The economic parameters within which mainstream cinema works, world over is well known to everyone, as are the means of production, distribution, and exhibition. This model is entirely dependent on the market, profit, the stars, and scripts that make these films market friendly. Box office is their only yardstick. After the golden era of Hindi cinema in the 50s, the instances of successful films and quality are few and far between, including the films of Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, and Shah Rukh Khan, three of the biggest Hindi male movie stars since the 70s. Films of Hema Malini, Rekha, Sridevi, and Madhuri Dixit have been no different either. There is an Anand here and a Deewar there, that’s about it and maybe a few more.
Therefore, it is strange that suddenly the success of a mainstream film is met with criticism from the points of view of craft or cinematic aesthetics or for its screenplay. Hindi movies traditionally have had scant regard for this and depended on the emotional appeal of the film along with the star who is the vehicle of the given sentiment. Hence it is completely futile. The only time these arguments should matter is when a genuinely handsome Hindi film comes up. Rest are entertainment vehicles that are acceptable to most people.
And PATHAAN is no exception.
I personally do not care about the commercial fate of Bollywood, an industry full of substandard works, celebration of mediocrity and legitimate allegations of nepotism albeit with diabolical intentions. The only reason I would care for the box office performance of films is because hundreds of families are run when films succeed. These mega-budget films are a source of livelihood for millions of workers of various departments associated with a movie. A Hindi film insider told me that tones of projects were shelved after the failure of Lal Singh Chadha thereby quashing earning possibilities of a large workforce. Otherwise quite honestly least of my concern are the financials gains of a SRK or a Yashraj. They have already earned millions for generations to come.
So why is Pathaan’s success being celebrated? Not because it is a cinematic masterpiece but because of the extraneous reasons connected to it. For starters, SRK is as much a legitimate citizen of a free country as anyone, and that freedom cannot be denied to him just because he is a star. He is therefore entitled to his views and the right to livelihood, which in his case may not be the art of cinema but the business of entertainment but business is an acceptable means of income and career aspiration.
However, in the last few years he has been targeted by hate mongers and there have been focused attempts to sabotage and boycott his films. I have personally been an eyewitness to such plans and talks. For further insight one should read the January 2023 issue of India’s finest English magazine “The Caravan”, which carries a cover story titled, “Shah Rukh Khan’s silent rebellion.” The article in detail outlines all the efforts to silence him and terminate his film career prematurely. The episode of his son and social media trolling included. Pathaan was no exception including a ridiculous censor cut. Therefore, the success of Pathaan is significant in that context and not for its cinematic merit. The “boycott Pathaan” calls have been dealt with a deathly blow and that is what is being celebrated, and what SRK stands for. His background of a freedom fighter father, the secular fabric of his family and marriage not to forget his star persona in films like Swades and Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani. The recent string of rank bad films like : When Harry Met Sejal and Zero did not help Shah Rukh’s cause and only gave meat to his detractors.
Pathaan is designed to repackage and remind the viewers what is SRK the person and his politics. It is clearly an exercise in brand positioning and to that extent does its job well. As it is mentioned in The Caravan cover story, he does not suck up to the forces that want him out of work for the sake of his survival. The Pathaan (read SRK) stands on his two firm feet. Having said that Pathaan has a lot going for it.
For starters Pathaan much like Kabir is a faith neutral name. In fact, it’s a race and both Hindus and Muslims are Pathaans. The first family of Hindi film industry, the Kapoor khandaan is also a Pathaan family. Unlike the success of hyper-masculine, rabid right-wing films like RRR, KGF and Pushpa etc. Pathaan’s masculinity starts and ends at SRK looking smoking hot. He doesn’t flaunt it in the film, even when Deepika is flirting, Pathaan remains focused on the job in hand and falls in love with her eventually (I remember reading an article on how the “return to the roots” argument vis a vis films like RRR is problematic and how much more evolved the Hindi film hero is, the failure of films notwithstanding). Then a benevolent non-Talibani representation of Afghanistan is a welcome change from its Talibanised image in media and Hollywood films. Last but not the least even the so-called enemy country, Pakistan is humanized. The film clearly stays away from demonizing Pakistan. Like any society or country even Pakistan in Pathaan has both good and bad people. If there is a Sabre-rattling General then there is also a rational ISI agent, played by Deepika Padukone. Dwelling in the grey zone, Deepika’s Rubina Mohsin knows the difference between defending one’s country and destruction and revenge. She kills her own General to save an Indian! When did we last see a Pakistani character doing that to defend an Indian? The film is devoid of jingoism and compares international terrorism to a corporate structure and style of functioning. Now that is is not just an analogy for me but the truth, as we know how economic terrorism is a corporation's favorite product!
Equally important is the semblance of gender balance in the film. A rare thing in Hindi films. Male actors have a habit of hogging screen time but not in Pathaan. Deepika has as much a role to play in the narrative, has equal number of stunts to perform and is a liberal, whisky drinking, bikini wearing and non-burqa/hijab clad Muslim woman. Now a western perspective may consider bikini and its filming as objectification, but you got to be in the boots of women from regressive traditional societies to realize the importance of disrobing for them. Our very own Zeenat Aman was one such rebel once upon a time. Therefore, the perception of a bikini for these women can be very different. Not to mention that despite her sex-appeal Rubina doesn’t use her body for her work, except once. It is her bravery, her commitment, and her intelligence otherwise.
It is not just Deepika who shares screen space with Shah Rukh but also John Abraham the villain. He is few notches smarter than Pathaan but someone whose rogue nature is his nemesis. Dimple and Ashutosh Rana’s roles are well defined and well written. So, it is not that Pathaan is only a Shah Rukh show, but an inclusive ensemble where everyone contributes, and is not reduced to a prop.
Besides this the film follows a comic-book meets James Bond template and calls for our suspension of disbelief at the outset.
The celebration for Pathaan is not because it is a milestone of cinema, that it is not, but it is for cultural reasons in the times when we are witnessing the darkest cultural era in the history of post-independence India. Certainly, the success of this magnitude has all the hate mongers and “boycott Pathaan” families also watching the film, the point it that despite everything it has succeeded in making them accept the star called SRK that too on his own terms. That is what we need to be happy about. It is the context that gives Pathaan its strength and merit not that it will turn the course of history or something. It is a flash in the pan as well, but a welcome one indeed that certainly signifies that servility doesn’t always pay. The big failure of Samrat Prithvi Raj and Dhaakad are case in point.
He has been hated ever since his 2015 interviews to Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai, this is clearly SRK’s moment and what he stands for as a movie star and an Indian citizen: a romantic hero who had to turn to an action-thriller as a last ditch effort to keep himself going.
Sharad Raj is a Mumbai based independent filmmaker, Editor of Just Cinema and Senior faculty at Whistling Woods international.