The story of a son of India who puts country before self, Pathaan is a crowd pleaser that marks the return of Shah Rukh Khan to the action genre with new toys and a lot more bombast. Returning after a hiatus, SRK is in form in the larger-than-life space of Yash Raj banner’s growing spy universe where writers pick strands from the real world and propel them at escape velocity.
Here, director Siddharth Anand draws from current affairs like the abrogation of Article 370, Pakistan’s fascination for Kashmir, bio-warfare and mysterious viral attacks to conjure up a spectacle sans secrets that is safe for the thin-skinned and provides fans of Hollywood spy agents some smart desi stuff to cheer about.
Moving at a breakneck speed in locations across the world, itis about an aging Indian secret agent (Shah Rukh) who puts together a team of retired agents to navigate where the red tape doesn’t stick. Their fight is against an insider called Jim (John Abraham) who has turned rogue and is out to finish India in collusion with a Pakistani general. Along the way, Pathaan comes across an ISI agent Rubina (Deepika Padukone) whose fashion sense is obvious, but her designs are ambiguous.
Writers Sridhar Raghavan and Abbas Tyrewala (dialogues) segue Shah Rukh’s genetic material with the screenplay to create some whistle-inducing dialogues on Pathaan’s commitment, courage and camaraderie. With Shah Rukh, it is not just about brawn as he brings his trademark wit, irreverence and self-deprecatory humour, making Pathaan different from Tiger and Kabir, the other agents prowling in the vicinity. Only Shah Rukh could pop a pain killer with the coolth of chewing a gum.
Instead of finding the villain in a particular religion or country, the writers present a world where terrorism has been corporatised and the services of mercenaries are available to the highest bidder. It is this colour-agnostic enemy who has no shame in putting lucre before humanity that Besharam Rang, the so-called controversial song in the film, hints at. More importantly, the film looks at the definition of nationalism as to how you look at your country, your mother or your lover.
Like the good old days, the writers have given the surname-less villain a compelling back story, and the hero the licence to put him in this rightful place. They have gently mixed the personal with the political. For instance, the Pakistani General, who has evil designs on India, is fighting cancer. Interestingly, in the geopolitics of the narrative, there is no mention of the US, Russia is an indispensable ally, and an orphaned Pathaan (Shah Rukh Khan) finds his identity during a mission in Afghanistan. Also, the film refrains from painting every Pakistani with the same brush and differentiates between political interests and a global crisis.
In the macho space, Siddharth has created solid platforms for female characters. Dimple Kapadia is imposing as Pathaan’s boss who doesn’t let emotion come in the way of duty. And in between the good and the evil, Deepika comes as a shining shade of grey. She is not just ravishing but risky as well. Together, Shah Rukh and Deepika are like camphor and flame who threaten to set the screen on fire with their chemistry where grace meets risqué.
The affair of an Indian and Pakistani agent reminds of the Tiger series, and provides material for one among many inside jokes in the film which in a way carries forward Veer Zara’s gender equation between the two countries in Hindi cinema. Salman Khan’s cameo on a moving train is a kind of bonus for the fans; wish we had more to chew between the lines.
Delivering one of his better performances in the last few years, John turns out to be a strong match up for Shah Rukh. It is not just the abdominal muscles; he provides the film breath of cool air.
More than the political layers, the makers are interested in putting together breathtaking action sequences. Shot in almost all possible means of transport, they are a step ahead than what we have watched before in Bollywood, but the computer-generated imagery is not seamless, and the lack of intrinsic logic becomes baffling at times. The utter lack of surprise in the way some of the conflicts resolve leaves one disappointed. Also, certain scenes and plot devices sound like a Hindi dub of sequences lifted from Hollywood tentpoles, making them feel generic and plastic.
Siddharth focuses too much on choreographing action, often leaving emotions hanging by a thread, but it is the individual charm of the performers that makes up for the lack of strong emotional core. No wonder, early in the film, a scientist says, science is easy; love is hard.
Pathaan is currently running in theatres