Director: Siddharth Anand
Writers: Shridhar Raghavan (screenplay), Abbas Tyrewala (dialogues), Siddharth Anand (story)
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, John Abraham, Deepika Padukone
To begin at the beginning, Deepika Padukone’s saffron sarong-bikini in the song ‘Besharam Rang’ has not been edited out or censored into a different colour. It is still very much saffron, very much revealing, very much silken, very much sexy, not cowering to the sinister, clownish demands of lily-livered trolls. This is the film’s confident posture. That it has no one to be afraid of and no anticipated criticism that it must tip-toe around — except, perhaps, dubbing over ‘PM’ as ‘President’ in a scene which did not need this swapping. The film knows what it wants to say, and refusing to dim its politics for the right or serrate it for the left, it blazes forth as a long silsila of action sequences.
A long silsila of action sequences is, perhaps, an uncharitable way of looking at Pathaan — as a mere collection of violence of varying intensities, in varying mediums, some on air, some on land, some on a truck or a train barrelling between earth and sky. There is even arctic water under crumbling ice sheets, briefly. Wings erupt in the clouds, as lungs balloon underwater. It is, however, also not wholly untrue to reduce this film to its action, given that every fifteen minutes, we are thrust into another bullet barter, another fisting, another thumping of muscles, another set of explosions, of sculpting air with rapid limbic flexes. This is, after all, an action film in the truest sense of the genre, that is, a complete renunciation of character development, where depth is swapped for doubt — who a character is keeps changing, with revelations pouring in every now and then, and that new revelation becomes the “character”. There is, in this film, a preference to vomit backstories in hurls of dialogue while burnishing the audience’s singular faith that the hero will tower, always. If you can sense the forced hand of the scriptwriter in such moments of dense, unconvincing exposition, it is not because this is a bad action film, but because it is a good one that refuses to challenge too much of the genre’s limitations.
ISI wants to wipe out Delhi as a reaction to the Indian Government’s iron-fisted abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir. Pathaan isn’t interested in whether this decision was good or bad. It is unwilling to go that far and let us in on its political beliefs. So it doesn’t colour this decision as a win for India. It is interested, instead, in Pakistan seeing this move as a major political and territorial loss, and as a reason to plot their next devious move. The first question you might be having is — are the Pakistanis evil? It is a complicated question, because director and writer Siddharth Anand with his co-writer Shridhar Raghavan begin the film with a Pakistani general dying of cancer, not laughing hysterically or being bellyful of meat — meat as in meat but meat as in fleshy women playthings, too. His is a mortality that has been guaranteed, a grief that he is preparing himself for. And yet, he becomes a clownish menace. However, the position of chief villain is reserved not for a Pakistani but an Indian.
The ISI recruits Jim (John Abraham), a former Indian officer. India recruits Pathaan (Shah Rukh Khan). Rubina (Deepika Padukone) floats between these two camps, for she is a Pakistani soldier, beholden to her nation but not its institutions. It is a study of conflicted patriotism. What happens when you love a country but detest its cancerous, carceral institutions? Are you still a patriot? This is also a sly way to villainize a Pakistani person — the dying general who wants to rain qeher, a violent excess, on India — without villaining all Pakistani people, much like how this was done in Ek Tha Tiger, by making the Indian and the Pakistani fall in love. The Pakistani must be separated from the Pakistani institution.
When introducing Jim’s stone-faced, wooden villainy — I must clarify that stone-faced, wooden is both a description and a criticism of Abraham’s performance — Pathaan makes a distinction between the nation as a lover, and the nation as a mother. It is one of the most fascinating, provocative ways to think of nationalism. Jim saw India as a lover, and so when the country betrayed him, he resented the country. It is this resentment that curdles into villainy. But Pathaan thinks of India as a mother, and in this sincere, saccharine voice, the film tells us, while a lover can betray, a mother never betrays. A regressive, straight-jacketed way to think of motherhood is used to fashion the scabbard in which dwells the progressive, edgeless message of nationalism — that to love India is not to hate Pakistan, but to want to keep India safe from any enemy. When Pathaan says “Jai Hind!”, it isn’t at someone as much as it is at us — looking down, directly into the camera. “Khauf logon ko andha kar deta hai,” Pathaan tells Rubina in a moment that suddenly frames all the insecurity and offense around the film as one of fear. That villainy comes from fear.
Jim and Rubina are given backstories which explains why they became who they are. Pathaan is not given a history. His life began at the movies — as a child who was left inside a theater. The nation became his mother, suckled him into the army, into espionage, into courage. A man with no history is also a man with no faith. But the film girds his orphanhood with a backstory in Afghanistan where he is christened, by a Pathaani village, a Pathaan. The taveez is always on him, and the dua bears fruit.
There is a reason women love Shah Rukh. That he is willing, in his cinema, to be bossed around and saved by women, and in return, he leaks respect and charm. Pathaan is saved by Rubina, using the moment to ogle in awe as Padukone — and her body double — trapeze through men as though a knife through warm butter. Pathaan always refers to his boss, played by Dimple Kapadia, as “ma’am”, and there is no hint of a sarcastic chuckle or ironic subterfuge in his submission. In fact, there is no irony in this film. Even when Khan is confronting a villain who is chained, his hand tenderly holds the villain’s face, his thumb combing through the beard softly. It is almost erotic, his affection. There is a penis joke that Rubina cracks at his expense. Shah Rukh’s eyes are wide, glaring, always holding the receiver of his gaze with charm — even if he is about to pummel him into dust. In the delightful cameo of Salman Khan — entering as Tiger who needs to save Pathaan — both refer to their age as an honest limitation. A pain killer dangles between them as a reminder that they are closer to death than birth. A man who not only is aware of but takes humor in his limitations?
The film resembles a matryoshka doll where events are couched in events, backstories couched in dialogues, time and geographies flipping frequently till it ceases to make any sense. A patchwork ennui descends, because this frequent blaze of violence tends to tire you out by the second half. The same was felt during War, during Bang Bang, because Siddharth Anand is incapable of crafting an action sequence as tense. His action sequences are ambitious, stylized, sometimes innovative, sometimes intense, sometimes playful, and always chic. He tries to recreate the one-take entry sequence of Tiger Shroff with Shah Rukh here, but the effect is shaky — literally; Satchith Paulose’s glossy cinematography has ants in its pants.
These sequences, even as they blare and bounce, are never tense. You never feel like the time is ticking. Twice in Pathaan there is a race against time, and in neither is the palpable existential angst felt. The edge of a seat is the part which will never be graced by a bum’s imprint through the film. But that might be fine, because the deepest imprint the film wanted to have was in our hearts. And that, it did.