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Sunday, December 3, 2023

Pathaan Review: Escapist Espionage Hindi Cinema Explodes On-Screen

Pathaan, the highly-anticipated Hindi movie has finally hit cinemas, coinciding with Indian Republic Day. It is Shah Rukh Khan’s comeback after a four-year hiatus. He is working with Yash Raj Films after six years and reunites with Padukone after nine years. War (2019)‘s Siddharth Anand returns to the director’s seat. Even though John Abraham and SRK 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.

The narrative is set in the backdrop of 2019. The Indian Government revokes Article 370, which grants special status to Jammu and Kashmir. This news impacts a cancer-ridden Pakistani army general, Qadir (Manish Wadhwa), who seeks vengeance against India and signs a contract with Jim (Abraham), a former RAW agent-turned-rogue leader of “Outfit X”, a private terror organisation. Jim agrees as he also wants to seek revenge against India for not trusting him as an agent during his tenure.

Due to the ongoing threat, Nandini (Dimple Kapadia), the head of “Joint Operation and Covert Research” (JOCR). Joining her is RAW joint secretary, Colonel Sunil Luthra (Ashutosh Rana), who summons Pathaan, an exiled field operative. The character is assigned to bring Jim down and destroy Outfit X. He, along with the ex-ISI agent, Rubai Mohsin (Deepika Padukone) begins to investigate the matter. They soon find out about Jim’s plan to spread a deadly lab-generated virus, dubbed “Raktbeej” (the reference to a demon in Hindu history), across India.

Firstly, when going for a movie like this, it is important for one to understand that this is a pure escapism movie, which transports us into an enthralling world. Yes, this is a universe where we see absurd jetpack chases and elaborate heists in public and there is no sign of cops. This is not reality and it is definitely something one already prepares themselves for.  For a while, Bollywood kept offering pictures that were foolish, pseudo-preachy, insensitive cultural representations and structureless.

Thankfully, Pathaan seems to have learnt crucial lessons from the past as it presents a somewhat decent plot, which is not covered by huge amounts of money thrown at it. The purpose of entertainment is the central focus and energies have clearly been guided in that direction. To a major extent, they do succeed in that department. Also, why does a female and male lead even have to be love interests? Both can be equally strong in their respective professions. Going forward, maybe we can see more such stories which are not archetypal when it comes to portraying gender in action films.

As such, the hand-to-hand action is a rally which keeps us engaged. The camera work in such sequences is video-game-like and enhances the audience’s adrenaline. The slow motion and cinematography in certain stunts are thrilling, providing the ultimate big-screen experience one seeks for. Sanchit and Ankit Balhara’s background score does the trick in developing pulsating beats. However, the VFX at times comes across as weak due to the apparent use of the green screen. I solemnly wish it was better. Exquisite locations and chiselled looks of all three actors will certainly be a treat to watch too.

As we have explored previously, despite the big canvas of Anand’s films, the concepts of redemption and sentimentality have been his strengths. There are hints of these in both Khan and Deepika’s characters and they are not written as effectively as one would’ve hoped. I deeply wanted to empathise with the movie’s protagonists. Padukone and Khan have very expressive eyes and they convey so much about grief/experience. This could have been a great opportunity to establish their life position in more detail. We needed to understand their journey up to the main crux of the story.

Instead, the lacklustre screenplay delves into unnecessary comedy when both are on a crucial mission. Both actors have strong chemistry and the director should have insisted on developing that. These double-entendre dialogues just do not work here. Plus, the movie does not indulge in a conventional cat-and-mouse chase, which on paper is refreshing. Having said that, the final face-off between the hero and villain becomes repetitive. Whilst I enjoyed the interaction between them throughout the movie, the climax lacks the crescendo that a movie of this stature deserves.

It is a relief and joy to see Khan play an action hero after more than three decades in Hindi cinema. His long hair and rough look are not only charming but pack a punch (quite literally). The witty one-liners, sheepish smile and rugged expressions make Shah the ideal action hero, where emotions and humanity are his greatest powers. At times, he reminded me of his Don 2 (2011) look and transported me back in time. Speaking of nostalgia, there is a very wonderful cameo by another Bollywood biggie who is also a part of YRF’s Spy Universe. (Blame social media for leaking this). The cinema erupted in applause and whistles. Felt good to see a Hindi movie get this reaction after a while.

Deepika’s compassionate yet astute avatar reminds me of Serena Unger in xXx. She is an equal action-prowess who is not only gorgeous and seductive but also unpredictable. Always a sheer pleasure to watch her in such characters and she performs confidently. It is so great to see her join this universe which has another bonafide undercover agent, Zoya (Katrina Kaif). I think it’s high time we see a spin-off of them both together. It would be sheer dynamite! YRF has always tributed John’s stoic action persona. First Dhoom (2004), then New York (2009) and now this. His bad-boy avatar is unapologetic, savage and yet, minutely misunderstood. He stirs a range of emotions within you from anger and hatred. It is great to see him don such a personality once more.

So fulfilling to see celebrated artists like Ashutosh Rana and Dimple Kapadia assist in progressing the story forward. Kapadia, especially, is solid in her role. It may remind of ‘M’ from the 007 series. But empowering to see a legend like her play a character that is dutiful, subtly nationalistic and independent. I feel this is the representation we need to see actors of the elder generation essay.

Another factor that I really admire about Pathaan is that it is fearlessly patriotic. The lead never shies away from expressing and praising India. His dialogue about the impetus of a soldier serving the country gives me goosebumps. Though emotions get the better of our protagonist, the movie aims to humanise and empowers vulnerability in India’s unsung heroes. At the same time, relationships with India, Afghanistan and Pakistan are maintained sensitively. The Indian spirit of generosity yet strong defensiveness when attacked is wonderfully encapsulated. An ordinary man in India visiting the cinema will feel proud of the motherland, how even a larger-than-life portrayal can connect with their sentiment.

Although Pathaan is far from a polished product. There are flaws but the movie overall offers popcorn-worthy engagement. There are many improvements for the next ‘spy’ film, but still an enjoyable experience.  Everyone has loved global spy films like Mission Impossible and James Bond, it is high time that we too start appreciating movies such as these which aim to create another franchise of their own. Indian cinema is progressing. Divisions of North/South are redundant and we are one entity now. No matter how much we admire realism, there will always be a space for masala cinema. What a pleasant comeback for the beloved, SRK. How we missed you!

⭐⭐⭐ (3/5 stars)

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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