Tuesday 31 January 2023

The spy who came in from the cold: "Pathaan"

Over dinner just before Christmas, my esteemed friend and colleague Asim Burney - no-nonsense ringmaster of
the Khandaan podcast - hit upon a definition of what we want to see when the lights go down that will do us as well as anything to be found in the pages of Bresson's Notes on the Cinematograph. What we ultimately long to witness on our nights off in the dark, Asim argued, can be boiled down to just five words: hot people doing cool shit. As suggested by Pathaan's spectacular opening-weekend returns - a sign Bollywood might just be bouncing back after an uncommonly rotten 2022 - no-one has better understood that than writer-director Siddharth Anand, who signed off on one of the Hindi cinema's last pre-Covid megahits (2019's War). The new film is Anand picking up where he left off before the germs blew in, with more money, bigger stars yet, and the organising idea of the Yash Raj Films Spy Universe, a throughline that connects Pathaan not just to War but to Salman Khan's Tiger movies. Yet crucially, for any latecomers to the YRFSU, this is also a movie in which Shah Rukh Khan can be seen surfing a helicopter's blades, a movie in which Khan and Abraham beat seven bells out of one another on the roof of an articulated lorry speeding through downtown Dubai - Abraham simultaneously holding onto a helicopter's guyline as if the chopper were a kite - and a movie where Deepika Padukone wears a swimsuit so hard it causes a cork to pop explosively out of an adjacent champagne bottle. ("The world has not seen my true colours," trills the song playing over this formative moment for an entire generation of teenagers. With only a half-inch less material, we'd see a whole lot more than those.) No need to overthink things. Hot people; cool shit. Life's complicated enough, in the main.

It's been complicated for Shah Rukh, certainly, who's spent the past few years having to square the vast affection felt for him in his homeland with a run of movies that, while often inventive in re-examining his star persona, hardly set the box-office alight; as if these professional setbacks weren't enough to have to process, there were external political developments within a country making life difficult for anyone with a surname like his. So Pathaan has been positioned - profitably - as a comeback as much for Khan as it has been for Bollywood, and having set out that equation, we might further calculate that Khan is Bollywood, his versatility essential to the kind of masala movie where a star has to fire a gun, sing a song, and cover a lot of ground in between. The spy role he assumes here affords him narrative licence to shuffle between personas: his Pathaan is introduced as a bloodied, lank-haired political prisoner (his opening growl "zinda hai" - still alive - both a reference to earlier films in this universe and a barely coded message to the actor's detractors); he loses his shirt to play action hero in the pursuit of Abraham's renegade Jim; and then, faced with Padukone's double agent Rubina, turns into an awestruck swain. If there's any real difference between Pathaan and a Western formulation like James Bond, it lies in the star's altogether boyish, non-predatory sexuality. Pathaan appears understandably intimidated by the coltish goddess towering over him; after Rubina proposes the pair spend the night together in a Moscow hotel suite, he uses the time to fill her in on his adventures in Afghanistan, which might seem something of a missed opportunity. Politically, Pathaan struck me as no more or less than pragmatic: its hero's final line is a patriotic "jai Hind". But it's elevated by the lightness of touch Khan brings to the clunkiest stretches of event-movie exposition, and his Cary Grant-ish ability to strike up chemistry with even those scene partners who wouldn't look so dashing in a saffron bikini. (Stick around after closing song-of-the-moment "Jhoome Jo Pathaan" for a droll coda in which Khan and a fellow aging warrior compare wounds and speculate who, among the next generation of leads, could do what they do better. You know a film has done its job when such self-reflexivity doesn't come over as total hubris.)

Imagination has been applied to the setpieces, which are all anybody seems likely to remember by the time the inevitable sequel comes around. A motorcycle chase across a frozen lake to retrieve scattered smallpox vials reveals that Deepika has also remembered to pack her Wilf O'Reilly outfit; and Khan and Abraham eventually set about one another in a collapsing wooden shack bolted altogether optimistically to the side of a mountain. Still, even with two megahits under his belt, I don't think we can claim Anand as any great innovator. War allowed him to crank the homoeroticism up to 11, but as there, Pathaan keeps defaulting to a familiar commercial shape. The male leads compete for the Arnold Schwarzenegger Trophy, seeing who can grow the most stomach muscles on their stomach muscles, while Padukone - whose packing for this project demands a separate, possibly Congressional inquiry - forever seems to be wearing more layers of clothing indoors than she does outside, and the rumbling between India and Pakistan over Kashmir carries on regardless. As with the MCU and DCU, I suspect the Spy Universe may limit what creatives can ultimately do with their characters, beyond having them set up the next cycle of running around. (Franchises like these are a way for insecure industries - possibly even insecure countries - to reassure and restabilise themselves: no deaths, only the promise of box-office glory.) Yet Anand knows the least he can do with hokum like this is get the basics right, and thereby treat his audience with a level of respect. He not only ensures this dovetailing plot marries up, but finds strengthening rhymes and parallels within it; he keeps the action spatially coherent, thus often thrilling; and he makes time for all his stars - yes, even the late arrivals - to shine as only they can. Many theories have been aired these past few days as to why Pathaan posted the biggest one-day take of any Hindi film, and why it's come closer than any title to unseating Avatar 2 at the head of multiple domestic markets. There is some truth to most of them. But it's also possible audiences wanted to see hero and villain go after one another on next-generation handgliders, and the scene in which Deepika gets her hands on a really big gun. Very hot people. Very cool shit. What more does anyone need on a Friday or Saturday night?

Pathaan is now playing in selected cinemas.


  1. Hahah! Delightfully written, Mike!

  2. Pathaan movie review 5/5 star