Breaking down the highs and lows of Pathaan: What worked and what didn't | Bollywood - Hindustan Times

Breaking down the highs and lows of Pathaan: From refreshing, gentle patriotism to underutilized Deepika Padukone

BySuchin Mehrotra
Jan 26, 2023 05:57 PM IST

There is a lot to love about Shah Rukh Khan-Deepika Padukone's Pathaan and also a few things that deserve to be criticised.

Spoilers ahead for Pathaan

Shah Rukh Khan plays Pathaan, a one man army that often needs help from painkillers.
Shah Rukh Khan plays Pathaan, a one man army that often needs help from painkillers.

It’s been a while since blockbuster Bollywood’s definition of cool felt like it synced up with our own. For too long has the Bollywood-action-event movie become synonymous with the term “cringe”. Throw in the fact that what’s being said about Hindi cinema’s current creative slump is that, in the face of the dominance of the KGFs, Pushpas and RRRs of the world, our industry has lost its connection with the audience. That we no longer know how to make the popular cinema people want.

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Enter Pathaan (and what a fine entry sequence it is). Siddharth Anand’s SRK-comeback-spectacle is the first time in a while (ironically since the director’s last film War) that I felt that there’s hope yet for our action tent poles. Aside from its (fairly) slick execution, it feels like Pathaan is in on the joke somehow. At its best, the film is a stardom-led blockbuster that knows it is one. More for soaring individual sequences than its entirety perhaps, and bloated and bumpy as it is, Pathaan is nonetheless the fan-service-fuelled superstar vehicle that doesn't take itself too seriously, done right. King Khan is back. And he’s never looked cooler or flowed smoother within the action genre.

It’s no wonder that SRK chose Siddharth Anand to helm his “comeback movie” after what the filmmaker achieved with War - giving us an ode to the Hrithik Roshan Greek God aura within a stylish action film. Pathaan may not be as effortlessly sleek, contained, or consistently cool as War, but it almost feels like a spiritual sequel to that film: bigger, flashier, messier, less composed, and a whole lot more fun. Above all, it remains a triumph for revisiting, rekindling and reimagining the superstar we hold so dear.

Shah Rukh Khan in Pathaan.
Shah Rukh Khan in Pathaan.

At 2.5 hours, Pathaan is a whole lot of movie. Arguably too much. It's why the energy slackens at times, particularly through much of its first half, the Moscow-based heist portion in particular. Writer Sridhar Raghavan (whose winning partnership with Siddharth Anand is the best thing that’s happened to the action genre within Hindi cinema in years) gives us a competent, yet busy screenplay. The comeback of the legendary R&AW agent who was considered finished and done for (the meta-ness here about SRK’s own career is delightful), a tragic terrorist villain, a Deepika double agent, a program for injured soldiers, a life-threatening virus and more. All packed within the Hollywood action template of each new plot point requiring us to travel to a new exotic country in order to steal a doohickey, break into an impenetrable vault, and/or stop a bad guy. Instead, I’d argue that, when it isn't burdened by forced exposition, it is Abbas Tyrewala’s cheeky, self-aware dialogue that’s the unsung hero of the film.

As for the man himself, Pathaan marks a rip-roaring return to form for SRK who firmly reclaims his throne as a force of nature on the big screen. Despite the reservations many of us had about what SRK the action hero might look like, King Khan seems utterly at ease and born for the role. There isn’t a hint of the Don-like tough-to-stomach flamboyance in sight, for example. SRK 3.0 indeed. With this film, Siddharth Anand continues to do for stars within the action genre what Zoya Akhtar does for them in dramas - hold them back, presenting a subtler, more subdued superstar to often glorious results.

Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan in Pathaan.
Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan in Pathaan.

