There are eight seconds in the Pathaan trailer in which Shah Rukh Khan’s face isn’t bruised and/ or bleeding. In one second out of the two and a half minutes, Khan is seen smiling. That should tell you how hard it is to be an action hero in your late 50s.
Internationally, studios tend to start franchises with young actors who will grow with the product, but Yash Raj Films (YRF) is taking no chances with their blockbuster projects. The YRF “spyverse” has three ageing actors in it so far — 57-year-old Salman Khan’s Tiger, who is expected to return later this year; 49-year-old Hrithik Roshan’s Kabir from War (2019); and 57-year-old Khan’s Pathaan. There’s no doubt that these three are among Bollywood’s most beloved heroes. They’re also part of the first generation of actors who have worked consistently as leading men since their 20s. (The generations before theirs would go on a hiatus at a certain age, and then return when they were older and greyer, as character actors.) Instead of taking a break, this generation shifted genres as they grew older. From the romances and family dramas that made them stars, the actors have veered towards action. If once they did roles that emphasised how vulnerability and tenderness can be charming, now they play men who flaunt age-defying fitness, muscular strength and power. They’re no longer heroes who fall in love and champion pleasure. They’ve outgrown such fripperies. It’s the time for Angry Older Men.
The trailer of Pathaan makes clear that Khan will not be flashing his dimpled smile much (it’s obscured by his beard and blood) and neither will he be holding out his arms for his lady love. Instead, he’ll be holding bad guys in bone-crunching death grips. Since a good villain is key to a hero being heroic, Pathaan’s trailer begins with John Abraham. He’s standing on an empty street in a Middle Eastern city — one moment’s silence for all those watching this while stuck in Indian metropolitan traffic — with a bazooka on his shoulder. He aims and fires at a lone car. It is a sitting duck for the aforementioned bazooka. The car blows up, which means the rest of us are strapped in for what has been touted as the year’s most explosive action extravaganza.
According to the end credits, Pathaan’s script is by Shridhar Raghavan, based on a story by director Siddharth Anand, which suggests there may be a plot somewhere in the middle of the film’s many impressive explosions and stunts. The story gets briefly acknowledged early in the trailer when a bespectacled Dimple Kapadia informs us that Abraham heads up a private terror group called Outfit X, which sounds like a kinky boutique label, but is actually a mercenary collective that has Abraham as its leader. We know Abraham is a bad guy because he has tattoos, a private jet (complete with a blonde woman lounging in the background) and, of course, the bazooka to which we’ve already been made privy. When he isn’t striding poolside in tiny, white swimming trunks, Abraham is delivering threats and his latest is to India. Cut to a shot of gents wearing kohl and a missile that’s so gigantic that had Sigmund Freud seen this trailer, he would definitely have broken out in sweat and written a whole new paper on phallic imagery and projections of alpha masculinity.
Coming back to Pathaan: There is, of course, only one person who can protect India against Outfit X, and that is Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan, who has been missing for three years. From the previously-released teaser, we know some of this time was spent being tortured and imprisoned, but when Outfit X shows up, so does Pathaan. “Party Pathaan ke ghar pe rakhoge toh mehmaan nawazi ke liye Pathaan toh aayega (If you have a party at Pathaan’s, then Pathaan will be there to greet you),” he tells the bad guys. “Aur patakhe bhi layega (And he’ll bring the fireworks),” he says while stealing a helicopter and leaving the building, all guns blazing.
Then it turns out Pathaan is not the only one who stands between Outfit X and their target. Enter Deepika Padukone. “Main ek soldier hoon, Pathaan, tumhari tarha (I'm a soldier like you),” she informs our hero, who grins at her. Because he’s remembering the yellow swimsuit in which she made her entry in the trailer or because he’s anticipating watching her elegantly beat the crap out of bad guys? Why choose? Women contain multitudes. Also, with the four action scenes and one dialogue she’s got in the trailer, Padukone’s already done more than most women characters manage in standard action adventures.
Unsurprisingly, the trailer loses interest in Pathaan’s plot in no time, choosing instead to show us that Khan will be not just in his element while doing the film’s stunts, but in every natural element — he’s in the air; he’s being chucked underwater; he’s on land, on a bus, on the side of a building; he’s on ice and defying gravity in more ways than one; all while fighting bad guys and being a patriot. Who needs a coherent story when you’ve got all this?
The only real question that remains is whether Abraham and Khan can match the crackling, homoerotic charge of Hrithik Roshan being ogled at by Tiger Shroff in War.
Pathaan is releasing in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu on January 25.