Do you remember the last time the advance booking for a Hindi film touched the roof and left it in splutters? Do you remember the last time the anticipation for the release of a Hindi film gave you an adrenaline rush? Do you remember the last time an 8 am show for a Hindi film ran to a packed house? Do you remember the last time Shah Rukh Khan’s mesmerising screen presence left you awe-struck? Well, it has been long. Four years and one month, to be precise.
Superstar Shah Rukh Khan delivered an experimental Zero (2018) more than four years ago and ever since, he had been missing from the silver screen, leaving many disillusioned. But nothing lasts forever, they say. Four years later today, the dry spell caused by his enigmatic elusiveness has come to an end. His latest release Pathaan makes you pacify yourself with the golden phrase - the wait was worth it. The film is seldom Shah Rukh-esque but overall, a sleek, stylish, scintillating and solid entertainer, the kind we have not been treated to in a long time.
In a key scene in the film, Deepika Padukone’s Rubina asks Shah Rukh’s Pathaan if he is a ‘Musalman’. To this, he says, “Pata nahi main kaun hoon… Mere desh ne meri parvarish ki.” And that’s where the larger-than-life Pathaan converges with the more realistic version of Shah Rukh, who is often known as a brand ambassador of soft power and a unifying force of love and secularity in the country. Though he has played a host of characters associated with alpha male traits, the superstar is largely known to stand out from the crowd with his soft masculinity and emotionality, be it onscreen or off it. So, while on one hand, he blazed the trail and defied the age-old norm by placing his female co-star’s name before his on the credit roll before and after his films, his off-screen personalities have not squirmed about shedding off their masculine inhibitions, letting women take centre stage and validating their emotions.
In Pathaan, he might be the saviour of the nation but is not threatened, rather, in absolute awe of Rubina as she takes down a bunch of spies through jujutsu. He has no apprehension about taking orders from his female boss, played by the inimitable Dimple Kapadia. What also makes him appealing apart from all the washboard abs and action-hero avatar is the fact that he is quite a feminist. Yes, we have an almost feminist action hero! That’s a pretty good start to an era that was long anticipated and it’s no surprise that Shah Rukh, rather inadvertently, has set the precedent.
The film starts off in Lahore in August 2019 when the Indian government announced the revocation of Article 370, which granted the state of Jammu and Kashmir a special autonomous status. All hell breaks loose with that and it marks the entry sequence of Jim, a former RAW agent and Vir Puraskar awardee, who was once failed by his own country. The timeline cuts to three years after 2019 where we are introduced to the grimy, bruised and dishevelled Pathaan, held captive in Africa. He forms a department in the intelligence bureau called JOCR (Joint Operations and Covert Research) with other soldiers, who were made to retire earlier than what protocol stated. While on a mission, he encounters Jim and thus, begins a cat-and-mouse chase between them – one who considers his country to be his mother and the other who once thought that his country is his lover.
It’s much later that we get familiar with Deepika’s Rubina Mohsin, who is a Pakistani doctor based in London. We soon come to know that she is an agent and that she will never become a part of a system that causes harm to her countrymen, who she has vowed to protect. A honey trap of sorts is created and Jim offers Pathaan to join his network of specialised spies – which also includes Rubina - to take down the enemy for his vested interests but Pathaan refuses. On the other side, Pathaan and Rubina join hands to accomplish another mission in Russia. But situations and equations are far from what they appear to be.
The action-sequences in the film are top-notch. You can’t help but cheer, whistle and clap for Deepika as she performs some challenging jujutsu stunts. There’s also a solo action sequence featuring her wielding the deadly Gatling gun, which truly blows your mind. Pathaan’s introduction scene as he combats the bad guys is remarkable and with the striking and stylised background music, it is pure gold. Jim and Pathaan locking horns atop a trailer and then on the frozen Lake Baikal in Siberia, and particularly, the fight sequence with Pathaan and Tiger (yes, Salman Khan has a rather long-ish cameo) is a treat. For those who grew up on a staple diet of the 1990s Bollywood, there’s nothing better than watching and revelling in the banter and the camaraderie between two of the biggest superstars of the country!
What appears as a weak link in the film is its pace, both in the first and the second half. The pace witnesses a further dip when the fear of a Covid-19-like virus becomes a part of the narrative. Pathaan also walks on a slippery slope because most of the twists and turns that it offers are largely predictable. But kudos to director Sidharth Anand for giving the Hindi film-watching audience an action-oriented visual extravaganza, which they have been bereft of since War (2019). He has already proved his mettle with Bang Bang (2014) and War, and so, it’s no surprise that Pathaan is cool and rides high on aesthetics. It is mounted on a massive production scale and is shot across some of the most gorgeous locations like Spain, UAE, Turkey, Russia, Italy, France and Afghanistan. Cinematographer Satchith Paulose - also the director of photography on Sidharth’s next actioner, Fighter - deserves a special mention for capturing these exotic locales in all their glory.
It is a sheer delight to watch Shah Rukh and Deepika grooving to Besharam Rang and bringing a charming sensuality to the table. Their chemistry is palpable and keeps you rooting for more! But it is Sanchit Balhara and Ankit Balhara, who deserve brownie points for the background score. It is stylish, new-age and cinematic.
It is no news that Deepika is a complete stunner and she takes her glam quotient a notch higher with Pathaan. Not only does she look drop-dead gorgeous, but is also seen engaging in some death-defying stunts. Unlike most actioners where the women in the narrative don’t have much to do or contribute, Pathaan breaks the clutter. Rubina is manipulative but never veers away from her own principles. She is sultry but is also fiery, fearless and intelligent. Dimple Kapadia, who plays the head of JOCR is strong and resolute. But underneath that unyielding stance lies gentleness and she plays her part with a lot of poise.
John is in his comfort zone in Pathaan. The film doesn’t throw him down the gauntlet and so, there is no graph that he gets to play with. He performs some gravity-defying and high-octane stunts, flaunts his abs and serves as the perfect arch-nemesis to the protagonist. Revisiting his character, Colonel Sunil Luthra, from War to now Pathaan is Ashutosh Rana. But he doesn’t have much to do in this film.
But the globe-trotting action entertainer belongs to Shah Rukh, who lights up the screens and commands your attention with his charismatic and compelling presence. It says that distance makes the heart grow fonder and watching him revel in this new world and character makes you happy. Known for his comic timing, he brings a sense of respite and cracks you up with his seasoned humour in some of the most tensed sequences. To top that, he looks suave and dapper in every frame. His smouldering gaze, chiselled look and toned physique are sure to leave many women swooning and men crushing on him.
Pathaan, according to the trade pundits, is a litmus test for the post-Covid modern-day Bollywood, which has craved a tsunami at the box office and a frenzied buzz among its fans and admirers. Pathaan might have just passed the test rather effortlessly with flying colours. But though Shah Rukh may have begun a new inning with his action avatar in the film, we still crave for the old Shah Rukh, who dimpled and serenaded his way into our hearts.
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