When the advance bookings for Pathaan opened a week ago, I instantly booked a ticket for the 7 am show at an IMAX theatre. Gorgeous-looking human beings, blazing guns and spellbinding visuals merit a watch on an IMAX screen. However, three days before the release, I heard about Gaiety cinema opening its doors, after fifty one years, for a 9:30 am screening of Pathaan for Shah Rukh Khan’s fan clubs. As a dweller of South Bombay, I have largely only known the culture of posh multiplexes, overpriced popcorn, cheers and applause muffled by the daunting reminder of one's status. My single-screen theatre experiences have been few and far between, and I have always longed for the unabashed expression of love that is a quintessential part of the single screen experience. With the first day first show of Pathaan at Gaiety, I realised how much I had withheld myself from unabashedly showing the world how huge an SRK fan I am. My appreciation paled in comparison to the mass' vociferous love in the theatre and for the first time in my life, my attention-seeking personality had absolutely no qualms about being reduced to a mere spectator as I witnessed the magic of my favourite superstar unfold.
I reached at 7:45 for the 9 am show -- the fan club through which I booked my ticket had promised celebrations. Despite reaching nearly 2 hours before the film was scheduled to start, I could feel a buzz around the theatre. The fanclubs had started to assemble and so had the media houses (The same media houses which peddled hate against Shah Rukh were now outside the largest screening of his film. The world is truly a funny place, isn’t it?). By the time it was 8:15, the scattered crowds had now metamorphosed into a chaotic and yet unified voice. On one hand, there were people clicking selfies next to the huge cutout of Shah Rukh and on the other, there were fans yelling out chants, singing Pathaan's songs out loud, each of which was interspersed with random bouts of “We love you Shah Rukh!”
As showtime approached, the celebration transcended to something that felt nothing short of a festival. Aided by the “dhol-baaja” crew, people were dancing almost as if it was the baaraat of one of their loved ones. And who could blame them? Shah Rukh has donned several hats over the three decades of his career, be it the understanding father, the passionate lover, the fierce protector, the loyal friend or the affectionate brother. So it is only natural that we see Shah Rukh through the lens of his deeply comforting characters. People had posters with some of the memorable frames and dialogues from Pathaan's trailer and raised it in the air. For a minute, I felt like I was amidst a protest. I realised soon that it was. This was the rebellion against all those who tried their best to shut down Shah Rukh. Those who tried to demean him, targeted his family, mocked him for his failures, trivialised his successes. Those few moments felt like a call to action for all the haters to bow down, because this man is far from finished.
Amidst all the chaos, I had few brief interactions with some of the people there. There was a man telling people that he had spent time with Shah Rukh the previous night, only for everyone to realise that this was his famous lookalike Ibrahim Qadri. I met an energetic albeit perplexed French news reporter from Nice, who had been sent to Mumbai to cover this release. She mentioned that her definition of Bollywood largely centered around Shah Rukh because most of the Hindi films she has watched have featured him, be it Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (K3G) or Paheli (a name I was surprised to hear, considering how little we speak about this film). She was pleasantly surprised to see how frenetic the crowd was. A few moments later, she was interviewing a family of three as I looked on and heard them speak for almost fifteen minutes about the stardom of Shah Rukh and what the release of Pathaan means to them. For close to four years, we had had little to cheer about. We watched reruns of Badshah and K3G, reminiscing the Shah Rukh that was, while being mildly concerned about what Shah Rukh will be. But the thunderous response at the box office settled our anxieties, for now.
As only ten minutes remained for the show, the crowd multiplied to a thousand. The gates opened and the massive crowd attempted to squeeze through a tiny door. I felt like I was swimming in turbulent waters, being pushed back and forth by the sea of fans. And yet, amidst the chaos, there was a sense of discipline and respect. The fans, even as they pushed and pulled, made way for a woman who was trying to enter with her 6-month old baby. I guess this is what being a Shah Rukh Khan fan in 2023 is like. Just like him and his characters (especially from the 90s), we clown around but when it comes to chivalry and respect, we are first in line.
As we sat, brimming with excitement for the film to start, there were boisterous cheers for the teaser for Salman’s next film. The film started and so did the hooting. We hooted for John Abraham, Dimple Kapadia and Ashutosh Rana. But deep down, we were craving just one entry. And when that happened, in the most spectacular action sequence in Bollywood off late, people were over the moon. I briefly teared up, knowing how long I had waited for Shah Rukh to show up. I have tragic memories of walking out from Zero after having emotionally blackmailed my friends into watching it with me. This time I wasn’t disappointed.
Once it became clear that the film broached several politically sensitive topics, I wondered what side the audience was leaning on. And the answer was resounding: on the side of cinema. There were no political or communal chants in the movie. When it was time for THE scene in "Besharam Rang", the crowd hooted, indicating unanimous approval. As Shah Rukh and Deepika teased and seduced, the crowds mixed their hooting with bouts of laughter and random shouts of “Arrey, kiss kar le ab bhai”. Pathaan is an unconventional “action hero”: he is neither as gorgeous as Kabir nor as indomitable as Tiger. He is vulnerable, playful and cocky. And the audience gauged this difference and adapted accordingly.
Siddharth Anand knows how to construct a plot around several money shots and he did that here as well. After the interval, Pathaan got its stunningly crafted train sequence (Ah, SRK on top of trains is a separate genre in itself but that is a topic for another day) along with a cameo which was the cherry on top. Here were two actors in their late 50s, having the time of their lives, but at the same time acknowledging that they were growing old.
The film ended with "Jhoome Jo Pathaan" and people danced in their seats, rejoicing that the King had given them an experience to remember, even during his so-called "decline". The movie was good, but even if it weren't it wouldn't have mattered. The morning of 25th January will remain etched in my heart as a time when a 57-year-old man moved a 23-year-old to tears just by showing up on-screen. As the day a thousand voices in one small cinema hall echoed the same name. The box office will hopefully show the world the King is back. But after seeing the anticipation and the love from fans that clearly never diminished, I must ask this question: Had the King ever left?