There were no takers for the story of a besieged Bollywood superstar returning from exile, reclaiming his narrative and resuscitating the soul of a divided nation. Anirudh Iyer’s An Action Hero opened to near-empty cinema halls on December 2, 2022. The nifty satire – centered on the fraught relationship between an under-fire film industry and national sentiment – came disguised as a globe-trotting action thriller. The hero of the film was played by an actor (Ayushmann Khurrana) making his foray into commercial action cinema. The hero’s steep redemption arc is shaped by the punchline of patriotism. The country renews its romance with him because his actions transcend the performative dimensions of the screen. He doesn’t need to flaunt it because he has lived it. The sound might be that of a celebrity being chased by a vengeful politician, but the voice is that of a famous actor who has been declared guilty until proven innocent. The subtext is the film.
By the time An Action Hero started streaming on Netflix on January 27, 2023, however, it no longer felt like a work of fiction. It’s barely been a week, but its prophetic precision is there for all to see. Playing out – as we speak – is the real-world story of a beleaguered Bollywood superstar returning from exile, reclaiming his narrative and resuscitating the soul of a divided nation. Pathaan, Shah Rukh Khan’s first full-length feature in ages, has been running to packed halls across the world. The globe-trotting YRF spy thriller is Khan’s first real foray into commercial action cinema. The film’s success is, of course, painted as an against-all-odds redemption tale. It’s a comeback that’s also shaped by the punchline of patriotism.
Nostalgia is the cornerstone of any solid action franchise. The protagonists are often vintage underdogs at odds with faster, slicker rivals and evolving worlds threatening to leave them behind. This old-is-gold theme undercuts the drama. Newness is the opponent – a truth reiterated by the narrative rhythms of life and sport, where the most inspirational stories revolve around veterans raging against the dying of light. The trope is historically foolproof in film: John McClane in Die Hard, Rocky Balboa in the Rocky series, James Bond himself, Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible movies and Top Gun: Maverick, even Hrithik Roshan’s Kabir in War. These are characters that thrive on a cocktail of fearlessness and fallibility. Pathaan, too, commits to this conflict. Khan plays a rugged ex-RAW agent with washboard abs, sure, but he pales in comparison to John Abraham’s Jim (“gym”) in terms of size, skill and swag. Jim, the leader of a private terrorist outfit, is also the stronger, smarter and sexier of the two; Pathaan doesn’t defeat him so much as outlast him. Durability is his only superpower. Naturally it helps that Khan himself is the older man, and a greenhorn in a genre that Abraham has headlined for years (starting with YRF’s very own Dhoom back in 2004). In that sense, the meta-ness is not madly original. If anything, War did it better.
But the true triumph of Pathaan is that, unlike most other titles, its nostalgia extends beyond the physical – and that cheeky Salman Khan cameo – into the realms of the ideological. Ensconced within all the ditzy spectacle is not your usual battle between good and bad. It’s the one between New Patriot and Old Patriot that slowly emerges. And in light of where India stands today, I can’t think of a more topical and alluring conflict. Abraham’s Jim is a radical for hire, an ex-soldier who has no qualms attacking the very country that refused to negotiate for his family’s safety. In essence, he’s both a product and consequence of the toxic hyper-nationalism that has defined socio-political discourse – as well as modern Hindi cinema (and the actor’s own action outings) – over the last decade. Jim’s terrorism has no religion, yet religion is the currency of his terrorism. He’s a new-age patriot gone rogue, responding with the sort of blind rage and entitlement that the system had once cultivated within him.
By treating Jim as the film’s visual package – Abraham gets the mic-drop lines, the entry shots, the slow-mo grins, the cooler score, even the hotter writing (“borders are drawn to make us weak”) – Pathaan exposes the plastic posturing of the New Patriot and the prism we see them through. In doing so, the film urges the viewer to notice that these aggressive heroes – who are designed to make us root for them – are perhaps one tragedy away from turning into business-minded villains. When Jim compares India to a (jilted) lover, he hints at a culture that reads violence as the voice of passion and volatility as a sign of devotion. In contrast, the resilient Pathaan is an Old Patriot, whose loyalty towards his homeland doesn’t disguise his disappointment in their ways. He blames Colonel Luthra (Ashutosh Rana) for Jim’s transformation into a freelance terrorist, chiding his boss for perpetuating the one-sided equation between soldier and country.
