Words by Siddhant Adlakha
In most cases, 6 a.m. would be a horribly inconvenient time to watch a movie, but audiences in India have been flocking to cinemas to catch the very first screenings of Pathaan, and with good reason. It’s the first film in more than four years led by Shah Rukh Khan, a man practically synonymous with Bollywood in the ’90s and 2000s, and arguably one of the most famous men on the planet. That alone would justify the price of admission, but the hi-octane spy saga also doubles as a career highlight reel for Khan’s unparalleled aura. He’s been more nuanced and more emotionally vulnerable in other, better films, but he also knows his audience, and he knows full well what they want from his big comeback. As it turns out, what they want—and what they absolutely get—is a cartoonish, patriotic action saga, whose scattered pieces are heat-welded together by Khan’s blazing screen presence.
As it turns out, what they want—and what they absolutely get—is a cartoonish, patriotic action saga, whose scattered pieces are heat-welded together by Khan’s blazing screen presence.
The film serves charisma faster than the speed of light. In physics, crossing that threshold could theoretically let you travel between two points instantaneously—of course, you’d need more energy than a billion suns—but in cinema, one man makes it possible. You can see it for yourself in Pathaan, a film whose connective tissue between points A and B is either nonsensical or nonexistent. Khan, however, connects them across space and time with his innate star power (which has, for more than three decades, allowed him to wield everything from simmering intensity, to slapstick oafishness, to childlike sincerity). A given action scene may not track spatially from shot to shot, but the shots themselves are usually gloriously silly vistas with their own magnetic pull, especially when Khan is at their center. The film’s emotional trajectories may be limp and superficial, but he makes a meal out of them, not just with his focused intensity, but with his sincerity and charm. While watching it, you can’t even be fully sure Pathaan is a good movie. Chances are, that’s not why you’re there. Khan is so good at what he does that it doesn’t really matter. Some western stars, like Tom Cruise might still compare in terms of box office appeal, but few in any industry are so adept at modulating their approach that they can star in the patriotic action-comedy Main Hoon Na, the operatic period romance Veer-Zara, and the wistful, nostalgic social drama Swades, all in the same calendar year, 2004.
Nearly 20 years later, Pathaan sees him bringing practically all of his action, comedy, romance and melodrama chops roaring back to the screen. After opening three years in the past, the film makes a pit-stop in the present, before mostly unfolding in extended flashback scenes set two years ago (with a few more flashbacks therein). It’s mildly confusing, but you’ll forget about the relentless timeline hopping as soon as the action begins. Khan plays Pathaan, a super-heroic secret agent in India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). As a plot involving various international terrorists emerges, he jokes, kicks and shoots his way through numerous set pieces with panache. Where your average bad guy plummets out of a window and goes SPLAT, Khan breaks his fall by sliding along the rotor of a stationary helicopter, before making his dashing escape by piloting it indoors. It’s a bit Looney Tunes at times, but director Siddharth Anand’s style adds appropriate impact, often tidally locking the camera to shotguns as they spin through the air, or zipping across rooms to capture faceless goons flying into brick walls after they’ve been struck.
The plot centers on the imagined ripple effects of real political events. In 2019, India’s right wing government controversially dissolved Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which granted relative autonomy to the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, a region at the center of a decades-long conflict with Pakistan. Pathaan doesn’t actually examine or comment on this decision, nor does it frame any realistic Indian or Pakistani response; instead, it invents an extremist Pakistani official, General Quadir (Manish Wadhwa), whose recent terminal diagnosis pushes him to plan a three-year revenge mission against India by reaching out to a private mercenary, “Jim” (John Abraham), a former Indian agent with a gripe of his own against Indian intelligence. Pathaan may be able to defeat the average henchman with ease (not to mention, with style), but as soon as he comes face to face with Jim—during a car chase in Dubai that quickly escalates into a battle involving two helicopters tethered together—it seems like he’s met his match.
The two men cross paths numerous times and in numerous countries as Pathaan tries to figure out Jim’s nefarious plan, leading to Pathaan’s unexpected team-up with a highly capable ISI agent (Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence), Rubina Mohsin (Deepika Padukone), who lures him in with a seductive dance number in Spain, before proving her mettle in hand-to-hand combat. Padukone, who western audiences might know from the Vin Diesel action vehicle xXx: Return of Xander Cage, first debuted opposite Khan in the 2007 Bollywood pastiche Om Shanti Om. Sixteen years later, she’s become one of the industry’s most capable and sought after performers, and her on-screen reunion with Khan after nearly a decade (they last co-starred in the 2014 comedy Happy New Year) sees them on an equal footing. The camera allows them to be both sexy and powerful in equal measure—whether they’re posing, fighting, or in some cases, both—and as they spend time together, planning missions and heists in various countries, their physical chemistry practically radiates off the screen.
