likes of movies like Pathaan and RRR, comes a familiarity with the audience and it expresses this through the art of spectacle to generate an affective response of pure wonder and a rekindled faith in the magic of movies. And can there be a greater expression of love than to know and feel known?
The success of a film like Pathaan lies in its ability to trust its audience with and earn their suspension of disbelief. Its success lies in being the kind of film whose aesthetic and space in the cultural zeitgeist comes with an absence in scholarly lexicon. Its success lies in creating a language entirely of its own – referencing 1993’s Darr (“Tu hai meri K-K-Karen”) to 1995’s Karan Arjun (“Bhaag, Pathaan! Bhaag!”).
In some ways save for sharing the stellar stunt choreography by Casey O’Neill, SRK’s statement through Pathaan is a reiteration of Tom Cruise’s through Top Gun: Maverick; it may be so that their kind (the superstar) is “headed for extinction” and they may have an ache in their lower back from all the mileage. But not today. Much like cinema, they’ll walk and blur the fine line between being deeply personal whilst infusing a sense of communitarianism, of being human and being larger than life. Pathaan is a 146-minute paigham from both sides of the screen. Its success is a sociological phenomenon.
None of this is to say that Pathaan does not come with its set of flaws. Its greatest strength is also its greatest flaw: its commitment to the template set by the Bollywood blockbuster brand. It teeters into the realm of logical fallacy and is bogged down by a ‘been-there, seen-that’ plot and glitchy VFX resembling Cyberpunk 2077 video game, and its flirtation with strongman nationalism comes uncomfortably close to matrimony. However, Pathaan succeeds as a star vehicle for SRK’s return to the big screen who pulls off a fairy-tale comeback akin to the one pulled off by the protagonist of Chak De! India.
And if you watch it in IMAX like I did, with his abs and arms wide open for public edification – Shah Rukh Khan is now literally bigger than ever before. The numbers don’t lie. And he’s back, yet again, winning us over with love even in his first outing as a bonafide action star.
So, apni kursi ki peti baandhlo. Mausam bigadne waala hai. The storm is here.
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