It’s been a long time since blockbuster Bollywood’s definition of cool felt like it matched ours. For far too long, the term “cringe” has been associated with Bollywood action movies. Add to that what’s being said about Hindi cinema’s current creative slump: in the face of the world’s dominance of the KGFs, Pushpas, and RRRs, our industry has lost touch with the audience. That we no longer understand how to create popular cinema.
Pathaan appears (and what a fine entry sequence it is). Siddharth Anand’s SRK comeback spectacular is the first time in a long time (ironically since the director’s last film War) that I felt there was still hope for our action tent poles. Aside from its (fairly) slick execution, it appears that Pathaan is part of the joke in some way. At its best, the film is a star-studded blockbuster that is well aware of its status. Pathaan is a fan-service-fueled superstar vehicle that doesn’t take itself too seriously, done right. Perhaps more for soaring individual sequences than its entirety, and bloated and bumpy as it is. King Khan has returned. And he’s never looked or flowed better in the action genre.
It’s no surprise that SRK chose Siddharth Anand to direct his “comeback film” after the filmmaker’s success with War, which gave us an ode to Hrithik Roshan’s Greek God aura within a stylish action film. Pathaan isn’t as effortlessly sleek, contained, or consistently cool as War, but it feels like a spiritual sequel: bigger, flashier, messier, less composed, and a lot more fun. Above all, it is a triumph in revisiting, rekindling, and reimagining the superstar we adore.
Pathaan is a long movie at 2.5 hours. Perhaps too much. It’s why the energy wanes at times, particularly during the first half, particularly the Moscow-based heist portion. Writer Sridhar Raghavan (whose winning collaboration with Siddharth Anand is the best thing to happen to the action genre in Hindi cinema in years) provides us with a competent, yet busy screenplay. The return of the legendary R&AW agent who was thought to be finished and done for, a tragic terrorist villain, a Deepika double agent, a programme for injured soldiers, a life-threatening virus, and more.
Pathaan is a triumphant return to form for SRK, who firmly reclaims his throne as a force of nature on the big screen. Despite our reservations about what SRK the action hero might look like, King Khan appears completely at ease and born for the role. There’s no sign of the Don’s tough-to-stomach flamboyance, for example. SRK 3.0 it is. With this film, Siddharth Anand does for action stars what Zoya Akhtar does for drama stars: he holds them back, presenting a subtler, more subdued superstar to often glorious results.
Pathaan is a softer, more compassionate saviour than Tiger, who is a brute force one-man army, and Kabir, who is a stylish, suave screen-scorching spy. While his colleagues appear to be determined to save the day, Pathaan wishes to save the people. The spy who is concerned. Consider the virus contamination scene. Nandini (Dimple Kapadia), Pathaan’s boss, realises she has been infected with a deadly virus and is about to die. We see her share a final exchange with Pathaan and Colonel Luthra as her face begins to crack and the virus takes hold (Ashutosh Rana). It’s a shrill scene that I found difficult to accept. Nonetheless, I felt it.
Elsewhere, Siddharth Anand achieves restraint to shakier results with John Abraham’s appropriately named Jim (Gyn, much like Tiger Shroff in War). John Abraham is at his most enjoyable in years as a Killmonger-meets-Silva-type tragic figure born out of the indifference of the country he was sworn to represent. However, Jim is an antagonist who works best when he is pure presence rather than personality. When he is viewed as an attitude assault and an immovable object rather than a particularly charismatic villain (like those uncomfortably hammy unveil-my-grand-plan-monologue video call scenes, one of which involves Jim mansplaining a metallic egg).
Aside from lighting up the screen as Rubina, Deepika’s Padukone (who looks stunning even in a pixelated CCTV screenshot) packs less of a punch. I liked the ideas behind her character more than how they were realised – an international woman of mystery a la Ilsa Faust or Black Widow. I also appreciate that she is treated as more than just eye candy and that she is given her due. I just wish her character had received the same amount of attention.
Pathaan works best for high-octane action when everyone’s feet are firmly planted on the ground. The hand-to-hand combat sequences are far more powerful than the shakier, more daring set pieces. It’s something that Pathaan’s introduction scene perfectly captures. A bloodied SRK tears through the screen, skillfully taking down one bad guy at a time as we collectively lose our shit. But the scene deviates from reality the moment he steps into a helicopter and takes flight inside a closed building (the movie has a very liberal understanding of helicopters).
The first Pathaan-Rubina shootout-meet-cute scene is equally memorable, as is the train fight scene. With Ra One’s local train sequence, Shah Rukh Khan may have created one of the greatest action set pieces in modern Hindi cinema, but he may have just matched it with this one. A single-take fighting frenzy is followed by the Pathaan-Tiger tag team, which will continue to delight audiences across the country. However, as the set pieces become more ambitious – the Dubai truck top fight, the Paris mid-air heist, and the final jetpack battle – they become more scattered, less cohesive, and border on disorienting
Then there’s the question of the film’s politics. The persona of the superstar bleeds into the film, as it does in all great movie star spectacles, in this case referring to SRK’s inclusive messaging and secular beliefs. For example, it is made clear here that the enemy is not the Pakistani government (for once), but rather some rogue elements within it. Similarly, when Rubina asks Pathaan, “Musalmaa ho?” he responds quietly that he has no idea where he came from, who his parents were, or what his background is. But it also makes no difference. Our actions, not our surnames, define who we are. Pathaan’s messaging, like its hero, felt too gentle and kind to ever descend into jingoism, even when it talked about patriotism and duty.