Any actor can make a good film work. It takes a whole other caliber of megastar to turn an utterly nothing film into Hindi cinema’s largest blockbuster, and Pathaan is, therefore, Shah Rukh Khan’s biggest flex. Flexing, in the literal sense, is also what Khan is mostly doing in the film, which is less a movie and more an Instagram thirst-trap prompting women and men of all stripes to salivate in movie theatres and — abnormally — to take photographs of the sculpted 57-year-old for their own social media feeds. This is low-key piracy, but serious journalists, authors and cultural commentators have all fallen, rather lasciviously, for Khan’s arms and charms. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
The thirst is real. This is Khan’s first release in over four years, after he has been hounded and vilified by a central government that dislikes the idea of secularism — something Khan, a Muslim who has mostly played Hindu characters, could be said to embody. He is the self-made superstar who personifies the great Indian dream of stardom, a swarthy youngster from television who, rewriting the Hindi film hero rulebook, made himself the shiniest of leading men.
Also read: Pathaan review: Shah Rukh Khan goes large, makes it home
Times darkened. When, in 2015, Khan spoke of India being intolerant, his point was proved by BJP MP Yogi Adityanath who compared Khan to terrorist Hafiz Saeed. In 2021, Khan’s son was arrested — and jailed — for drug-possession (while not possessing drugs). Right-wing trolls began clamouring against films featuring Muslim heroes, demanding what they obnoxiously called a “Khan-mukt-Bollywood.”
Shah Rukh Khan stayed quiet, kept his head down, and — going by how he looks in Pathaan — hit the gym.
The term ‘Reality Distortion Field’ is used frequently for Steve Jobs. Jobs could make employees believe in the impossible, consumers believe in the genius of his products, and — as Andy Hertzfeld of Apple wonderfully described, “through a mix of charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement and persistence” — even sell your idea back to you as his own. Khan achieved this with Pathaan, a film that has itself become a joyous stance against the powers that hate. It is a film so inane that it can only work if half the dialogues are drowned out in applause, a film that is working because India wants — even needs — for it to work.
This is not a review, and no review can stand in the path of this box-office juggernaut setting the country ablaze with celebratory heat. To me, Pathaan is a harebrained action movie, one without memorable action sequences or clever set-pieces, one that is less like the slick Mission Impossible films that it apes and more like a latter-day Nicolas Cage actioner. It’s cheesy, desperate and politically wishy-washy, and the first half is damn near intolerable. The other entries in this “spy universe,” War and Ek Tha Tiger, are significantly better. (To those defending Pathaan, I have but one word in reply: “Boobles.”)
Yet India is partying with incredible, infectious gusto. Audiences are thronging to theatres, reviews have been bafflingly kind, and the nation is swooning under Shah Rukh Khan’s spell. The actor has distorted our reality and instead of seeing this mediocre film, we are cheering the film we wish it was. We are watching, in fact, 35 years of Shah Rukh Khan spreading his arms wide open, we are watching Fauji and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa and Dil Se and Darr and Don and Om Shanti Om, we are seeing our favourite hits reflected in Pathaan, in Khan’s half-smiles and his winks, his luscious hair and — most importantly — his secularism.
As a line, “Pathaan zinda hai” means little. As a manifesto, coming from an embattled superstar when minorities are under threat, it may mean everything.
Khan’s characters have long toyed with the idea of unlikely victory. Baazigar was about triumphing while seemingly losing. Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge had him flunk out of University, only to then be rewarded by an indulgent father. Pathaan may be one of his silliest films, but it has brought back Khan’s crown.
The film comes to life, briefly, when Shah Rukh’s comrade shows up. Salman Khan — carrying painkillers for his old chum and making a priceless Karan Arjun reference — is electrifying in a cameo that, reminiscent of Spider-Man: No Way Home, takes us back in time. It is undeniably thrilling to watch these two agree that the job ahead of them — and I don’t mean any Pathaan-Tiger objective — is too big for the new kids. These guys need to see it through.
This made me wonder whether Shah Rukh — who quotes US President John F Kennedy unironically in Pathaan — could do more than save theatres from closing down or even rescue Hindi cinema itself at an uncertain time. What if he did a Ronald Reagan and stood for office? Can Shah Rukh Khan be our Prime Minister? Based on the current dispensation, it is clear a Reality Distortion Field would come in quite handy, and people may indeed vote for Khan.
Perhaps that is what they’re doing right now.
The day I am typing this column happens to be the day a man — a man with a first name that Shah Rukh has often sported on screen — hangs up his sneakers after walking across the country. What that long walk actually achieves may be intangible, but the sight of it, of crowds across India joining in and holding hands and expressing their desire to combat the forces of hatred, has been overwhelming and powerful, and gives rise to hope. That is what Shah Rukh Khan has, in his own inimitable fashion, done with Pathaan. He has reminded us that we love. It may not be the best film, but it’s a pretty fantastic Bharat Jodo Yatra.
Streaming tip of the week:
In the mood for Khan? Throw your own Shah Rukh festival with Chak De India (Amazon Prime), Dil Se (Netflix), Darr (Amazon Prime), DDLJ (Amazon Prime), Baazigar (Amazon Prime), Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (Netflix), Om Shanti Om (Netflix), Swades (Netflix) and Dear Zindagi (Netflix).
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