Why Bollywood blockbuster Pathaan has audiences dancing in their seats

An Indian action-flick is pulling Bollywood out of a slump while subverting nationalist narratives. Critic Aparita Bhandari is on Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud to discuss what the film's success means for the industry and fans.

This Indian movie is breaking records while subverting nationalist narratives

Characters from a Bollywood movie posters holding guns with images of car crashes, helicopters and motorcycles behind them.
From left to right, Bollywood actors Deepika Padukone, Shah Rukh Khan and John Abraham in the poster for Pathaan. (Yash Raj Films)

Jhoome jo Pathaan, meri jaan, mehfil hi lut jaaye

Dede jo zubaan, meri jaan, us pe mar-mit-jaaye

When the Pathaan sways, my love, the gathering goes out of control

When he calls, my love, we'll give our all to him.

The song that plays as credits roll at the end of Pathaan, a hit new Bollywood movie starring screen legend Shah Rukh Khan, offers some insights into the phenomenon that the film has become. 

The roaring success of this true Bollywood masala — action, comedy, drama and a suggestion of romance — is because of the mutual love that the superstar and his audiences have for each other. And I'm saying this as someone who is not a fan of the actor, even if — like many — I find him an eloquent and charming man.

Aparita Bhandari speaks with Commotion's Elamin Abdelmahmoud about Pathaan:

Opening mid-week, a day before India's Republic Day celebrations, Pathaan started breaking records immediately. After largely staying away from theatres in India due to the pandemic — bringing about pronouncements of Bollywood's box-office slump — audiences went in droves to watch Khan headline an all-out action film. Pathaan "made history" on the first day, collecting approx $6.8 million USD just in India. And it went on to collect more than $35 million USD from India and overseas markets in the first weekend, according to the movie's production house YRF.

Despite a right-wing boycott, fans turned out en masse

Fans went wearing t-shirts and hoodies featuring the dialogue that Khan's character spits out in the film's trailer: "Mausam bigadne waala hai" (The weather is going to become turbulent). They danced in their seats when the song "Besharam Rang" played, despite some Hindu nationalist organizations and ruling party politicians calling for a boycott of the film because of a scene featuring an orange-coloured bikini — the colour orange, or more specifically saffron, is associated with Hinduism. And they turned cinema halls into a concert venue, dancing joyously to "Jhoome Jo Pathaan" in the aisles and in front of the movie screen. 

They didn't care much about the storyline. Pathaan is not concerned about making narrative sense. There's a whisper of a plot that's meant to showcase the charisma of the three leading stars: Khan, Deepika Padukone and John Abraham. 

Pathaan (Khan) is a retired Indian soldier, whose body has been broken and fixed in so many places that walking through a metal detector sets off alarm bells. He dreams up an elite agency called J.O.C.R made up of other retired soldiers like him, dedicated to serving their country. J.O.C.R tracks a terrorist organisation for hire called Outfit X, headed by Jim (Abraham), a former Indian spy. Outfit X is made up of ex-spies from across the world, including Rubai (Padukone), a former Pakistani operative. 

The opening frames give us the reason for the chase scenes between Pathaan, Jim and occasionally Rubai. When India scraps Article 370, which gave Kashmir a degree of autonomy, Pakistani General Qadir seeks to strike India and calls Jim, who has his own score to settle with the country he was once a patriot for. The rest of the film is a series of flashbacks to give us origin stories, some banter between brawls, before the denouement involving a mission to save India from a deadly virus.

Sexy stars, mile-a-minute thrills, and a Muslim hero

Action sequences take place at a dizzying pace across the globe, and defy all sorts of laws of logic and physics. Clearly performed in front of green screens, these scenes are long, encouraging audiences to holler and laugh as muscles ripple and hair flies around in glorious slo-mo. Khan, Padukone and Abraham are clearly having fun in front of the camera, which lovingly lingers on the trio's chiselled bodies. True to his trademark, Khan willingly shares the screen with his co-stars, letting them have their moment and revelling in the camaraderie. 

The two men are ripped, but it's their dimpled smirks and slow grins, along with the crow's feet and furrowed brows that captivate. Padukone, meanwhile, oozes a sexy confidence while kicking butt or strolling down Parisian streets. 

There are quibbles, of course. Parts of the dialogue are banal, groan-inducing even. The action can get repetitive. The movie could be edited down. But this isn't stopping die-hard SRK (as the superstar is also known) fans from watching Pathaan multiple times. As for those who are not SRK fans, many are going to watch the movie in defiance of moral policing calls to boycott Bollywood, as well as to show solidarity for the Muslim celebrity, who gets trolled when he occasionally speaks out against religious intolerance. 

In a way, Pathaan can also be seen as a response to the predicament Khan finds himself in. The movie smartly subverts a nationalist narrative that's become a popular plot point for Indian movies of late — see Uri, Kesari and even RRR. Even as he fights for his nation, Pathaan does not shirk from his Muslim identity. He also adds, however, that he was found abandoned in a movie theatre, which could be seen as a reference to Khan's own mythos. 

For a beleaguered Bollywood, Pathaan's record-breaking success is a welcome respite. Shah Rukh Khan fans, however, will tell you that they never lost faith in him or his ability to make them sway.

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Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. She has been published in Canadian media including CBC, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and Walrus magazine. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast,