A formulaic gamble that worked for SRK

February of this year witnessed the release of The Romantics; a well-made (and much-deserved) exercise in PR for the conglomerate that is Yash Raj Films, paying homage to the late Yash Chopra, whilst briefly touching upon the admittedly unimaginable ingenuity of Aditya Chopra. Stars spanning three generations sat in front of a camera to string together a tale through recollection. Amidst all that, one conversation ties into everything for which Pathaan stands.

Shah Rukh Khan, the globally recognised king of Indian cinema, laments over the fact that he has been unable to make an action film with the behemoth of a studio. He recalls Aditya Chopra telling him that his eyes have something within them that would be wasted on an action film. Carrying that revelation forward comes Pathaan – a film that is all too aware of the burden it carries to be monumental and work against the odds.

SPOILER ALERT! Pathaan could not have been an easy film to make. This is not due to intricate storytelling, or an exceptional narrative that would sweep one off their feet. Zooming out, Pathaan would be Shah Rukh Khan’s first film after a torturous hiatus, before which many of his films had continuously failed to make their mark. The production carried with it the weight of this comeback, while also shouldering the responsibility of this being a genre for which the actor is not necessarily lauded. Furthermore, it was to tie into the greater YRF Spy Universe that is being concocted, which already carries with it the tag of yet another cinema legend – Salman Khan.

This context is vital, and, perhaps, common knowledge for any Indian cinema fan, and intriguing for a film aficionado. As of 19 March 2023, Pathaan has crossed a worldwide collection of US$130 million, rivalling the collection of the international phenomenon that RRR became. The star-studded film has been praised by critics and cinemagoers alike. It almost seems as if the gamble that Badshah Khan and the studio took made itself evident, pulling in audiences like a moth to a flame.

With all that being said, Pathaan is not an OTT experience. Let’s just get that out of the way. Watching it on Amazon Prime seems to be a disservice to the magnanimity of the film in numerous ways.

The pandemic has changed the way many of us experience OTT releases. There is a certain sense of realism to every story – regardless of how outrageous the plot may be. The need for the exoticism that almost all Bollywood films contained seems to be dwindling, with newer themes emerging with casts that seem committed to conveying an immersive experience. It is here that Pathaan staggers to its knees.

Reviews in yesteryears would speak about leaving one’s brain behind at home while talking about projects that subverted reality beyond expectation without being compelling. The same cannot necessarily be said about Pathaan. While many sequences have one clutching a little harder at their suspension of disbelief, owing to the omnipresent physics-defying logic in the film, there is a recognition of the creativity that went into the birth of the feature.

However, weak world-building makes one ache for all that the film could have been. The film carries with it an overt sense of awareness about the ambition with which it is being fueled. There are margins for greatness that lie within view on the horizon, but fail to be reached at many points. With the usage of CGI becoming an integral part of the filmmaking process for such huge projects, the reliance on the same for numerous frames makes the lack of finesse that much more glaring. Whether it’s the hurried action sequences (that are still good – just not great) or the absurd need to seemingly de-age Khan to make him look more appealing – the slip-ups are as evident as they were perhaps deemed necessary.

There is an interesting choice utilised in terms of direction and writing as well, that seems to acknowledge the larger-than-life capabilities of the film, but struggles to match the pace. What the film gifts to the audience in terms of its cast and certain instances of visual appeal, it disappointingly lacks in terms of performances.

Pathaan, as a character, has very little to offer, and is carried by mere star power. This is not to say that Khan is unconvincing as Pathaan – there is just not much of which one can be convinced. He executes his dream of starring in an action-driven plot, but at no point does one wonder, “What will Pathaan do next?” One keeps thinking of Shah Rukh as himself, and the titular character’s uncannily similar backstory does little to sway that perception.

John Abraham as Jim is another intriguing choice for a villain, especially with the likes of Ashutosh Rana being present in the film as a supporting characters. The Dhoom star’s performance seems to pick up in the second half, where he also enjoys more screen time. However, overall, the journey from watching one’s wife and unborn child being killed to becoming a mercenary generating a mutating virus to wipe out India for money seems a tad bit confusing. There was room for Jim to be chaotic and menacing, but in a film embellished with grandiose, Jim is the only character that seems to be far too downplayed, save an ice-biking sequence that many may enjoy.

Deepika Padukone, however, is sensuous in her screen presence, and a revelation in all action sequences – something that, perhaps, the star, too, is aware of toward the end of the film, as suggested by a meta nod of acknowledgement. Her character does more than serve as a conquest for the hero. Rubai drives the plot forward like a latent Jafar from Aladdin at one point, and paves a path toward welcome redemption at another.

There is a raw magnetism about the film that has one cheering at numerous moments. Had this been a cinema experience for Pakistanis, one can pinpoint where the theatre would have burst forth in applause. Be it the scene where Khan is first seen on the screen, or Deepika Padukone’s aforementioned, undeniably smooth combat scenes – Pathaan has enough of the right ingredients to make it the success it has evidently become. The appearance of Salman Khan is as welcome here as it was 25 years ago in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and even though the genre is completely different, watching the two “last of the stars” take on the goons is a treat for the eyes, heart, mind, and soul.

Pathaan is an evident effort to drift away from the Bollywood with which fans have become acquainted. Whether that is due to the changing nature of time, general audience reception of films as of late, or a formulaic gamble, the manner in which the film nods to the West is quite apparent, made obvious by styling choices and the ways in which the plot visually moves forward as well. This aspect, however, is not a criticism of Pathaan – it is a mere observation to note how this plays out in the future.

All in all, the project can perfectly be described as a nearly three-hour ode to Shah Rukh Khan. This is his film – through choice and manifestation. It is a conversation between him and his fans after a line of heartbreaking work that left many immersed in a cloud of despair. Pathaan is Khan’s silver lining.

It is, by all means, a glorious comeback, that is meant to be enjoyed on a gigantic screen for this mammoth of a star. This, too, is made clear by the final scene, which is as enjoyable as it is meta. Shah Rukh and Salman – two of the biggest names in Indian cinema – discuss their irreplaceable nature (albeit in the context of their universe) as they sit adjacent to each other. The acknowledgement is heavy with the recognition of the fact that even though great things are to come, far greater things have already been left behind as untouchable legacies.

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Originally published at tribune.com.pk

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