Given this political scenario, it is remarkable what Pathaan achieves
I have a confession to make. I watched Pathaan, but was somewhat distracted, as I was watching it at the spectacular Rajmandir Cinema in Jaipur, so I was gawking around a lot. It is one of the most remarkable cinemas in India, and possibly the world.
On the face of it, Pathaan is a spy drama that seemed like a non-stop parade of action scenes in exotic locations in Spain, Moscow and Dubai, cellotaped together. There are terrific fistfights atop a speeding truck, people dangling from ropes from flying planes and a bike chase on a frozen pond. Shah Rukh Khan plays a retired Indian RAW agent Pathaan, who must stop Jim, another former Indian RAW agent, since gone rogue, who wants to destroy India using rakt beej, a small pox virus. In fact, this masala entertainer cleverly and daringly flips all the stereotypes. The hero Pathaan is a patriotic Indian Muslim, played by Shah Rukh Khan. The sexy, Muslim, Pakistani ISI agent Rubina Mohsin, is played by Deepika Padukone, a Hindu. And the villain Jim is not Muslim at all, but possibly a Christian, played by John Abraham—and gulp, he’s Indian, not Pakistani. Full googly. Ab bol, tu kya karega? Upar se, the film is a massive hit (R162 crore gross box office worldwide in 9 days as on February 3, according to boxofficemojo.com; Rs 696 crore gross worldwide, says a Yash Raj Films tweet)—either way, a karara thappad in the face of Islamophobia and those who wrote off Bollywood. Indeed, the three stars are the Amar Akbar Anthony of today.
A significant number of filmmakers and talents, who shaped Bollywood, have roots in Pakistan—some are survivors of Partition—including Yash Chopra, founder of Yash Raj Films that produced Pathaan, BR Chopra, Prithiviraj Kapoor, Ramesh Sippy, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Gulzar saab. So in these troubled times of hate crimes and mass brainwashing against minorities, it is thrilling when the younger generation—producer Aditya Chopra, director (and story by) Siddharth Anand, writer Shridhar Raghavan and dialogue writer Abbas Tyrewala reveal courage, true patriotism, secularism that has survived WhatsApp university (glory be!)—and deep roots. The Partition of 1947 was between India and Pakistan that destroyed the lives of millions; the new, improved DIY Partition 2.0 now being engineered, doesn’t need a Pakistan at all: we can simply destroy ourselves by ourselves, by simply inventing an enemy within.
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Given this political scenario, it is remarkable what Pathaan achieves. The title and the hero’s name Pathaan comes from the Pashtun community living in Afghanistan, but he’s Indian. He was named by an Afghan woman, after he saved her village from being bombed in the US-Taliban war. Pakistani ISI agent Rubina Mohsin is Pathaan’s on-off collaborator. The narrative explores the larger idea of kinship in South Asia, rather than the old India-Pakistan enemy binary. When Deepika asks SRK the million-dollar question, “Are you Muslim?”, he responds by telling her he was an abandoned orphan, found at a cinema hall (how meta is that!), and “mere desh ne meri parvarish ki”—I was raised by my country. “A soldier does not ask what his country can do for him. He asks what he can do for the country… Jai Hind,” SRK later declares. With this role, SRK has given India a precious gift: Bharat Jodo via Bollywood. There’s no Paki-bashing, no hysterical patriotism. Rubina is an ISI agent, but she’s not evil; they come within a hair’s breadth of kissing, but he gently refuses her. And the Indian villain Jim’s rakt beej virus could well be a metaphor for the communal virus destroying India. So the enemy is within—impressive for Bollywood to say this. The film follows in the secular, hugely successful tradition of Kabir Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Ek Tha Tiger.
Shah Rukh Khan, incredibly sexy at 57, with his abs, top knot and billowing locks, is at the top of his game as an action hero. And he gives plenty of room to Deepika and John (those teeny white shorts, oh my!) to shine. He even discusses Kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with gold, and embracing your flaws.
No, Bollywood could not match RRR, nor its glory at the Golden Globes and Oscars. But RRR is a spectacular action thriller that unabashedly glorifies Hindutva, while Bollywood’s Pathaan does exactly the opposite, an action entertainer with a Bharat Jodo, even South Asia Jodo, approach. The public has voted at the theatres with its tickets. I hope they do the same at the next elections as well.
Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist.
Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org