There is a tenor of complacency humming throughout Western critical reception of Bollywood action thriller Pathaan. In a review for Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, critic Aparita Bhandari writes that one ought not to bother looking for a plot in this big-budget, Siddharth Anand-directed, and Shah Rukh Khan-starring endeavour, an expansion upon the [Yash Raj Films] YRF Spy Universe. The film is described as a larger-than-life, riotous good time, which sees Khan returning to the big screen after a four-year hiatus. It seems that the reason why Pathaan is a box office and critical hit is that it offers modernized familiarity to audiences, all despite the rustiness of its plot.
Bhandari concludes her review wondering what more a viewer could want. I’d argue that this satisfaction is dangerous. When a film’s appeal hinges only on its ability to evoke nostalgia and depends only upon our memories of an actor’s past career, what is smuggled into the present as we lapse into this lazy romanticism are murky historical missteps.
A lot of Pathaan, as it conjures up the glittering careers of its actors (Khan’s particularly), also manages to preserve dated and insidious gender politics, all as it maintains and compounds a creeping nationalism that has dire real-world consequences. Crucially and ultimately, when we give into the ease of nostalgia’s sway, celebrating the film only for its wistful sentimentality, and willfully sidestep the cumbersome narrative, we overlook the subtle but complex turns Pathaan’s narrative is actually taking. In doing so, we allow, intentionally or not, the film’s snaking ideology to thrive unchecked.
Here is a brief and rough summary of the film’s plot. Khan stars as the eponymous Pathaan, a soldier who is part of the Indian intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). After recuperating from a brutal injury, Pathaan, alongside his senior officer Nandini Grewal (played by Dimple Kapadia), creates a sub-unit within RAW called "Joint Operations and Covert Research" (JOCR). This group hopes to enlist former RAW agents who were forced to retire due to trauma or injuries received on the job, but who still possess the will and strength to serve India.
The film begins with a historical act: India’s repeal of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution in 2019. Article 370 allowed Jammu and Kashmir (a southern part of Kashmir that India, Pakistan, and China have been disputing over for years; before 2019 it was a region controlled by India as a union territory) to remain a self-governing entity that, though administered by India, could have its own constitution and the autonomy of internal administration (meaning it, as an entity, could recommend the extent to which the Indian Constitution held sway within it). The repeal of this legislation, meant to bring Jammu and Kashmir to equal status with other Indian states, resulted in Jammu and Kashmir being subject completely to the Indian Constitution.
In Pathaan, Qadir (Manish Wadhwa), a Pakistani general, becomes incensed by this news and, seeking vengeance, hires ex-RAW agent Jim (John Abraham), who is now the leader of private terrorist organization Outfit X, to strike against India. Pathaan and the JOCR team get wind of Jim’s horrifying plan to unleash a virus in an Indian city, and, joined by Pakistani intelligence agent Rubina Mohsin (Deepkia Padukone), work to stop the unhinged and maniacal Jim in his tracks.
The film swings backwards and forwards in time and contains flashbacks within flashbacks as characters’ motivations are revealed layer by layer. We learn that Pathaan was orphaned as a baby, and that after saving a small village in Afghanistan in the early 2000s from an American missile strike (meant originally for a Taliban leader), Pathaan was gravely injured, but was swiftly nursed back to health by everyone in the village.
Pathaan refers to this village as his family, and the village in turn takes him in as a son; he says he tries to celebrate Eid with them once every year (apparently not realizing that there are two Eids in the Islamic calendar). This explains why Pathaan is called Pathaan — the term “pathan” refers to a member of the Pashto-speaking people of Afghanistan or North-West Pakistan. (It’s unclear what his name was before he found his Afghan family.) But Pathaan is, crucially, not Muslim — when Padukone’s Rubai asks him this, he offers that he took on this name out of a need for family, making sure to assert in the same breath that he considers India his parents. Make no mistake, Pathaan is Indian.
Because Pathaan does not have a past, he is almost a cypher — he can be anybody. In effect, Pathaan offers us the universally-useful myth of a person who, regardless of their past or trauma, is still able to and should serve their country because it’s what a good citizen ought to do. This universal, international appeal, aided by the film’s own universality and seeming lack of religious affiliation, is something that is pointed to by critics who praise the film. It scans as an element that ostensibly manoeuvers the film away from any potential and obvious nationalist messaging. Certainly, the film allows for people of various countries to serve as “good guys”: Rubai as a Pakistani, for example.
