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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Pathaan, Review: Exploits and exploitation

Pathaan, Review: Exploits and exploitation

Encyclopedia Brittanica defines a pathan thus: Pashtun, also spelled Pushtun or Pakhtun, Hindustani Pathan, Persian Afghan, ethnolinguistic group residing primarily in the region that lies between the Hindu Kush in northeastern Afghanistan and the northern stretch of the Indus River in Pakistan. The Pashtun constitute the largest ethnic group of the population of Afghanistan and bore the exclusive name of Afghan before that name came to denote any native of the present land area of Afghanistan. Pathan (1946) was also the name of Prithviraj Kapoor’s most successful stage play, that ran for 558 nights. It dealt with the friendship between a Muslim leader and a Hindu administrator. Generally, those with the surname Khan are presumed to be Pathaans, though there is some doubt that all such persons are tribals. In the Hindustani film industry, there are at least four Khans who are among the top stars, Saif Ali Khan being less of a box office puller than the troika: Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and Shahrukh Khan. Yashraj Films present two of them in one film after a long time: Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan were seen together in Karan Arjun. They are together in Pathaan, albeit briefly. A surfeit of bullets, blows, acrobatics and skin show, Pathaan gives you more than your worth of ticket money. That much of it makes little sense is beside the point.

Pakistani General Qadir discovers he has cancer and only three years to live. At the same time, in 2019, the Indian Government revokes Article 370, which granted special status for Jammu and Kashmir. Qadir requisitions the service of Jim, a former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) agent-turned-rogue, now heading a private terror organisation, to force India to accede to the demand of withdrawing from Kashmir. Jim agrees as he also wants to seek revenge against India for not paying ransom to obtain the release of his pregnant wife, during his tenure. His wife was then shot dead by his captors. Jim conveys his threat to target Indian cities, unless India withdraws from Kashmir. He gives them 24 hours. Due to the ongoing threat, Nandini, the head of Joint Operations and Covert Research (JOCR) and RAW joint secretary, Colonel Sunil Luthra, summon Pathaan, an exiled field operative, to bring Jim down and destroy Jim and his gang, who they term Outfit X.

Noticing large transactions from a Pakistani account, JOCR wants to investigate the transferor, believing her to be linked to terrorist activities. It turns out that she is Dr. Rubina Mohsin, a resident of England, currently holidaying in Spain. Pathaan, meets Rubina Mohsin, in Spain, where she saves his life from members of Outfit X. He discovers that she is an ex Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan operative. She confides in him that she has infiltrated into Outfit X a year ago, to get hold of their sinister plans, and that she does not support Jim.

Rubina asks Pathaan how he got this name. He tells her that once he in the was seriously wounded and was nursed to health by Pathaan villagers, who prayed for his health day and night. When he recovered, the villagers gave him the name Pathaan. Pathaan and Rubina join forces and begin to investigate Jim’s plans. They soon learn about his intention to spread a deadly lab-generated virus, dubbed Raktbeej, across India. Raktbeej is hidden in a strong room in Russia, with fool-proof security. The duo head to Moscow, to remove the threat, apprehend Jim and stop Outfit X. And when things get too hot for Pathaan, there arrives another RAW operative called Tiger to help him out.

There are some interesting twists in Siddharth Anand’s story, but, in essence, it remains the tale of secret agents either disowned by their organisations or disaffected with them. There also seems to be a strong influence of the James Bond and Mission Impossible franchises. The chases and combats, both remind you of the two international series. In some such films, there is a mole in the organisation. Anand abjures that track, for a refreshing change. What he does have is a lady boss (M from Bond?) who is dedication-to-the-country personified. Otherwise, it is mainly the threesome: the protagonist, the antagonist and the woman. The woman is equally divided between the two, in terms of loyalty. Various countries and cities form the locales, from sunny beaches to desert nations to snow-capped mountains. There is not much reasoning behind setting episodes of the story there, except giving the audience a visual treat. Pathaan’s back story, and him acquiring the name, have good emotional appeal but little logic. Nothing is revealed about what was he doing there and why did the villagers give this foreigner extra special treatment. Rubina sinks to the bottom when she lands in water during a chase across snowy terrain. She should have tried to swim. She would have known how to swim. Just like Pathaan, who dives and pulls her out. After he has pulled her out and taken her to his base, far away, somebody offers her a towel. Isn’t it too late for that? Doesn’t she need much more than a towel?

Veteran Shridhar Raghavan is the screenplay writer. The Russian episode could be his contribution. While the plane shots and the shots of Pathaan and Rubina atop the building in Moscow are very cleverly conceived, the manner in which Rubina obtains Grigori’s palm print makes you wonder how gullible the man is. Holding the key to probably the world’s most expensive vault, he ought to have been extremely wary of strange women who come over and put his palm on her thigh in a bar. The problem with having only one worthwhile opponent means that there would have to be repeated fights between these two, and in all of those fights, the villain should have the edge. Unless he is allowed to escape, he will be overpowered and arrested, and the film would end there. It is good humour when Pathaan tells Rubina that the pilots who will be flying their planes are basically singers, drinking beer and entertaining the street crowd. She is shocked, and the audience have a good laugh. Why Jim needs to kidnap Indian scientists to further his evil plans is not clear. He has access to so many countries and an unending supply of money.