If Tiger is the brute force one-man-army, and Kabir the stylish, suave screen-scorching spy, then Pathaan is a softer, more compassionate saviour. While his counterparts seem determined to save the day, Pathaan wants to save the people. The spy who cares. Take the virus contamination scene, for example. Pathaan’s boss Nandini (Dimple Kapadia) realises that she has been infected by a deadly virus and is about to die. As her face begins to crack and the virus takes hold, we see her share a final exchange with Pathaan and Colonel Luthra (Ashutosh Rana). It’s a shrill scene that I struggled to buy into. But I felt it nonetheless. Not because of her impassioned final words, but because of the look in SRK’s eyes as she says them. It’s why I wish we got more of a sense of who he is outside of spearheading a constant string of setpieces and that we got to spend more time with Pathaan the person - like the touching Afghanistan flashback sequence where we learn how he got his name.

Elsewhere, with John Abraham’s appropriately named Jim (Gyn, much like with Tiger Shroff in War, Siddharth Anand manages to achieve restraint to shakier results. As a Killmonger-meets-Silva-type tragic figure born out of the indifference of the country he was sworn to project, John Abraham is at his most enjoyable in years. But Jim is an antagonist that works best when he’s pure presence over personality. When he’s treated as an assault of attitude 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). That said, a hero is only as good as the villain he must triumph over, and fair play to SRK for choosing to go up against an actor with such an imposing presence. Pathaan physically overpowering Jim seems…improbable which is why it feels ultimately heroic.

Them unnecessary jet packs.
Them unnecessary jet packs.

Aside from setting the screen ablaze, as Rubina, Deepika’s Padukone (who somehow manages to look stunning even on a pixelated CCTV screenshot) packs less of a punch. I loved the ideas behind her character more than how they were brought to life - an Ilsa Faust, Black Widow-type international woman of mystery. I also appreciate that she’s treated as more than mere eye candy and is given her ass-kicking due. I just wish her character had been awarded the same level of attention.

On the high-octane action front, Pathaan works best when everyone’s feet are planted firmly on the ground. The hand-to-hand fight sequences have far more impact than the wobblier, more audacious set pieces. It’s something that’s perfectly captured in the Pathaan’s introduction scene. Armed with a shotgun and a serious bone to pick, 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 goes off the rails and gets away from itself the second he steps into a helicopter and takes flight inside a closed building (the movie has a very liberal understanding of helicopters).

Equally memorable is the first Pathaan-Rubina shootout-meet-cute, and most thrilling of all - that train fight scene. Shah Rukh Khan may be responsible for one of the modern Hindi cinema's greatest action set pieces with Ra One's local train sequence, but he may well have just matched it with this one. A single-take fighting frenzy followed by the Pathaan-Tiger tag team that will continue to have audiences around the country erupt with giddy joy. But when the set pieces get more ambitious - the Dubai truck top fight, the Paris mid-air heist, that final jetpack fight - they also become more scattered, less cohesive, and border on disorienting. I felt like I was getting attacked on all sides by excessive cutting, shaky CGI, and cobbled-together cheated shots (no but seriously what was the need for jetpacks).

Some over the top action scenes broke the feel of the film.
Some over the top action scenes broke the feel of the film.

And then there’s the matter of the film’s politics. Like all great movie star spectacles - the persona of the superstar bleeds into the film, in this case referring to SRK’s inclusive messaging and secular beliefs. For example, here it’s made clear that the Pakistani government is not the enemy (for once), but rather some rogue elements within it. Similarly, when Rubina asks Pathaan ‘Musalmaa ho?’, he quietly responds that he doesn’t know where he comes from, who his parents were or what his background is. But it also doesn’t matter. It’s our actions, not our surnames, that define us. Even in its talk of patriotism and duty, like its hero, Pathaan’s messaging felt too gentle and kind to ever fall into jingoism.

Messaging aside, what Pathaan ultimately leaves us with (quite literally) is what is perhaps one of the most magnificently cheeky end credits scenes seen on film. One that gave me more joy and left me more buzzing than perhaps any Marvel post-credits scene.

We see two men, two institutions, two superstars, battered and bruised, grabbing a moment’s rest after a long day and an ever longer career. The two acknowledge their I’m-getting-too-old-for-this-sh*t age and playfully discuss who might be able to carry on their mantle after they’re gone, eventually realising there’s no one. New enemies, threats, outrages, uproars, younger competition, and beyond, come what may, for better or worse, they’re here, they’re ours and they’re not going anywhere. The stars align.

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