After a lot of killing and double-crossing and some dancing, Rubayi (Deepika Padukone) asks Pathaan (Shah Rukh Khan) the one hundred crore rupee question: “Are you Muslim?” Time stops. A hundred op-eds await their first line. A thousand memes are readied for launch. A million Twitter users think of something clever to say. Everyone knows the answer will be a deflection—but what kind? Pathaan first tells a story: a boy abandoned, raised on the kindness of strangers, filled with a desire to repay that kindness. And then the line, a Salim-Javed line, a triple-distilled Bollywood line: “Mere desh ne meri parvarish ki”—I was brought up by my country.
Like War, the last YRF spy film, Pathaan is consumed by the idea of patriotic duty. These are not deep films, but it’s notable how much wiggle room they find in this regard. When superspy Pathaan says a variation on “Ask not what your country can do for you” to Jim (John Abraham), a RAW-agent-turned-freelance-terrorist, I was reminded of how, in War, Vaani Kapoor’s army daughter argues that not everyone need pledge to save the country. ISI agent Rubayi must make a choice, to follow orders or serve her nation. And Jim has excellent reasons for going rogue—he feels no fealty to a country that abandoned him in his hour of need. When he first turns up, the soundtrack has a whistled ‘Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon’—a hilarious choice.
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Siddharth Anand’s film begins with Pathaan—presumed dead by friends and enemies—announcing his return by singlehandedly slaughtering a few dozen of Jim’s men. An extended flashback shows the two agents discovering they're as philosophically opposed as they’re physically matched. There's an introductory fight on top of a speeding truck in Dubai, followed by a shorter meeting in Spain, where Rubayi and ‘raktbeej’ are introduced. She’s part of Jim’s group of super-rouges, luring Pathaan to him in a swimming pool. As a smirking Abraham, clad in the smallest of white shorts (the real besharam rang), walks towards Khan in a black shirt with pink roses, I felt myself grin for the first time.
After that bit of silliness, the film relaxes. So does its star. In the company of Padukone, he starts making Shah Rukh Khan noises, those little stammers and exclamations that belong to him alone. Even as they go off in search of raktbeej—a smallpox virus that Jim plans to sell on the black market—the film finds time for some nostalgia. There’s a reference to k-k-k-Kiran. There’s a variation on that scene from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge: fake couple in Europe, willing girl, Khan gently refusing sex.
Soon, though, Khan must return to his primary task: carrying an out-and-out action film. Anand is one of the few capable action-oriented directors in Hindi cinema. But in a film bursting with set pieces, there are passages that fall flat. Some of the CGI is dodgy. There’s too much creative cutting for my taste. There’s a lot of flying—and it never looks convincing. But a single-take brawl in a train compartment is brutally effective. And there’s a wild beauty to the sequence on a frozen pond, Pathaan and Jim on motorbikes, Rubayi on skates. Pathaan may take a lot of its cues from the Mission: Impossible films, but it doesn’t bother pretending Khan is doing all his stunts. Different megastar, different contract with the audience.
Shridhar Raghavan and Abbas Tyrewala, writers here and on War, again assemble an action film from the pieces of other action films, with a lot of military and spy talk enlivened by eccentric details (Pathaan and his handler, Dimple Kapadia's Nandini, discuss kintsugi) and melodramatic flourishes. When Jim asks an ISI agent “Sab khairiyat?”, the gloriously villainous reply is, “Khair nahi, kahar chahiye.” Pakistan is the bogeyman as always, though, as with previous YRF films, there are good actors and evil ones. Article 370 is mentioned at the start—better get used to seeing that as a pretext in Indian action films.
By the time this review is published, word would have gotten out about a certain appearance in the second half. Skip lightly over the next paragraph if you’d rather...
…not hear about Tiger (Salman Khan), YRF’s most bankable spy, turning up to help Pathaan out of a tough spot. It’s the most playful action sequence in the film, a chance for the two Khans to wisecrack and leap through the air together. It’s meant to be iconic—and it brought down the house in my first-day screening— but I also found it moving when Tiger says he’ll be going on a mission soon and will need Pathaan’s help. All that history, all those moments of rivalry and rapprochement, and in the end it’s two old men sitting on top of a train, talking about the past, promising to catch up soon.
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