But this is a surface-level reading of the film, one the film’s creators want others to absorb so as to quell objections, going so far as to include a title card at the film’s start stating that the filmmakers do not wish to indemnify any particular country. Indeed, how could it when even the film’s title speaks to a non-Indian identity?
The thing is, it’s always nefarious when a film takes pains to state that it is not promoting any biases. Such a dramatic gesture ought to set off our bullshit radars.
In actuality, Pathaan’s inclusivity is perfunctory and facile. To the gaze not giddy with nostalgia, it is almost nauseatingly obvious how servile and noble the “good” non-Indian groups and people in this film are, working only to preserve India as a state despite its violent act that opens the film.
The village in Afghanistan that Pathaan sees as his community doesn’t seem to have an identity of its own; it seems to exist for Pathaan, to pray for him and to heal him, just so that it might give Khan’s Pathaan a home. For a film full of various languages such as Russian and English, it is very obviously devoid of Pashto. The pathan grandmother who bandages Pathaan says to him, “I swear, no pathan mother has ever given birth to someone as brave as you,” which might be one of the most offensive lines of dialogue delivered in this movie.
Despite his Afghan “family,” Khan’s Pathaan is a dedicated and dogged soldier for India. He literally states that his country, India, raised him, and that it is to India he owes his protection and service, not the village in Afghanistan, or even Afghanistan itself. In fact, it is the village that serves him later on in the movie, performing a highly orchestrated favour for Pathaan in a scene as saccharine as syrup.
The purpose of Pathaan’s origination myth, where a nobody becomes a hero, isn’t to convince viewers of a duty to all countries and all communities. Rather it works to convince particularly Indian audiences of a duty to India. Pathaan’s history as an orphan works in the way that superhero films function in the U.S., offering an “everyman” who contains the potential to serve his country in its time of need. Orphaned at a movie theatre, it was Indian movies like Laawaris that Pathaan looked to for nourishment; viewers do likewise. In Pathaan, it is the Indian people who are saved from the most heinous of criminals: a man who has come to hate his own country.
The function of having Pathaan be not only an orphan, but also a man whose body has been broken, a person who has performed obvious labour to become strong enough to fight — the purpose of all of this is so that the average viewer can all the easier project himself into Khan’s place. Khan’s rippled body, which the film takes pains to show is something Pathaan has worked on by depicting him running on a treadmill, serves as an ideal, and the vacuity of his character allows for the particularities of the Indian viewer who idolizes him. So much of the character of Pathaan serves to enlist viewer sentiment for nationalist endeavours, showing that anyone born within the state is indebted to the state, for it is one’s parent.
Khan’s performance as Pathaan, too, curiously speaks to the character’s intentional lack of nuance. Khan has always been deftly capable of balancing wily charm with teary-eyed heartbreak; look to any one of his earlier performances to see how he is able to move coherently from endearing, self-deprecating flirtatiousness to self-aware and self-righteous sadness. He has always been able to build out his characters to make it intuitively legible for viewers to see how and why he can go from comedy to drama so swiftly. Khan reads a fallible humanity into his roles, and from that place of fallibility he chases after the girl with a twinkle in his eyes, and translates that twinkle into tears when the girl’s family or his own family rejects him for societal reasons, despite his love and charm.
All this interiority that allowed Khan to emerge as a towering talent is absent in Pathaan. Present in this film are Khan’s cheeky grins and that quivering inflection when he is hurt, but there is nothing warm running through the character to link the comedic turns to the dramatic ones. This character is a shell, a suit of armor to be donned by anyone.
Often in the film, it seems as though Pathaan is various characters rather than one coherent, living, breathing, human character. This could be a fault in how the character has been written, but even so, this lack of meaning works to keep him vacant enough to serve as a lofty propagandist avatar — a character vaguely sketched out and general enough to fit any of us into.
And then there is Rubai. In a line uttered so swiftly and deep within the folds of the film’s confounding plot, Nandini tells Pathaan that he needs to get to the virus through Rubai before Jim or ISI get to it. Nandini is well aware that Pathaan is working with Rubai to defeat Jim, but despite this, she utters that the virus ought to be seized by India and India alone. It’s a phrase that isn’t remarked upon by Pathaan, and not much is made of it for the rest of the film, but it is hefty and freighted. Above all, it reveals that the film, despite all its claims of inclusivity and kindness, maintains a certain animosity toward Pakistan — an animosity Bollywood has upheld for the majority of its existence.
