(From L to R) Shah Rukh Khan in Pathaan, Hrithik Roshan in War and Salman Khan in Tiger 3
IN THE POST-CREDIT sequence of Tiger 3, Kabir of Siddharth Anand’s War (2019) is reintroduced with a voiceover talking about an enemy worse than the devil. It is the rogue RAW agent’s next mission in War 2, to be directed by Ayan Mukerji, starring Hrithik Roshan as Kabir and NT Rama Rao Junior as his antagonist. Just in case we’ve missed the point that this is a sequel, there is a neon sign on screen, which says ‘Hello There’. When some of the lights go off though, it says ‘Hell Here’. Observant viewers will connect it with an early scene in War with Kabir in Hotel Lotus. When some of the lights go off, guess what it spells? ‘Yes, Hell it is’.
Such are the little pleasures of the spy universe being built by Aditya Chopra, erstwhile king of romance, and inheritor of a movie empire built on the twin foundations of anger and love, embodied by young angst-ridden Amitabh Bachchan and a young, cool Shah Rukh Khan. Beginning with Kabir Khan’s Ek tha Tiger in 2012, at the height of tensions with Pakistan, the spy universe has consistently tried to create a universe that epitomises India’s place in the world. It also brings in big money. The collective box office of Ek tha Tiger, Ali Abbas Zafar’s Tiger Zinda Hai (2017), War and Siddharth Anand’s Pathaan is ₹2,220 crore. Tiger 3, directed by Maneesh Sharma, which released this Diwali, is still running in theatres, having made ₹400 crore by day 10.
The principles of the Yash Raj Films (YRF) Spy Universe are simple: that India is Bharat Mata, worthy of the greatest sacrifice; that the action will take place in beautiful international destinations; that the love interest will invariably be from Pakistan; and that at some point there will be a cross referential appearance by one or more agents from a parallel franchise, much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which are films based on characters that appear in American comics published by Marvel Comics. The multiverse, as it is called, is peopled by different franchises led by various superheroes such as Iron Man, Captain America, Spiderman, Ant-Man, Black Widow, Black Panther, and Incredible Hulk, with common plot elements, settings and actors. All of them espouse the American way of life.
The MCU began in 2008 with Iron Man, and has since then spawned individual sequels as well as multiverse sagas such as The Avengers. Much like MCU, the YRF Spy Universe, as it is called, features the individual and collective exploits of Avinash Singh Rathore aka Tiger, Pathaan, and Kabir. They all happen to be agents of a national security agency and their patriotism is in question at some point or the other, causing them to go rogue, and have their bosses utter lines like: “Pathaan ke vanvaas ka time khatam hua (Pathaan’s exile is about to end),” which neatly equates him with Lord Ram.
Their bosses are invariably those who are slumming it, either for the pay cheque or the sheer fun of it. So, if Tiger reported to Shenoy, played by the late, great Girish Karnad in the first two movies, in the third instalment he has to contend with Maithili Menon (MM), who wields a butter knife with the precision of an assassin, and is played by the veteran actor Revathy. In War, Kabir has a conflicted relationship with Colonel Luthra played by Ashutosh Rana, who also appears in Pathaan to give the spy a lecture on age and discipline. The boss in Pathaan is Major Nandini Grewal, played by Dimple Kapadia, last seen trying to destroy the world in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020).
It is no accident that Kabir, Pathaan and Tiger have women bosses. Pathaan is devoted to Bharat Mata and is prone to asking not what she can do for us but what we can do for her. In Tiger’s universe, he serves two women, his RAW boss and the Pakistani prime minister, whom he saves from an army coup. Kabir’s superior is Colonel Luthra but the one who gives orders to eliminate him when he is seen to have gone rogue is a woman. Tiger and Pathaan’s loves are Pakistani spies, evoking the crack in Pathaan that ISI is nothing but a dating service for Indian agents.
Their relationships reflect India’s ties with Pakistan, riddled with disagreements but also a shared sense of belonging. When the in-laws need you, you have to turn up, says Tiger as rationale for why he is fighting for democracy in Pakistan. A song in Tiger 3 sums up the connection well, “Haq bhi tujh pe/ Shaq bhi tujh pe/ Mujhko to sudh budh rahi na (I have a right over you / but I also have suspicions / I have lost all sense).”