What kind of security does the JOCR have, when it can be hacked into by Jim at will, disabling all systems? Pathaan is usually armed only with a revolver. Doesn’t JOCR have any other weapons to offer him? Outfit X is given the latest, sophisticated weapons, which are let loose on Pathaan and Rubina about a dozen times. Thousands of bullets are fired, in total, within range. None of them hit Pathan, while only one grazes past Rubina’s stomach. In the effort to apprehend Rubina, JOCR sends a man to follow her. When she gives him the slip and puts a gun to his temple, Pathaan come-up from behind and pulls a gun on her. What was the need of the whole exercise? Pathaan could have pulled a gun on her himself, and that would be that. When protracted mayhem is unleashed in country after country, in the air, on the ground, in a train or on snow, not once do we see any law agency of that country taking interest in the proceedings, except, once, when Pathaan is arrested.

Abbas Tyrewala’s dialogues serve the need of the film. A few catch phrases are in order, considering the appeal of the movie. Claptrap lines, like ‘Party Pathaan key gharpey rakhogey to mehmaan-navaazee key like Pathaan to aayega’, give more reasons for the fans to whistle and make catcalls. But there is nothing by way of imaginative writing to take home.

As director, Siddharth Anand divides almost equal time between Pathaan, Jim and Rubina. He gets indulgent, with bringing in Tiger from the YashRaj Films’ franchise, and calls him Tiger, reminding us of films like Ek Tha Tiger (the first film in the Yashraj SpyVerse) and Tiger Zinda Hai. There is a scene in the end with Pathaan and Tiger which is so tongue-in-cheek that the cheeks hurt. Incidentally, ShahRukh will appear as Pathaan in Tiger 3, repaying the debt. Come to think of it, Pathaan’s plot is not very different from the Tiger movies. As far as the pairing with Deepika Padukone is concerned, it does look odd that we have a 57 year-old sharing screen space with a 37 year-old. Well, it could have been worse with a 27 year-old. Perhaps that is why, their romantic angle is kept to a bare minimum.

Anand brings them into kissing positions at least twice, but wisely, decides against it. Their on-screen chemistry is not great either. It is amazing how much pounding Pathaan takes, and always bounces back. General Qadir seems like a helpless nitwit in front of Jim, which does his position and stature no justice. Isn't he financing the entire operation? Siddharth Anand makes sure that the audience get enough and more of six packs (ShahRukh and John), skin show (Deepika), fights after fights between Pathaan on one side and Jim and his Outfit X on the other, motorcycle chase on snow, helicopter chases, aeroplane acrobatics, fights in and on a running train, etc., every trick in the trade. It is exploitation of all available resources. But he has a weakness for aerial engagements, which dominate. Once the fans/crowds are hooked, who is complaining?

ShahRukh Khan, once a romantic hero, has adapted his style to become an action vehicle with finesse. This one is for his fans, for the gallery. He stands-up and delivers. And there are emotive moments too, which he sails through comfortably. There is an honesty about him, a strong desire to perform. Given the framework of the film, there was little else that he could have done as Pathaan. A devoted audience is most likely to lap up his exploits. As Rubina, Deepika is bold and brazen. But what she amazes you with is her action scenes. Her lean physique stands her in good stead. John Abraham, who plays Jim, is a natural choice for the role. An action star, he could have been cast as an operative on either side of the two countries’ divide. John gets to mouth long paragraphs of dialogue, and, to his credit, he pulls it off. As Nandini, Dimple Kapadia shows us the stuff she is made of. All those years have shaped her into a high-class actress. Ashutosh Rana as Sunil Luthra is rightly cast as a sceptic. As General Qadir, Manish Wadhwa is passable. Prakash Belawadi, as Dr. Sahni, acts quite naturally. Lending support are Aakash Bhatija, Viraf Patel, Shaji Choudhary, Diganta Hazarika, Rajat Kaul, Prem Jhangiani, Rakesh Khatri and Ekta Kaul.

Cinematography Satchith Paulose is mainly designed to facilitate the VFX or follow the flying actors. Edited by Aarif Sheikh has been ruthless, as we can see. Yet, the film is a good 146 minutes long. Music by Sanchit Balhara and Ankit Balhara creates the right ambience, with the creation of Pathaan’s theme and Jim’s theme. There is a song inspired by a yesteryear hit, ‘Hamen to loot liya milkey husnvaalon ney’. Strangely, it is sung in Spain.

A mass entertainer, the kind of film that is usually called ‘paisa vasool’ (money’s worth), it is true to its genre. Patrons of thoughtful, immersive cinema need to keep a safe distance from Pathaan. For the fans of ShahRukh Khan, Deepika Padukone and Salman Khan, it is a must watch. This Pathaan is made of steel. Watch him traverse the path of heroics, with aplomb.

Rating: ***


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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