Bollywood blockbuster Pathaan is extraordinarily entertaining cinema

4 out of 5 stars

The success of RRR in North America has opened up the floodgates to a new cinematic world. Though cinemas across the continent have long catered to the Indian diaspora (here in Montreal, the Cineplex Forum is your Bollywood go-to), a more general audience is finally discovering the vivacious blockbuster cinema of India. The release of Pathaan represents a record-breaking success, becoming the biggest opening day and opening weekend for a Hindi film. In less than two weeks since its release, it’s already in the Top 10 highest-grossing Indian films of all time. 

Pathaan is the fourth entry in the YRF Spy Universe series. Shah Rukh Khan stars as Pathaan, an exiled RAW agent who must work with ISI agent Rubina to take down Jim, a former agent turned criminal planning to unleash a deadly lab-generated virus. With nods to the Mission Impossible films and a heavy dose of humour, Pathaan is an action-packed spectacle about the limits of sacrifice. 

In Pathaan, characters fight on every moving vehicle — Hummers, cars, helicopters, trains, skates, motorbikes, etc. They sing and dance in sunny Spain, hang off cliffs in Russia and go on epic car chases through the streets of Dubai. There are countless “races against time” as tasks or challenges must be accomplished within tight timeframes. As Pathaan, a heroic wind is always slinking through Shah Rukh Khan’s locks. On the one hand, he’s genuinely a charismatic good guy; on the other, a fabulous parody of movie-star excess. 

Pathaan review
Shah Rukh Khan in Pathaan

Pathaan works in large part because it treads this line carefully. It’s bombastic and sincere, but it’s unafraid to wink at the audience, letting them in on the joke. The filmmakers push cinema far past its limits, creating delirious and inspired set-pieces that defy logic and sometimes physics but with self-conscious good humour that always emphasizes character over spectacle. 

Much like some of the criticism of RRR (and frankly, any Indian film that manages to make waves internationally), Pathaan is nationalist propaganda. The villain, Jim (John Abraham), is a former agent who was captured as a hostage and forced to watch African rebels murder his pregnant wife because the Indian government “doesn’t negotiate” with terrorists. His villain origin story is compelling; his motivation and resentment so raw that it explains his self-destructive ambition for annihilation. 

Pathaan review

As the film progresses, the notion of sacrifice becomes an increasingly important theme. Fighting on behalf of India does mean giving up not only your life but potentially that of your family. By facing a potentially deadly pandemic, scientists are forced to make life-or-death decisions to secure the future of the human race. Similarly, soldiers must willingly give up their life for God and their country. 

The biological weapons subplot leads to some genuinely moving sequences, but it never entirely escapes the complexity of its propositions. As various characters discuss the events that led to the death of Jim’s family, it becomes clear that even within the reality of the film universe, there is a double standard. Not every Indian citizen’s life is judged as having the same value. Is Jim right to be mad? Are there limits to unpaid sacrifice, or is the point of sacrifice that it must go unrewarded? 

The film offers a fascinating counterpoint to the more individual American-style propaganda, which might preach the importance of collective identity but champions rogue individuals, as it suggests the social importance of sacrifice to maintain a healthy society. It’s an ideological proposition, but is it necessarily worse than what we’re being presented in American films? 

Pathaan is ultimately an extravagant and extraordinarily fun big-screen experience. There’s very little breathing room but it has enough tonal variations that you never feel strained or over-extended by the experience. For the uninitiated, it’s easy to see why Shah Rukh Khan is the biggest movie star in the world. His charm and talents are effortless and magnetic. The sheer entertainment value of films like Pathaan put American media conglomerates to shame. ■

Pathaan (directed by Siddharth Anand)

Pathaan opened in Montreal theatres on Friday, Feb. 3, and is now streaming Canada on Prime Video.

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