The superstar returns to the big screen after four years. Does Pathaan do justice to his brand of magic? Ishita Sengupta reviews.
Last Updated: 10.31 AM, Jan 25, 2023
This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on January 25, 2023. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)
SEVERAL WEEKS BEFORE Siddharth Anand’s much-hyped film Pathaan was scheduled to release, news anchors tackled a grim question: Deepika Padukone’s bikini. Ever since the song ‘Besharam Rang’ dropped, a large section of people kept themselves busy obsessing over her clothes. It was not so much the length of her outfit (well that too), as it was the colour: The collective hue and cry was over the sight of a woman wearing a saffron-shade bikini. The image was interpreted as an insult to the Hindus because in India today, colours can bite and hate fills stomachs.
There was another reason for the outpouring of indignation. Here was a Muslim superstar (Shah Rukh Khan) holding a Hindu woman (Padukone) while she was wearing what she was. If this was not a clear-eyed indication of the majority Hindu population of the country at the risk of being overpowered by the minority Muslim populace, then what was? Besides, Khan’s astute silence even as his colleagues fawned over the right-leaning government could only make one preempt his dishonourable intent. On his part, the actor refused to make any public appearances before the release of the film (his first release in four years), making no comment about the social media furore. He only took to Twitter to answer questions from his fans. When someone asked about his plans to opine, Khan replied that he will say something only when he has something to say.
Back in 2019, Anand had single-handedly resurrected the big-budget action genre of Bollywood by designing a deceptively smart film around two troublingly good-looking men. The action set pieces were sharply choreographed and the captivating bromance at the fore ensured we overlooked some ludicrous plot twists. More than anything, War remained a rare patriotic film that never overstepped into jingoism. In times such as these, when conversations about the nation are incomplete without chest-thumping nationalism, it is difficult to tell one from the other. With Pathaan, Anand has repeated the feat, proving in the process that it is, after all, possible to convey the difference.
PATHAAN opens somewhere in Africa. The year is 2022 and a long-haired, bedraggled Pathaan is seated on a chair, hands tied. People are surprised that he is alive (people in the film are always surprised that someone is alive). The action then cuts to Delhi, in the headquarters of JOCR (Joint Operations & Covert Research — a team of retired patriots). Dimple Kapadia and her team spot Rubiya Mohsin (Deepika Padukone) in Paris. Thus starts their mission to summon Pathaan. There is a bit of context here: Rubiya is an ally of Jim (John Abraham), an Indian soldier gone rogue. He is hired by an ISI officer to plot revenge post India’s abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019. As cinematic rules dictate, only Pathaan can thwart his heinous plan.
From hereon, the film jumps timelines, the setting hurtling from Africa to India, Spain to Russia. One flashback gives away to another as grown men and women take their guns out and shoot away to glory. In another venture, all of this would have been too much. But what we see on screen here is so much fun that it ceases to matter what is happening. Khan and Abraham fight on ice, water and in air to deliver some Mission Impossible-esque stunts. They hang from helicopters, indulge in some hang gliding, and impressively charge at each other while standing on a moving vehicle. Granted it would have been a different story to see Hrithik and Tiger having a go at each other, but it is equally impossible to look away from these two men.
In Pathaan, Abraham has the most fun he has had in a while. He flashes those dimples with a sinister grin and smiles with comic-book kookiness. In one scene where he apes the tone of a raging Ashutosh Rana (reprising his role from War), he is an absolute hoot. At the same time it is impossible not to be taken by Khan, who eschews most of his trappings for this role. He is charming and weary, inhabiting his age in a way he hasn’t done in a while. His six-pack abs are intact but his character never overpowers our sense of belief. In fact, there is a whole scene where his hands are tied and Padukone beats up goons to protect him. Khan stands still, admiring the woman without struggling to break free. As if he knows he is in safe hands. That single moment underlines the subtext of his appeal, spelling it out that it is the actor’s ability to be non-threatened by the other sex that contributes to his stardom.
Having said that, Pathaan does not undermine our intelligence. Written by Anand (Shridhar Raghavan has furnished the screenplay and Abbas Tyrewala the dialogues), the film walks the tightrope between fitting fan service and a clever entertainer. All three characters get a back story. The premise itself is a smart critique on the times we are living in. Sample this: a group of extremists devise a new virus to destroy a country. The man helping them does not care whose side he is on. He just wants the money. By uncovering greed as the sole reason behind furthering violence, Pathaan takes a pointed jibe at the current social climate where hate mongering has become a full-time profession.
It helps that it is a Muslim guy protecting India against a Hindu man. In fact, the film smartly outlines the distinction between fanaticism and patriotism without overplaying its hand. During its runtime, Pathaan hints at how sacrifice (even forced) has become the unwitting language to prove nationalism, when in reality, it only tells of the government’s failure to safeguard its citizens. Anand’s outing concludes with an overarching idea of patriotism, refusing to draw the lines of loyalty with the ink of religion.
With Pathaan, Yash Raj has announced its own spy universe. The presence of Rana’s character from War gives an inkling of what we can expect from the franchise. On its part, the film gives a glimpse of the multiverse with a delightful cameo that fits perfectly. Honestly though, it is gratifying to see an ageing Muslim superstar, with a painkiller in his mouth, deciding that he cannot rest and needs to go on. When heard in his voice, the moment becomes a metaphor and scripted assurance transforms into intuitive comfort. This is Shah Rukh Khan finally speaking up. The right time has come.