Amid the sharply polarized climate in India today, the Hindi film “Pathaan” is being hailed not just for breaking box office records but for its resounding success despite boycott calls by the Hindu right wing. Helmed by Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, a Muslim, the film’s name refers to a Muslim of Afghan origin, and its patriotic hero promotes the idea of an inclusive rather than a Hindu nationalist India.
The popularity of the film, which has already grossed $100 million globally, is being seen as a pushback against the hate politics and the vitriolic hate agenda of the Hindu right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government.
As some have pointed out, the phenomenal audience numbers and skyrocketing ticket sales are a “love letter from India to Shah Rukh Khan.” Even defunct single-screen theaters opened up to screen the film. This is an expression of support and an “apology for what the state did to him & his family. And behind every clap is immense respect for the grace with which he fought back & won”(sic).
In October 2021, Khan’s son was suddenly arrested on trumped-up charges of drug trafficking. The trauma that Khan and his family endured as his son spent nearly a month in jail was prime-time fodder for television channels. In the eyes of the public, Khan was seen as a victim of vendetta politics, especially after his son was cleared of all charges within a year.
It is no secret that the Narendra Modi-led government has not been happy with Khan for not kowtowing to the regime and for being vocal about the growing religious intolerance in the country. This is quite unlike some of his peers, who have become mouthpieces for the Modi government. Even when his family was targeted, Khan did not lash out at the BJP government but took the legal route through the courts. That he chose to answer his critics through his work and not by playing the victim or ingratiating himself to the Modi regime was silently acknowledged by the Indian public.
No sooner was the film’s trailer released, than Hindutva activists found frivolous excuses calling for a boycott of the film, with a BJP minister even objecting to the saffron-colored bikini worn by the female actor Deepika Padukone. The color saffron is considered sacred by the Hindu right wing. Hindutva activists also demanded a song with the lyrics “besharam rang” (shameless color) be scrapped. They even labeled the film as “love jihad” and threatened to vandalize film screenings; soon #BoycottPathaan was the top trend on Twitter.
Outraged by the Hindu right wing’s continuous muscle-flexing against the popular actor, audiences who were not even fans of Bollywood “masala” (typically dramatic) films, ensured they booked tickets for the First Day First Show of “Pathaan” in an act of solidarity with Khan. As the movie picked up momentum, both within the country and in international markets, the “besharam rang” controversy blew over.
Significantly, the success of “Pathaan” is also a watershed for the Bollywood film industry, where films have increasingly become propaganda vehicles for the Modi government’s divisive agenda. A case in point is the film “Kashmir Files” that the establishment used to incite anti-Muslim violence, which I highlighted in an earlier article.
“Pathaan” portrays the story of an Indian spy (the titular character, Pathaan), who fights a rogue agent turned mercenary and saves the country from a deadly bioweapon attack.
Significantly, the film quite successfully demolishes some bogies that the Hindu right wing routinely deploys for fearmongering.
Pakistan is often portrayed as the “evil enemy,” devoid of any streak of humanity. “Pathaan” interestingly depicts the unthinkable – an operative of Pakistan’s ISI, Rubina Mohsin, works together with Pathaan to save humanity from annihilation. The India-Pakistan cooperation is further cemented by the Pakistani spy being the love interest of the Indian intelligence agent.
Although this narrative is a subversion of the India-Pakistan rivalry, which is the staple of jingoistic Bollywood blockbuster films, some Pakistani commentators have critiqued how “Bollywood is obsessed with Pakistan.” “Pathaan” has been banned in Pakistan, but the demand to see the film is high and has led to illegal screenings of the film.
The main lynchpin of the Hindu supremacist worldview is the depiction of the minority Muslim as a “traitor” and “anti-national.” Khan in the lead role of Pathaan identifies himself only as a proud Indian, “Bharat ka beta“ (son of India). Even when Rubina directly asks him if he is a Muslim, Pathaan chooses to not reply in the Hindu-Muslim binary trope. He says he was an orphan and the “country raised him” and he joined the Indian Army to repay that debt to his motherland.
The positing of the Muslim as a patriotic Indian is yet another departure from recent Bollywood historical movies, where Muslims have been portrayed as evil warmongers and invaders.
Perhaps “Pathaan’s” most enduring legacy will be its mainstreaming of a distinct kind of patriotism – not of the chest-thumping Hindutva nationalism variety but of an empathetic all-embracing nationalism.
In the current polarized atmosphere in India, the audience’s wholehearted validation of a mainstream Bollywood film hero who celebrates Eid every year with his adopted Afghan family, and who considers a Muslim nation, Afghanistan, almost a second home, is a resounding slap in the face of sectarian Hindutva votaries.
Interestingly, “Pathaan” is not a single hero-centric film. His ally in his fight to save humanity is an equally empowered woman, Rubina, who slays enemies with her quick reflex action and gun-toting abilities. In the conservative Hindutva male universe, women are never equals. The Shah Rukh Khan universe, however, is always distinguishable by its gender inclusivity.
It is no coincidence that at times Pathaan, the hero, and Shah Rukh Khan, the actor, are almost indistinguishable. Just as the heroic soldier is symbolic of inclusive India, Khan stands as a symbol of secular Bollywood – a Muslim actor happily married to a Hindu woman and who unhesitatingly roots for secular India through films like “Swades” and “Chak de India.”
For the Bollywood film industry, which had been increasingly vilified of late by the right wing and targeted with bans and boycotts, the commercial success of “Pathaan” is a harbinger of hope. And Khan has quite purposefully held up Bollywood cinema as a unifying force for a nation of diverse faiths. Addressing a press conference recently, Khan said, “This is what makes cinema: Amar, Akbar, Anthony, there are no differences any of us have for anybody. We love you…”
“Amar, Akbar, Anthony” is a yesteryear Hindi film that celebrates unity in diversity.
For the superstar, well past his prime at 57 years and desperate for box office success after two flop films, “Pathaan” is a vindication of his relevance. His “eight pack abs” notwithstanding, what has attracted both the loyal SRK fans and opponents of Hindutva is their love for Shah Rukh Khan and their resolve to defeat the hate agenda of the majoritarian right wing forces.