Prior to the release of Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan, the stage was rather dim for the film and the Indian actor. Not many Hindi films worked since the pandemic-induced shutdown of theatres and Khan had not featured in a single feature film since his last outing – a box office dud that came out in 2018 (Zero). The factors made the filmmakers, as well as industry trade experts apprehensive of the box office figures of the new film.
All the apprehensions were put to rest on January 25 when Pathaan released to unprecedented and unexpected numbers worldwide, becoming the highest Indian film opener ever. After completing seven weeks at the box office, Pathaan has roughly made worldwide gross earnings of $135 million in 50 days of the release. The Hindi version of the film made nett collections of $68.5 million in India alone. After all these days, the film continues to be screened across 800 screens in India and 135 cinemas in 19 other countries.
One of the major opposition against the film prior to the release was based on religion – some called for boycott against the film because Khan is a Muslim while a few others objected to the hero being named Pathaan. While one faction in India was worried that the film may deify Muslims and demonise Hindus, another faction feared it would malign the Muslims.
After the film released, we got to see that neither happened in the movie – Pathaan makes deliberate efforts to avoid pinning a religious identity to any of the major characters. The antagonist (Khan as Pathaan) narrates an emotional tale about his ambigous religious identity while the antagonist (Abraham’s Jim) is conveniently given a name that is neither Hindu nor Muslim. In fact, he makes it very clear several times that his acts against humanity have no religious motives, but only mercenary.
In fact several moments in the film come across as token idealism, but eventually boil down to catering to the masses. Several moviegoers hailed Pathaan as a movie that was a statement against the boycott calls, as well as a response to the hate brewing against Khan over the past few years. Most critics, however, believe otherwise.
Film journalist Jaideep Pandey agrees that the non-clear religious identity is not any brave statement but a safe bet. “Given the controversy surrounding Khan, it makes sense that the production would try to steer clear of any further controversy while still making a sound cinematic statement. I would not call it a brave move but a smart one,” he says
Explaining why the filmmakers may have done it, he adds, “The team, in my opinion, wisely, kept clear from any political statements. Any cinema is first and foremost a commercial endeavor and anything that undermines those aspects is bad for the team, the industry and the livelihood of many people involved with the industry. The prudent thing to do in the given settings was to keep clear of controversies and to let the movie do its work. If anything, doing so allowed the movie to reach a bigger and relatively less biased audience and that was good for the overall statement of the film.”
Senior Hindi film critic Ajay Brahmatmaj says in his review, “The film defies all logic and rationale. It may satisfy the usual movie goer with the package of action-romance-drama, but it does nothing when it comes to cinema.” About the poilitics of Pathaan, Brahmatmaj adds, “It is no brave move that the hero and villain are stripped devoid of their religious identity. I believe it is a safe bet, not a political statement.”
Pathaan is not a political film, but a typical masala enternainer and, must be given credit for the same. Reading betwene the lines for the film and expecting too much of a political stand in it is a far fetched task. A report by an Indian media watchedog said, “Pathaan proves that the Islamophobia of the right-wing gangs, which urged the boycott of the movie over (among other things) promoting ‘love jihad’, has been rejected by the ‘mainstream’ of Hindu society. Much like the movie itself, shot in the aesthetic of a high-definition video-game, that kind of political over-reading should be forgiven as an alluring illusion which bears little correspondence to reality.”
(All efforts to get responses from the producers YRF and director Siddharth Anand went unanswered.)