Our childhood memories are made of Shah Rukh Khan’s films. The first movie of his that I watched on the small screen was “Koyla,” and my first time watching him theatrically was “Pardes.” And I distinctly remember that something transformative happened as I stepped out of the movie theater. My body language, the way I expressed myself, and the way I talked started to echo Shah Rukh Khan. It wasn’t mimicry. It was this inexplicable need to act like him because that’s how awesome he was. Since then, that has become the metric for judging whether a Shah Rukh Khan film is good or bad. If I walked out of the cinema in his signature style, then the movie had done its job. If that sensation lasted for at least a week, I’d consider the film to be a masterpiece. If I felt nothing, then I knew that the director in question hadn’t used the charm of Khan properly, which happened in his last few outings. So, naturally, after a gap of nearly five years, I was nervous walking into “Pathaan,” silently wondering what the end result was going to be. Well, I am happy to report that a significant chunk of time has passed since I watched the film, and I’m still walking, talking, and acting like Shah Rukh Khan.
“Pathaan” is Siddharth Anand’s fifth outing with Y.R.F. and the fourth movie in the recently established Y.R.F. Spy Universe (which is made of “Ek Tha Tiger,” “Tiger Zinda Hai,” “War,” and now “Pathaan”). The screenplay has been written by Shridhar Raghavan, with Abbas Tyrewala penning the dialogues. The movie opens with General Qadir of Pakistan finding out that he is suffering from cancer and has three years to live. He also learns that India has abrogated Article 370, and, fearing that Pakistan is going to lose Kashmir, he calls up Jim (John Abraham) to launch an attack on India. Three years later, we see that the titular Pathaan (Shah Rukh Khan) is tracking down Rubai/Rubina Mohsin (Deepak Padukone). Since she’s nowhere to be found, he kidnaps an accomplice of Jim’s and flies into the sunset, with the frame resembling the iconic shot from “Apocalypse Now.” Then the narrative shifts to Delhi, where the head of J.O.C.R. (a covert operation group founded by Pathaan), who is played by Dimple Kapadia and referred to only as “Ma’am,” gets a hit on Rubina. And while Ma’am reaches Pathaan and Rubina, we learn all about how and why Pathaan formed J.O.C.R., how Jim became his arch-nemesis, and why he has been in a Russian jail for around four years.
The plot of “Pathaan” is essentially an amalgamation of “Mission: Impossible 2,” “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” and “Skyfall,” with layers of hyper-nationalistic sentiments slathered all over it. And if you see the movie strictly from that perspective, it’ll come off as a bog-standard action flick. But there’s a lot going on underneath its surface that’s informing the narrative, the dialogues, the character’s actions, and more. To understand that you have to be privy to what has happened to Shah Rukh Khan on a professional and personal level. Because only then you’ll understand why he is portraying a patriot who is befriending an I.S.I. agent from Pakistan and choosing to trust her. You’ll realize why the film is talking about saving the nation while making a clear distinction between the fanatics of a country (and they can be from India or Pakistan) and those who are simply trying to live their lives as ordinary citizens and earn their daily bread by doing their respective jobs. You’ll see the balance between the overt love for Mother India and Pathaan’s description of his background and identity. Yes, this isn’t how scripts should be written, but the socio-political climate is so volatile that “one step forward and two steps backward” is the only way through.
This tension is evident in Siddharth Anand’s direction as well. When “War” was released, things weren’t this horrendous. The fate of the Hindi film industry and the future of one of the biggest superstars in the world weren’t hinged on one movie. But in the case of “Pathaan,” things are completely different. There’s this need to stop Bollywood from becoming the number one source for mass indoctrination. There’s this appeal to bring back the glorious days of Bollywood. And most importantly, after everything that the man has been through, everyone’s hopes for Shah Rukh Khan retaking the mantle of “King” is tied to this singular film. So, naturally, you can see Siddharth Anand doing everything and anything to make this the most bombastic theatrical viewing experience ever while also playing things really safe in order to avoid the gaze of the self-proclaimed watchdogs of this nation. You can see Anand’s ambition for the action scenes, the Shah Rukh fanboy in him, and even his subtle political commentary. However, it’s too much for one movie to handle. Hence, for every VFX and CGI-heavy scene, every laugh-out-loud moment, or every cheer-worthy sequence, there’s an absolute stinker. I won’t hold it against Anand and his team, though, because I can’t even imagine the pressure that was on their shoulders.
When it comes to the cast, Deepika Padukone, John Abraham, Dimple Kapadia, Ashutosh Rana, and everyone else who appears on the screen, even for a cameo (wink, wink), are good. They feel like they are truly committed to their roles and are doing everything in their power to make their respective characters as engaging as possible. But, let’s be honest, we are watching “Pathaan” for the one and only Shah Rukh Khan. And, as mentioned before, the minute he appears on the screen, you feel goosebumps coursing through your body. The plot becomes secondary. You just want to witness him do the most mundane or the most extraordinary things at normal speed, in slow motion, or amidst the quickest of cuts. You want to see him in wide shots, close-ups, and hyper-close-ups because, regardless of the camera’s proximity to him, he oozes a level of charisma that cannot be emulated. Yes, yes, it’s not the most challenging role for Shah Rukh Khan. Pathaan isn’t a complex character, and there’s no situation that he can’t walk out of without a few bruises. Hence, you never really fear for him. At the same time, you are too busy gaping at Khan being awesome. Maybe, in Pathaan’s future appearances in the Y.R.F. universe, Khan and we are going to get into the nuances of the character.
In conclusion, I want to point out that there’s this recurring motif of “kintsugi,” which is a Japanese tradition where, instead of discarding damaged pottery, it’s repaired by attaching the broken pieces with molten gold. That essentially encapsulates everything that Shah Rukh Khan, Siddharth Anand, Deepika Padukone, and the rest of the film’s cast and crew are trying to do. They are trying to mend the overall environment of entertainment that has been broken by people whose sole purpose is to destroy and spread hatred. But apart from a very vocal and antagonistic group, none of us want to marinate in negativity. We want to go to the theater every other week and escape into the variety of movies playing there. However, since a significant chunk of the industry bowed down to these haters for a solid 2-3 years, it seemed like the rest had to do so as well. Thankfully, with the return of Shah Rukh Khan, things are starting to look bright. Single-screen theaters that were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic have sprung back to life. People are talking about Khan’s legacy and his future. Videos of people dancing in front of the big screen are flooding the internet. And that in and of itself makes my criticisms of “Pathaan” seem minuscule and compels me to go back into a packed theater and celebrate the return of the King (Khan) with everyone.