LOOKING BACK, it would seem that I was amazingly perceptive about Pathaan. The Shah Rukh Khan-Deepika Padukone spy-action thriller, produced by Yash Raj Films and directed by Siddharth Anand, was in the news for the wrong reasons even before its release on the eve of Republic Day, 2023. When I wrote my op-ed on December 19, 2022, neither I nor anyone else, except members of the Censor Board, had even seen the movie. My column was based on its controversial teaser, ‘Besharam Rang’, over a month before the launch of the movie.
I had rightly surmised that the song was deliberately provocative, released “possibly to test the waters and create some publicity. … True to expectations, the song has already attracted a ton of controversy, not to mention negative publicity. Even BJP Minister of State for Home Ajay Kumar Mishra and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath have weighed in against it.”
I had argued, however, that the formula, “when it comes to the movie market, there is, after all, no such thing as bad or too much publicity,” could not be taken for granted any longer. “Times have indeed changed. It is now widely accepted that a certain type of bad publicity can ruin a film, well in advance of its release. Aamir Khan’s mega flop Laal Singh Chaddha (2022) is cited as a prime recent example.” Would Pathaan suffer the same fate?
The producers and directors of Bollywood blockbusters could no longer pretend to be innocent about its overt or covert messaging. In this case, the song, at least the way it was then picturised, could easily be construed as offensive. Not just because it was picturised on the saffron bikini that Padukone’s character, Rubina, donned. Analysing the lyrics as well as the images, I argued that not only Hindus objecting to the hue of Rubina’s bikini but many parents worrying about the “sexual mores of their wards” would find much that was offensive: “Hamein toh loot liya milke/ishq waalon ne…nasha chadha jo sharifi ka/utaar feka hai/besharam rang kahan dekha/ duniyan waalon ne. … hai jo sahi woh karna nahin/ghalat hone ki yehi toh shuruwat hai.”
Here’s a rough and ready translation: “We’ve been looted by bands of lovers…we have stripped and discarded the delusion of virtue. Wait till the world sees us in our shameless hue. … What is right, that we’re not going to do; this is just the start of us breaking bad.” Without being a prude, I wouldn’t blame those who found the images or lyrics vulgar.
More importantly, I predicted, “The faintest whiff of anti-Hindu sentiments or implications” would not “go down well with a much more religiously charged, not to mention awakened, majority in India.” But not stopping there, I had even suggested a way out. “When it comes to Pathaan, one damage control mechanism could be to change the colour of Padukone’s dress—or should we say undress—in that particular clip.” That was precisely what happened. At the behest of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), some of the offending portions were modified to suit the public taste. The rest, as they say, is history. The film, after its release, turned out to be one of the highest-grossing Hindi movies of all times, with global collections exceeding ₹1,000 crore.
I wasn’t disappointed with Pathaan. Not because it was so well-made or satisfactory, whether cinematically or aesthetically. Or even because a bulked-up Shah Rukh as an action hero was impressive. On the contrary. I wasn’t disappointed because I didn’t expect much
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What is more, Pathaan enjoyed a rerun with its OTT release on Amazon Prime last month. As it happened, I missed the movie screening, which is my preferred mode of cinema viewership. But the advantages of OTT are that you can freeze frames, rewind, and see certain scenes over again to catch meanings or messages that you might have overlooked in the first instance. I couldn’t help smirk with the added satisfaction that I had also not misread, from that brief standalone song excerpt, the plot of the film, as being “a rehash of Ek Tha Tiger (2012)” because Pathaan was, after, all “another spy thriller from the same production house.”
Actually, it was a no-brainer to expect some common generic features in Pathaan. The biggest money-making cinematic franchises are those that create a series of hit films which operate in a self-referential and self-defining universe. Having already tasted success with their Dhoom series, YRF’s would surely try to replicate what Hollywood movie adaptations of Marvel or DC comics had already accomplished. YRF Spy Universe, with Ek Tha Tiger (2012), Tiger Zinda Hai (2017), War (2019), and now, Pathaan (2023), would be no exception. After the cameo appearance in Pathaan of Salman Khan, aka Tiger, we are hardly surprised that another movie in the series, Tiger vs Pathaan, slated for release in 2025, has already been announced.
Now, to the point of this column. No, it is not a belated review, nor a confession of how satisfied or disappointed I was with the film. Unless a very quick summing up is considered de rigueur after such a build-up. Well—I wasn’t disappointed with the film. Not because it was so well-made or satisfactory, whether cinematically or aesthetically. Or even because a bulked-up Shah Rukh as an action hero was impressive. On the contrary. I wasn’t disappointed because I didn’t expect much.
Hardly surprising that the film is a pastiche of quotations, whether from James Bond, the more recent John Wick enterprise, or even Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Action scenes bear the stamp of Top Gun: Maverick stunt coordinator, Casey O’Neill, and Hollywood stunt artists like Mad Max: Fury Road’s Craig MacRae. Unfortunately, the acting is mostly wooden, the background music, including the themes associated with both the hero and the villain, uninspiring. Everything moves too fast for you to think and the emotional scenes, whether between Pathaan and Rubina. Or Pathaan and Nandini Grewal (Dimple Kapadia) “Ma’am,” or as someone facetiously said, mom, instead of ‘M’, are flat. They scarcely raise a sigh, let alone squeeze out a tear. Unless you think that a “daft” Khan, with all his improbable and implausible capers, is more enjoyable than a grim Bond, Pathaan isn’t much to write home about.
Why, then, is the film important? The simple answer is national allegory. Huh? What is that? The term, infamous in postcolonial studies, comes from a little read monograph of Fredric Jameson on a little read author—Wyndham Lewis, Fables of Aggression (1979). But it became compulsory reading after Jameson developed it further in his 1986 essay, ‘Third- World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism’, published in Social Text. It is in that avatar, especially after a fierce refutation by Aijaz Ahmed in the same journal, that the idea of national allegory became a sort of “theoretical black hole”.
Why then do I invoke it again? Before I address that question, a quick definition. National allegory refers to “a type of narrative whose essential subject is the nation state. Because the life of a nation, large or small, exceeds the capacity of what any novel can actually accommodate, narrative fiction of this type uses allegory as a means of expressing a dimension of existence greater than that of the lives of its individual characters.”
What do the characters in Pathaan, especially the eponymous hero and, quite literally, his opposite number, because she is a Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence spy, Rubina, stand for? How, moreover, may the basic plot line of the movie as well as its major themes, be interpreted? Finally, what is the geostrategic, political, and cultural messaging of film if we bring the idea of national allegory to bear upon it?