At many levels, the Muslim ex-soldier who calls Afghanistan his spiritual home is the manifestation of a gentler age that mounted patriotism as more of a personal feeling than a political statement. When he calls India the mother that nurtured him, it’s a gloriously corny throwback to more innocent times, but also a reminder of the fact that you can’t love a country without loving its people. And it’s these people that Pathaan cedes the stage to during his own journey. He isn’t always the dominant force in the story. There are several moments in which Pathaan is part of the backdrop. He simply watches on while mentor Nandini (Dimple Kapadia) owns the most emotional scene of the film and disillusioned ex-ISI agent Rubina (Deepika Padukone) owns the Abbas-Mustan-esque twists. He gladly accepts spy-universe colleague Tiger’s help, advice and painkillers.
It may all come down to his climactic combat sequence with Jim, but even here he feels like a supporting character who only enables the theatrics – including Jim’s final punchline – of his setting. His control, or the refreshing lack of it, reveals someone who keeps attempting to balance his substance with style. It’s like he’s watched a lot of Western spy thrillers but isn’t entirely equipped to ape them. The writing supports his inability to be who he thinks he is. Which brings me to the most disarming aspect of Pathaan: Shah Rukh Khan’s portrayal of the conventional action hero. The way Khan plays the role – with a sense of imperfection and humour – subliminally chips away at our perception of how patriotism must look on the big screen.
He’s part lover and part comedian, part brooder and part fighter, part goofy eye-candy and part self-reflexive superstar. Unlike Jim, the man doesn’t impose his masculinity onto every frame of the film. He isn’t afraid to show his tears and get fooled, to trust and get betrayed. (Pathaan’s image also reminded me of Roger Federer’s reputation as a crier – a sensitive artist – in a tennis field of younger, ‘tougher’ machines). To his credit, the actor pulls on those versatile years of playing vulnerable, expressive underdogs across genres. There’s a bit of Darr and Baazigar in how Pathaan gets beaten up – and he gets pummeled a lot. That’s almost his trademark: His entry shot, too, features a battered figure tied to a chair. There’s a bit of Duplicate and Baadshah in Pathaan’s fawning over Rubai and their Moscow heist – which includes a boob joke that’s so jarring it’s funny. There’s a bit of Josh and Don to Pathaan’s exaggerated swag in Spain, when he catches Rubina’s attention by flaunting his abs throughout her song. There’s a bit of Swades, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani and Chak De! India in Pathaan’s Jai Hind moments – where the clumsy integration of Article 370 actually updates the context of Khan’s heartfelt nationalism. He’s merely doing what he has always done in his India-centric cinema, but it’s the widespread hate rhetoric today that refashions this identity as an elegant act of love and rebellion.
By staying true to himself, and letting the changing tides redefine the context of his presence, Khan allows the chest-beating to make way for arm-spreading: a gesture that has long epitomized the pride of unconditional acceptance. It’s this rousing marriage of man and moment that transforms Pathaan from a self-aware entertainer – which stages a deadly virus as a campy metaphor for religion – into both cultural anecdote and political antidote. The easy way is to attribute the film’s impact to Khan’s four-and-a-half-year absence and this distance making our hearts grow fonder. Or his systematic movie cameos over the years, which have teased us into explosive submission. Or even the old-school publicity campaign – no press interviews, no overexposure – that made us want him harder; he didn’t need a hero-entry shot because the release of Pathaan itself was the entry shot.
But the better way is to acknowledge that the story of Pathaan is inextricably linked to the Pathaan story – one that has openly been unfolding in the language of breaking news and boycott hashtags. There are millions of takers for the former because it’s the latter that people are subconsciously consuming; we celebrate the former because it’s the latter that we feel obligated to root for. It would not only be naive but also unfair to read the success of this film as a marker of its artistic merit. Pathaan is honest enough to cement this reel-real bridge. It in fact strives to be a measure of how far a needle can be pushed for it to snap back with a calming click. A country has renewed its romance with a superstar because his action transcends the performative dimensions of the screen. Pathaan doesn’t need to flaunt it, because Shah Rukh Khan has lived it.