BY MALA CHAKRAVORTY*
“I don’t think he’s an actor anymore, he is an emotion,” John Abraham recently said of his co-star Shah Rukh Khan, during a panel discussion with the media after the worldwide success of their movie, Pathaan. Never has SRK been described so accurately.
Having followed SRK’s career from Doordarshan’s Fauji (1989), I personally do not think he was ever an actor. Barring a handful of films like Swades or Chak De India, Shah Rukh has always hammed his way through diverse roles. Whether he played a demented stalker, ruthless killer, suave don, dutiful son, or ardent lover, he always remained Shah Rukh, the lovable boy next door with a dimpled grin and outstretched arms. His success story is straight out of a movie – an aspiring actor from Delhi with no film connections, average looks and mediocre acting skills rising to become a huge superstar, brand ambassador, film producer and one of the wealthiest actors in the world. His perseverance, energy, and undeniable charm has kept him on the top tier of Hindi films for over three decades. He has survived bad reviews, bad films, negative media and politically motivated discrimination with grace, humor and mostly an enigmatic silence.
To his fans, SRK has always represented an ‘emotion’ regardless of their age, gender, and social strata. Generations of women adore him whether they are swooning over his romantic persona or thinking of him as a son/brother they want to hug, just as young men look up to him as a role model. I have watched him on stage and felt the power of his charm, self-deprecating wit, and the personal connection he makes with his audience. If you are a fan of Shah Rukh Khan, you think of him as one of your family members. The number of fans who still throng outside his home every week and shower him with adoration is unimaginable by people who did not grow up in India, as reflected in David Letterman’s bewilderment when he shadowed SRK for his Netflix talk-show.
The phenomenal success of Pathaan is, to a large extent an expression of this emotional response to Shah Rukh Khan. There could be several additional factors that contributed to this box-office bonanza after a series of disasters in Bollywood. The fervor could be due to the excitement of SRK’s fan base at his first appearance on the big screen after 4 ½ years. People have forgotten and forgiven the debacle that was ‘Zero’ and the several duds prior to that. It could also be a natural response to a big-budget, family-friendly, all-out mass entertainer in Hindi cinema that has the power to draw people off their OTT binge-watching to the big screens. There may also be a group of people who just watched it as a nostalgic effort to recreate the magic of the man who represents a part of their youth – perhaps the ebullient Abhimanyu Rai, the romantic Raj/Rahul or the champion of underdogs, Kabir Khan.
There may also be another reason people are watching the movie so enthusiastically. Going to a theater to watch Pathaan is now an act of protest against the Cancel Culture that has subsumed the nation in recent years. Since the promotional release of a song that fleetingly showed Deepika Padukone wearing an orange bikini, a color that has religious and nationalistic significance to some groups, there have been calls for a ban of the movie from right-wing activists in several states. These calls were followed by demands for a public boycott. There were threats of disruptions of shows, destruction of theaters, personal slander that went to the extent of death threats being sent to Shah Rukh and Deepika. The controversy surrounding this issue has been intense, with political leaders, bigwigs in the media and entertainment industries, and any and everyone with a social media presence expressing their opinion, instilling fear of mass unrest and personal safety risks. To their credit, the makers of Pathaan resisted getting embroiled in the controversy, avoided promotional activities, stayed on track and released the movie without cuts. The public responded en masse, sending a clear message to the Boycott Brigade that they cannot be dictated to.
Whatever the reason, the Pathaan Juggernaut is rolling along, beating box-office records, sending YRF laughing all the way to the bank. The King is Back on His Throne – at least till his next release!
The movie itself leaves much to be desired. I can describe it in one sentence – it is long, it is loud, it is illogical and it has explosions galore! Point to be noted that it is an out-and-out action movie. Very little of the romance that SRK typically embodies is evident. Not once did he spread out his arms. There are only two songs, and one of those comes at the end with the Cast & Credits. A YRF film and not a single chiffon saree is seen fluttering in the breeze! The filmmakers have unabashedly ripped off of every Mission Impossible and Bond movie, sparing no effort or expense to take advantage of the best of Indian technology and every exotic locale money can give access to (I counted 11 countries). It explores new ways to chase and fight, moving from the mundane motorbikes to the top of buses and trains, across iced-over waterbodies, over collapsing bridges, in the skies, flying with giant mechanized wings, swinging from one helicopter to another while dangling on wires, in crumbling wooden structures atop a cliff in an avalanche. There is also an incident where the villain manually holds on to two helicopters at once and fastens them to the top of a moving vehicle. The spy thriller tropes are artfully woven with sentimental dialogue and Nationalist jingo, touting ideals of duty, sacrifice and martyrdom for one’s nation while yearning for the secular India of the past and the power of love against hate. Every episode is carefully (and successfully) crafted to elicit fervent cheers from the masses.
Fortunately, the movie is not posited as a one-man show, and supporting characters are given space and agency instead of being set up as mere props to showcase the star. Pathaan is one of the rare instances where the villain is better looking and the heroine more athletic than the hero and there is no effort to gloss over these facts. Women are not whimpering victims waiting to be rescued but leaders and rescuers. I watched it in a theatre in Florida with just a handful of people, but I could imagine the frenzied response the movie has elicited from audiences in India. When Tiger joins Pathaan to fight the bad guys, it felt like being transported back to 1995 with ‘Bhaag Arjun Bhaag’ replaced by ‘Bhaag Pathaan Bhaag’! When the two aging superstars mull over retirement plans and mutually decide that they have no worthy successors to hand the baton to, the audience agrees with them wholeheartedly!
To summarize, I will say what I said when a friend asked me if I liked the movie. I have grown up on Hindi films, I knew exactly what to expect, and I was not disappointed. With all its flaws, Pathaan is entertaining. If you go with a group of friends, get a tub of popcorn and a large soda (or samosa and chai if you are lucky to be in a theatre that provides those), you can laugh through the two and half hours of corny dialogue and implausible situations. If it was not a Shah Rukh movie, I would have waited for the OTT release. If I had watched it on a streaming service, I would have finished the whole movie in 30 minutes. But, as a movie buff who has abandoned the theatres since Covid hit, I once again felt the lure of the large screen and am confident that I’ll be back for more!
* Mala Chakravorty has a Ph.D. in American Women’s fiction from I.I.T. Delhi, and Master’s degrees in English and American Studies from Delhi University and Smith College, Massachusetts. She has worked in the School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, Honolulu. She switched from academics to Information Technology in 1999