The 57-year-old Khan has also never looked better (between Pathaan and the recent Tamil heist film Thunivu, starring 51-year-old Ajith Kumar, it’s a banner year for fifty-something Indian leading men looking fine as hell). The first time Pathaan appears, he’s bound to a chair, having just been tortured, but he delivers quips with his mouth dripping blood, from behind a mess of long hair, as Anand reveals him one facial feature at a time. His eyes, his wry smile, details with which audiences have become familiar for over the last 30 years. Khan may not have been entirely absent from our screens—just last year, he made brief cameo appearances in the Disney superhero property Brahmāstra: Part One — Shiva and in Paramount’s Forrest Gump remake Laal Singh Chaddha—but this slow and steady reveal works wonders, emphasizing that this time, he’s the main event. Between 1992 and 2018, he starred in nearly 60 films and made appearances in dozens more—there hadn’t been a single year without a Khan-starrer since his career began; in some years he led as many as seven—but his last leading role before Pathaan was in the 2018 romantic drama Zero, in which he was digitally shrunk down to the size of a man with dwarfism. It was the rare box office failure for the superstar, and it left many wondering if his light had gone out, a worry that was only exacerbated when 2019, 2020 and 2021 passed without a single big-screen appearance (fears were finally allayed when Pathaan was announced in March 2022).
The movie has already taken the Indian box office by storm, netting the highest one-day opening ever for a Hindi film, so that question has been firmly refuted. (In the U.S., Pathaan made more money on Wednesday on 600 screens than Avatar: The Way of Water did on 3000, and it’s also currently the number one film in the world). We may not have had four years with Shah Rukh Khan appearing in any film, but for Bollywood audiences, the rapturous response has proven that four years without “a Shah Rukh Khan film,” wherein his gravity warps the entire production and media cycle around him, is clearly far too long. For multiple generations, he’s been a near-constant presence, and welcoming him back to the big screen feels like welcoming a family member home after a painful absence.
Of course, any popular film also runs the risk of populism. Pathaan is peppered with elements many viewers are forced to swallow in order to remain Bollywood fans. The anti-Blackness that frequently crops up in big-budget, internationally set movies is somewhat present, though not quite as pronounced as it has been elsewhere; an action scene is said to take place “Somewhere in Africa,” while another sequence involves ruthless two-dimensional Black militants, but it’s an odd relief that they aren’t outright racist caricatures (a low bar, but one which Pathaan thankfully clears). The film may not lean fully into the right-wing nationalism or Islamophobia of some recent Bollywood films, but there are often undercurrents you can sense. Its key thematic underpinning involves Jim’s nationless, money-first credo, which is ultimately bested by Khan’s sentimental nationalism, and his frequent personification of “Mother India,” alongside other duty-bound RAW patriots like Nandini (Dimple Kapadia), the M to his James Bond. She often touts Pathaan as a soldier so charismatic, capable, and empathetic that he can inspire other injured or purposeless former agents to return to the field (none of whom are afforded actual characteristics beyond how readily they’d die for their country, and for Shah Rukh Khan).
The Bond inspirations are quite overt, including a villainous ice fortress plucked right out of 007 sequel On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and the film also nakedly rips off several Missions Impossible and Fast & Furii, but the resultant mish-mash is always ludicrously fun, and the film never stops charging forward. And, like the aforementioned franchises, Pathaan is also part of a long-running series—labeled the “YRF Spy Universe,” after producers Yash Raj Films—even though it mostly functions as a standalone film. You don’t need to have seen prior action entries Ek Tha Tiger (“There Once Was a Tiger”) from 2012, Ziger Zinda Hai (“Tiger is Alive”) from 2017, or Anand’s own War from 2019, since the latter is only referenced, and the former two are fodder for an extended cameo that becomes its own meta in-joke about Khan’s on-screen history. But the film does promise future crossovers between these three universes, so there’s plenty more Pathaan in store (the character is set to appear later this year in Tiger 3).
Knowing the details of Khan’s filmography certainly helps, because as a movie that’s as much about his big return as it is about spies and jetpacks, there are numerous joking throwbacks to the last 30 years of his career. Along with the action, the romance, the drama, and simply watching Khan quip and monologue his way to victory, all of this adds up to a delightful reward for those who’ve been waiting for another chance to watch him set the silver screen on fire.
Published on January 27, 2023
Words by Siddhant Adlakha
Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter