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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Pathaan: Siddharth Anand’s Social Undertones In Commercial Hindi Films

Pathaan is finally gearing up for release and after years of anticipation, the highly-anticipated Hindi movie hits cinemas on January 25, 2023, coinciding with Indian Republic Day. Shah Rukh Khan plays the titular lead of an exiled RAW field operative. He is assigned to take down “Outfit X”, a private terrorist organisation that is preparing a nuclear attack on India. John Abraham plays the villain, while Deepika Padukone perhaps essays a formidable soldier. Indian cinema’s legend Dimple Kapadia plays an ‘M’-like agent to track the bad guy. The cast is promising.

It is Khan’s comeback after a four-year hiatus. He is working with YRF after six years and reunites with Padukone after nine years. Even though Abraham and Khan worked together in productions previously, it is their first on-screen acting collaboration. The movie is touted to be made on a 2.5bn rupees ($30m, £25m) budget. This movie, despite a major outrage towards Bollywood, packs nostalgia and a promise to revive the industry. A lot of expectations are resting heavily here.

When it comes to director Siddharth Anand, however, this movie appears to be the culmination of his career thus far. In fact, throughout his career, Anand fuses important social subjects with mainstream appeal. Even though Pathaan, alongside previous hits War (2019) and Bang Bang! (2014) exude high-octane action and exquisite locations, they all highlight patriotism and nationalism. These titles do not shy away from embracing one’s passion towards India. Plus, terrorism is sadly a rampant issue in our society and these movies, tackle subjects through palatable stories and visual packages. Though veering towards escapism a bit much, some certainly worked at the box office.

Siddharth had co-written Hum Tum (2004), a contemporary rom-com which tackles gender stereotypes and is inspired by When Harry Met Sally (1989). Just a year later, he makes his directorial debut in Salaam Namaste (2005). The movie addresses topics like premarital pregnancy, abortion and the Australian Dream. Among Hindi cinema’s initial films on live-in relationships. Like Anand’s first written piece, this too raises awareness of sex stereotyping. Though ‘bold’ during its time of release, there is an exchange of Indian and Western values within it. One observes a maturing character arc of frivolous singletons to rational adults by the conclusion… Which naturally, is prevalent in all his movies. Although a U/A (12A – UK) certificate, these matters are conveyed simply. Hence, with adult supervision, can be watched by children.

Ta Ra Rum Pum (2007) is another NRI (non-resident of India) story but caters more to a family audience with the American Dream as a focal trope. A successful racer and his family (kids and wife) face immense financial hardship after an accident catapults him to dereliction. Even though it reminds one of Hollywood classics such as Talladega Nights and The Pursuit of Happyness (both 2006), this is one of the few earlier Hindi movies which highlight financial well-being. It presents the perils of recklessly using debit/credit cards to Indian audiences. Furthermore, we see how this drastic economical change impacts the family’s mental health and survival. Comparative to his first film, this distracts the image of Utopia through the lens of Desis living abroad. Like in Salaam Namaste, this movie too exhibits a strong, independent woman. In both movies, the female lead alerts the male’s immaturity and detrimental psyche.

The representation of toxic masculinity is habitual in Indian cinema and within society, of course. Many movies and characters celebrate regressive depictions, over the years. Although branded as a rom-com, Anand’s Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008) not only underline this subject but also emphasises the importance of redemption. The story is narrated through the lens of a casanova, who after a rejection, seeks apologies from various women he scorned. Adorned in international locations, foot-tapping soundtrack and notable actors, the picture divulges how pseudo-machismo may result in devastating psychological problems. Moreover, the fact that the movie travels from India and abroad, infers the change in the protagonist’s maturity. Loss of innocence and maturity are central concepts, with a subtle take on female suffering due to misogyny.

Decaying mental health is a pivotal theme in Anjaana Anjaani (2010). Here, the female character is cheated on and suffers from depression. The male lead, whose company goes bankrupt after a stock market crash. After a series of failed suicide attempts, they decide to spend the next 20 days fulfilling their unrealised wishes. Although the presentation of self-harm is rather questionable and controversial, this movie showcases psychological issues in light of youth today. While it is styled as a rom-com/drama, the seriousness focuses on the perils of taking one’s life. Like Bachna Ae Haseeno, we again observe reparation as a narrative backdrop, where second chances in life become important. The process of both finding solace within each other almost becomes spiritual, mirroring Rumi’s principle of “what you seek is seeking you.” Once more, the milieu is set in America and provides a voice for the Indians abroad.

Given that Siddharth has always presented vulnerability, resilience and regret, his major pictures Bang Bang! and War also seem to follow suit. The first title, though an adaptation of US’ Knight And Day (2010) encompasses the ingredients for an archetypal Bollywood masala film. It has candy-floss romance, comedy, intense stunts, glamorous artists, exotic locations and a sensational soundtrack. But beneath that is a layer of grief, where the action hero is like a vigilante, who is not only for the protection of his nation but also to avenge a personal loss. Similarly, in the second title, the premise is set amidst the backdrop of redemption and anguish. One of the male leads is the soldier with a cause and in the process, aims to prove his national fidelity. This too, though in a much bigger canvas from Anand’s previous movies, again echoes self-discovery and atonement.

In light of last year’s cinema trends, viewers now seem to crave the more ‘Indian’ oriented stories, regardless of how sentimental or poignant they are. Even though Siddharth’s movies have carried mass appeal relating to global audiences, the real test for Pathaan is to see how the narrative strikes a chord with its demographic in India. Sure it promises escapism and an adrenaline pump. But Will the common man, who pays a pricey Rs 2100 ticket, resonate with the movie’s soul, voice and sensitivity?

Only a few days to go till we get a guns-blazing response, either way.

Pathaan is backed by Yash Raj Films and releases on 25th January 2023. 

Watch the Pathaan trailer here:

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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