Paathan: Is the King of Bollywood back?
By Nimra Amir, March 6 2023—
Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers to the movie Paathan.
Shah Rukh Khan is known to most viewers of Indian cinema as “the King of Bollywood” because of his notable career. From his success as the villainous lead in the early 1990s with movies like Baazigar and Darr to his even greater success as the romantic lead in the late 1990s and early 2000s with movies like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and Devdas. His success even carried into the late 2000s and early 2010s with movies like Om Shanti Om and Chennai Express. Since then, Khan has experienced a steady stagnation in his career with poorly received movies like Jab Harry Met Sejal and Zero.
After a five-year hiatus, Khan has returned with Paathan — a Yash Raj Films’ (YRF) action thriller, set in the YRF Spy Universe among movies like Ek Tha Tiger, Tiger Zinda Hai and War. Khan plays an exiled patriotic Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) agent, Pathaan, who must work with former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agent, Rubina (Deepika Padukone), to take down a rogue former RAW agent, Jim (John Abraham). Jim is working with rogue Pakistani general Qadir (Manish Wadha) to spread a fatal lab-generated virus in India after the country revoked the special area status for Kashmir.
The plot device of a patriotic Indian agent fighting against a rogue Indian agent with some connection to Pakistan is one that Bollywood has overused but now it is used with the addition of a corny COVID-19 reference. In fact, Khan, himself, has already played a patriotic Indian agent fighting against a rogue Indian agent in Main Hoon Na during the peak of his career. But unlike Paathan, Main Hoon Na made more of an attempt at political nuance by building the plot and characters beyond the action scenes. Whereas, in Paathan the action scenes are all there is in the movie.
Right away, Jim is introduced in a Marvel-style entrance in Dubai, UAE for a Fast & Furious-style fight with Paathan on the roads. Following this scene, the two fight each other on a beach in Spain, on a frozen lake in Russia, in an underground bunker in India and in an abandoned house in the middle of some desert. This may sound cool but it was not. The action scenes are not only unrealistic but also feel cheap for a movie with such a high budget like in scenes with overused green-screened explosions backed with dramatic sound effects.
The only cool action scene on the train in Russia is also quickly ruined by a cameo from known abuser and actor, Salman Khan.
If only the plot and characters were more developed then the drawbacks of the action scenes would not be as important. But throughout the movie, we learn very little about Paathan, Rubina and Jim outside of their service and even what we learn about them within their service is superficial — like the fact that Paathan is an orphan and Rubina is a victim of political torture was reduced to just a reason that they became agents. These experiences for Paathan and Rubina are complex experiences which could be expanded so the viewer could better connect with the characters and their service as agents but instead these experiences are just quickly mentioned in conversation before the movie returns to the action scenes.
Most importantly, the fact that Paathan is called Paathan is not because he is actually a Paathan but because he saved a school in a Paathani village during his service in Afghanistan. For his name but also for the name of the movie, you would expect there would be a better representation of an ethnic group instead of just a quick comment in conversation but again, that would mean building a plot and characters that the writers clearly did not care for.
There is no doubt that Khan, because of his notable career with an extensive catalogue of iconic movies that still resonates with a whole generation of viewers, deserves the title of “the King of Bollywood.” But as his career continues, his recent movies like Paathan which are cash grabs at worst and lacklustre at best do not represent the title well. The king is not back.