Rubai’s father was a journalist based in the Middle East who was killed in front of her when she was a child. This trauma is meant to explain Rubai’s “love for humanity,” her desire to help people; it explains why she is an ISI agent and why she helps Pathaan. The film is careful to pose Rubai in distinct opposition to the maniacal Qabir, who wants to hurt Indian civilians indiscriminately, and in this way it could escape the old charge of vilifying Pakistan.
The thing is, Rubai’s Pakistani nationality seems very ad hoc, as if the film made her Pakistani simply so it could avoid being seen as Islamophobic or anti-Pakistan. There isn’t very much about Rubai that could be considered “Pakistani,” aside from her name and the fact that she says “Subhanallah” once for no reason at all. She also doesn’t ever report into ISI, seemingly she functionally works for Pathaan and India, existing only for them and at their beck and call. The film is also careful to not code Rubai with any religious affiliation.
In the above-linked Globe and Mail article, Bhandari writes, “Unfortunately, like most female characters in Indian movies, [Padukone’s] role is peripheral.” This is a major accusation that Bhandari makes, but, confined as it is to a terse point, the neglect seems to be easily forgiven for how nostalgic the film is. Female characters in Bollywood movies have historically and overwhelmingly been disappointing, often functioning as foils or as mere eye candy. And when a movie as big as Pathaan is prized and treasured for the nostalgia it evokes through its stars, what can’t be separated from the praise is the misogyny and the flat female characters.
Nandini has the potential to be a fulsome character and so does Rubai, but so much of their roles within the film are relegated to mothering, or serving as crutches or sounding boards for flirtatious remarks. Why ought we forgive this? Why ought we, for nostalgia’s sake, neglect an opportunity to ask that filmmakers do better with female characters, allow them to exist in their own right, for themselves and not for male protagonists and their countries?
When we get so caught up in the nostalgia mode, do we realize that we’re asking for more of the same? More boring, one-dimensional, and not fully-realized female characters. More nationalist propaganda.
Ultimately, Pathaan deflects from the violence that heads of state commit by pointing to civilian suffering and individual responsibility. Instead of meaningfully countenancing what it means for a government to renege upon previously-granted (though still flimsy) freedoms, the film looks at the absolute evilness the Pakistani general must possess for targeting Indian civilians with his vengeance.
It’s simultaneously straw-manning and appealing to emotions that, by focusing on harm directed at innocent civilians, keeps viewers from interrogating the nationalistic motivations in something the Indian government actually did. The film functions in the way that all nationalistic propaganda does: it centres civilian life, deflects from violence the state commits, and easily enlists viewers to its side, because no one could argue against the sanctity of innocent life.
At the film’s end, after Pathaan’s fight with the evil that is Jim — civil disobedience personified — Pathaan chastizes Jim with the Hindi translation of John F. Kennedy’s famous words: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” These are heavy words for Jim that pierce him like daggers.
Jim hates India because his pregnant wife was shot repeatedly in the belly by terrorists when India refused to negotiate with them; he is calcified by grief against a country that ruined his life. We are supposed to hate Jim, we are meant to cry out for his downfall, but it’s hard to buy into this idea, for me. One of the many critics who fell in love with Pathaan might urge me to overlook this line, to focus instead on how great Khan looks, how amazing Padukone’s stunt work is, or how fun the gadgets and fight scenes are.
But I wonder, when we overlook such messages with our conscious mind, when we turn off our critical abilities to enjoy the spectacle instead — isn’t this the aim of all propaganda? To sow messages into our minds, lull us with flashing colours so we might not question the motives of creators or the governments under which they create.
I think art ought to be criticized and I believe it is every person’s right to question authority and its aims. Pathaan doesn’t seem to contain messaging that deftly criticizes India’s current right-wing, authoritarian government; rather it seems to function as its mouthpiece, advocating for dogged faith in the state and blind service to it, and all that it stands for. And I think ignoring all this for a few moments of Shah Rukh Khan firing a machine gun while his muscles glisten isn’t worth it.