With every instalment, the franchise has decisively moved towards amplifying the high octane action and keeping the romance as an attractive mantelpiece. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if done well, and Pathaan more than delivers on that front.

Shah Rukh Khan in PathaanScreengrab
Flix Review Wednesday, January 25, 2023 - 13:27
Worth a watch

By now, we know the rules of the YRF spy universe—the first of which is that to be a spy, you need an impossibly sculpted body that will never allow you to blend in with ordinary mortals. Despite this significant genetic disadvantage that’s made worse by money and time spent on protein shakes and the gym, you have to prove yourself to be a spy beyond compare and save the day. Second, the story should involve three Bs—betrayals, bikinis, and blasts. Tying all this up is a thread of patriotism that ought to resonate at home with themes revolving around terrorism, but shouldn’t become too Islamophobic. Above all, the film has to look sexy and feel cool. 

Pathaan, directed by Siddharth Anand, is the fourth instalment in the franchise and also marks Shah Rukh Khan’s return to the big screen in a full-fledged role since Zero (2018). The superstar stayed away from doing any promotions in the media for Pathaan, possibly because there was a good chance that anything he said could be used against the film. After all, we live in a vitiated atmosphere where Bollywood has become an easy target for the Hindu right wing to score political points. So, when he’s sauntering around a beach in Spain on a patriotic mission for his desh in the censored version of ‘Besharam Rang’, it is hard to ignore the irony of it all. 

But, if SRK ever had a doubt that the audience had lost their love for him, the screams of adulation that welcome his introductory shot ought to come as reassurance. Like the other spies in the franchise—Tiger (Salman Khan in Ek Tha Tiger and Tiger Zinda Hai) and Kabir (Hrithik Roshan in War)—Pathaan (SRK) is a RAW agent who has given it all for his country, but is not always treated fairly in return. His boss is Nandini (Dimple Kapadia), an M-like female superior to Pathaan’s James Bond. Ashutosh Rana’s cold-heartedly nationalistic Colonel Luthra from War also makes an appearance.

The film begins with news about Article 370 being revoked in Kashmir, and a belligerent Pakistani General declaring revenge. Pathaan firmly stays away from entering into any kind of analysis on what the revocation means to the state of Kashmir and its people. It’s merely a peg to hang the spy universe, and is flimsier than poor Deepika Padukone’s costumes in freezing weather conditions. Outfit X, an organisation that employs ex-agents from around the world, is at the centre of this revenge ploy. It’s headed by Jim (John Abraham), a beefcake ex-RAW agent who went rogue. Jim was once so patriotic that he had PATRIOT tattooed on him—yet, for such a literal man, he’s the type of daft villain who talks too much and doesn’t kill the enemy when the opportunity is ripe.

Another player in this chessboard on steroids is Agent Rubai (Deepika Padukone), who is from Pakistan’s ISI. Deepika and SRK, bronzed and beautiful, distracting and deadly, sizzling and seductive (yes, I am adequately floored and fidaa), make Pathaan immensely watchable. She has femme fatale written all over her but SRK with his SRK eyes has to romance her in all sincerity. Ek Tha Tiger, the first film in the franchise, also had a RAW agent romancing an ISI agent—in fact, the film was more of a love story than an action film. But with every instalment, the franchise has decisively moved towards amplifying the high octane action and keeping the romance as an attractive mantelpiece. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if done well, and Pathaan more than delivers on that front. 

Deepika Padukone in Pathaan

The stunt team of the film must be congratulated for the extravagant action set pieces, and the VFX team for making everything on screen look believable. The introductory scene for SRK involves him flying a helicopter inside a building, so you know this is just the beginning. If War (2019) blew your mind, Pathaan has more to offer—on land, air and water—and Deepika too gets to throw in a few kicks and punches. 

The screenplay of Pathaan jumps from one location to another—Dubai, Moscow, Afghanistan, Africa, Paris, Spain, New Delhi—and it can get confusing at times, but the good-looking people on screen are essentially a kind of recreational drug. You relax and go with the flow. The most enjoyable scenes in Pathaan, however, are with SRK and Salman Khan. More than Pathaan and Tiger meeting in the cinematic universe, it is the self-aware, meta references to the two Khans of Bollywood that are endearing and entertaining. (Hint: do not leave your seats after ‘Jhoome Jo Pathaan’ towards the end). Here are two aged superstars still holding on to their thrones—it is a reminder to the audience, too, of an era when the love they commanded was unquestioned. This is possibly Pathaan’s only sentimental moment that really hits home. 

The second half of the film suffers from some clumsy writing and staging, especially the scenes in Afghanistan that look plain silly. The twists keep coming, slapped in between heavy action scenes, that don’t allow you to pause and reflect. But that could be the point too—this isn’t a film that asks you to think. This is the kind of film where SRK manages to obtain a high security passcode in Moscow by singing ‘Tu hai meri Karen’ and making us giggle. 

Pathaan is SRK’s first pure action film, and the superstar is fantastic in making his presence felt. The film could have done with some trimming in the second half when it verges on tedious, but overall, it has everything that the Big Vapid Action Movie genre demands. Welcome back, SRK! Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. 

Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture, and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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