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Mr India

In Pathaan, Shah Rukh Khan is an Indian Everyman

Mukul Kesavan Published 12.02.23, 04:54 AM

Pathaan is a heist film, a spy caper, an Iron Man spin-off, the masala blockbuster that Johnny Depp never made as well as a wry celebration of Shah Rukh Khan’s magical relationship with Bombay’s film audience over thirty years. There’s a lovely moment early in the film when Shah Rukh’s character tells us his origin story. He was a foundling, he says, abandoned in a cinema hall and raised by the nation. I grinned at the shameless seduction of this: ‘you made me,’ he’s saying to everyone watching, ‘so we’re in this together, no?’

The deep backstory to the film’s release was the bid to remake the Bombay film industry from the eclectic, inclusive world that it had traditionally been into a hectoring, Hindu nationalist space. Vivek Agnihotri, Anupam Kher, Akshay Kumar, Kangana Ranaut and many others had pinned their colours to the majoritarian mast in the era of Narendra Modi. Of the three regnant Khans, Shah Rukh was deemed to be not pliant enough. His son was arrested on trumped-up drugs-related charges, detained for three weeks, and released on bail. Seven months after his arrest, all charges were dropped. Calls to boycott Pathaan began almost as soon as the film was announced in 2020.


One memorable boycott appeal warned Hindus that if Pathaan became a hit, Timur, Changez, Aurangzeb and other Muslim zealots would be turned into filmi heroes. The home minister of Madhya Pradesh took grave exception to one of the film’s songs, “Besharam Rang”, because Deepika Padukone, the heroine, was dressed in a skimpy orange costume while Shah Rukh wore green: this, to the Hindutva warrior, was a textbook case of ‘love jihad’.

It was in this toxic setting that Pathaan was released on the 25th of January, timed for the Republic Day weekend. Unusually for a film as expensively made as Pathaan, there was very little organised promotion. Thanks to the superheated boycott campaign, people knew it was releasing but it wasn’t clear that it would be a hit. The Aamir Khan starrer, Laal Singh Chaddha, had bombed after a similar boycott campaign.

The rest, as they say, is history. At the time of writing, Pathaan is being spoken of in the same breath as recent mega-blockbusters like RRR, Baahubali and Dangal. I watched it sitting in a cinema hall where my reclining seat was mysteriously synched to the film’s action, so I juddered when the fight scenes played out and there was a very cool moment during a chase when my seat leaned into the turn. By the time it ended, it was clear to everyone in the hall that not only had Shah Rukh triumphed but he also, through some alchemy, had taken the sectarian poison hosed at him and used it to fuel an over-the-top adventure powered by South Asian virtue.

Pathaan is about Shah Rukh’s all-action, world-spanning search for a dangerous bioweapon, a mutant smallpox virus. Every major character in Pathaan is given a justificatory reason for his/her choices. The wicked Pakistani general with terminal cancer is using the time left to him to avenge the abolition of Article 370. Rubina, (Deepika Padukone) the Pakistani doctor and ex-ISI agent, is back in the field to keep the smallpox virus from falling into the hands of terrorists. Jim (John Abraham) is one of India’s bravest RAW agents, who turns into a terrorist for hire because the Indian State refuses to ransom his wife and unborn child, who are killed as a result. (John Abraham is without question the handsomest villain the world has ever seen. Shah Rukh Khan’s willingness to act alongside taller, conspicuously better-looking men — Arjun Rampal in Om Shanti Om and Abraham in Pathaan — says something about his confidence and generosity.)

Not only is an ISI agent the glamorous foil to Shah Rukh’s Pathan, the way in which the Pathan character comes by that identity is an example of Shah Rukh’s talent for getting us to identify with him. We are told that this cinema-hall foundling joins the army to repay the nation that had raised him. While serving in Afghanistan, he saves a Pathan village from a misdirected American missile. In gratitude, the village’s matriarch declares that the village has claimed him as its own, has made him a Pathan.

Think of the intricate, yet empathetic, genius of this move. Shah Rukh Khan, who is in real life a Pathan, plays an orphan of unknown origin who becomes a Pathan by acclamation. This foundling could be any of us and so, therefore, could Pathan. It’s a mistake to think that Shah Rukh Khan has used patriotism to buy himself a hit. Rather, he has fashioned a non-majoritarian patriotism that lets him be himself (not Raj, nor Vikas) and allows his audience to identify with him. For the duration of the film, a twice-born Pathan (Shah Rukh in real life and Shah Rukh in the movie) becomes an Indian Everyman. To carry this off in Modi’s India and within the unforgiving genre of the mainstream blockbuster is a rare triumph.

It’s Shah Rukh’s durability as a star, the fact that his fans have grown up and grown old in the light of his stardom, that allows him this room for manoeuvre. His mass appeal predates India’s Hindu turn. He shares this with the other Khans and there is a sly camaraderie to his scenes with Salman in Pathaan that makes the audience cheer. As the titles roll, we see these action heroes, slightly the worse for wear, complain about how hard it is to keep going after thirty years. Maybe it’s time to let a younger lot take over?

On the face of it, it is two special agents thinking about their successors. But it’s also the great Khans considering the competition. Vicky Kaushal, Ranveer Singh, Ayushmann Khurrana, Kartik Aaryan? Or those champions of Bollywood nationalism: Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn? As Salman and Shah Rukh consider their successors, there’s a wicked moment when they shake their heads once. And then again.Nah. Shah Rukh might be 57, he might need CGI to give his eight-pack definition, but he has enough to see these guys off. Towards the end, the film lets us know that it might be the start of a franchise. He’ll be back. We file out of the hall, content that Shah Rukh Khan will be playing Mr India on his own terms for a while yet.

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