Not for writer Shridhar Raghavan (War, Pathaan and Tiger 3) the snarling rivalry of Gadar (2001) and this year’s Gadar 2, where handpumps are handy conversation stoppers. The enemy is far more sophisticated in Raghavan’s world. If he is ready to unleash a biological weapon in Pathaan (referenced as raktbeej), in Tiger 3 he has to prevent the exchange of nuclear codes. The YRF Spy Universe’s mononymous spies have no religion greater than nationalism. Tiger may be married to a Pakistani, but he signs off with ‘Saare Jahan se Achcha’ on email from whichever country he moves to. Pathaan is an orphan who was found in a cinema hall. “Is desh ne meri parvarish ki hai aur maine socha achche bete ki tarah mujhe bhi apne ma baap ki seva karni chahiye (This country has raised me and now it is my duty to serve my parents),” he says. And Kabir, with his name, could belong to any religion.
The principles of the Yash Raj Films (YRF) spy universe are simple: that India is Bharat Mata, worthy of the greatest sacrifice; that the action will take place in beautiful international destinations; that the love interest will invariably be from Pakistan; and that at some point there will be a cross referential appearance by one or more agents from a parallel franchise
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PATHAAN AND KABIR are happy to say ‘Jai Hind’. But theirs is not an aggressive nationalism. As Tiger says in Ek tha Tiger, when his boss, Shenoy, calls him a gaddhar (traitor): “It is not treason to love your enemy.” He adds that he and Zoya will return only when India and Pakistan no longer need either ISI or the RAW.
What does this positioning of India as a player in the international arena indicate? In Ek tha Tiger, the enemy was Pakistan; in Tiger Zinda Hai it was ISIS, with India needing cooperation from the Central Intelligence Agency; and in Tiger 3 it is an enemy of democracy who happens to be a Pakistani general. Pathaan’s back story involves a joint mission with the US Army in Afghanistan. There is a steady accretion of India’s role in keeping with the politics of the state.
Media scholar Arvind Rajagopal explains this phenomenon, “One possibility is that it shows a greater awareness of foreign affairs because the geopolitical order is shifting, and people are registering that. Perhaps because of the way the media industry is set up, with its disproportionate sensitivity to foreign opinion, there is some top-down influence there.” He adds, “I wonder if the Pakistani here becomes a metonym of the foreigner, who could be a friend, and who could be a foe, depending on what kind of movie we are going to be watching. The Pakistani does not exclusively denote Pakistan and its inhabitants, but refers to a bigger question, of how India deals with the world at large.” Hence the introduction of Russian antagonists in Pathaan and Chinese spies in Tiger 3.
Some issues though remain unresolved. Take Kashmir. Pathaan begins with a Pakistani general distraught at the Indian decision to abrogate Article 370 in Kashmir calling it “elan-e-jung (declaration of war)” and suggesting that India might want to annex Pakistan occupied Kashmir. India’s barbadi (destruction) is also a running theme. War’s greatest villain wants that and so effectively that the world will forget Osama bin Laden. As in MCU, there are easter eggs and recurring characters everywhere, from Naina’s ghungroo in War finding an echo in Pathaan, and Gopi, Tiger’s fellow agent in Ek tha Tiger, returning in a brief appearance in Tiger 3. It not only increases the familiarity of the franchise but also encourages repeat viewings.
A word about the heroines in the YRF Spy Universe. They’re usually agents, with the exception of War’s Naina, a dancer whom Kabir was cultivating to become a civilian asset. When they meet there is usually a fight, where they display equal skill. And they have a complicated history as well, namely it was Zoya’s father, a Pakistani spy who was killed in a car bomb.
No wonder YRF is planning a spy universe with women, starring Alia Bhatt and Sharvari Wagh. Shooting is said to commence in 2024, as it is for Tiger Vs Pathaan, which will no doubt feature the two super agents mocking the new generation of actors and declaring that it is up to them, two 58-year-olds, to save the film industry and the country. As Tiger tells a character in Tiger 3, “Stop watching the small screen. Catch the action on the big screen (bada parda).”
Indeed, the YRF Spy Universe often uses the text of its actors’ real lives as subtext, whether it is questioning Tiger’s patriotism in Tiger 3 or establishing Pathaan’s multi-religious identity. “Tum Musalman ho?” Rubina asks Pathaan as he replies in the negative. The Spy Universe questions the idea of patriotism itself—Jim, the rogue agent in Pathaan, has the word ‘Patriot’ tattooed on his neck. But merely showcasing it doesn’t make him one. Patriotism has to be performed, with car crashes, ice skates, motorbike chases, and knife fights in abandoned museums in European towns with deep blue seas and clear skies, with dance numbers that are remixed by DJs at parties across the world. Expect more, much more of pop patriotism, Yash Raj Films style.