Siddharth Anand's sporadically silly actioner is a star vehicle done just right
He is an old trouper living off the grid. He’s been out of action for a couple of years. He comes shrouded in fanfare and intrigue. When people talk about him, in high circles, they get “uncomfortable”. He’s a keeper of his word. He is a patriot with a Muslim name, and a son of this soil, though his true religion is the movies. His name is Pathaan, played by Shah Rukh Khan, and they are one and the same.
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, John Abraham, Dimple Kapadia, Ashutosh Rana
Director: Siddharth Anand
Every once in a while, we need our superstars in unadulterated form. Think of it as not fan servicing but fan sensitivity. Tom Cruise—smiling superciliously in films like Top Gun: Maverick, telling the audience he’s got them covered—is the very embodiment of that shtick. In contrast to Cruise, who’s practically always working, and who is three years his senior, SRK has been on a genuine sabbatical, understandably stymied by the poor receptions of Zero (2018) and Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017). Now he returns, riding high and again in Siddharth Anand’s Pathaan. It is an action movie that’s really a soft shell of wrapping, disclosing the SRK delivery machine it has packed underneath.
In War (2019), also directed by Siddharth Anand, Hrithik Roshan played a superspy gone rogue named Kabir. Along with Salman Khan’s Tiger, the character buffed up what has become the YRF Spy Universe. Pathaan, a battle-scarred soldier who now leads a cover unit called JOCR, rounds out the triumvirate. He’s played by Shah Rukh Khan with the kind of gusto that’s both infectious and a bit, well, extreme. The 57-year-old actor smirks, squints, and deepens his voice. He probably does more action than all his 90-plus films combined. He nods to older hits like Don 2 and Darr (“K..K..K…, Karen”). He has grown his hair. Pathaan is SRK leaving it all on the field, going the extra mile when it’s painfully obvious the standard laps won’t do.
Thankfully, he’s got help. John Abraham holds the screen as Jim, leader of private terror group Outfit X (Siddharth and screenwriter Shridhar Raghavan aren’t the best with names; a prison in the film is simply called ‘Black Prison’). After a long-winded first half, much of it spent on action set-pieces interrupted by gritty backstories, we learn of Outfit X’s plan: destroying India with bioterrorism. “They work on contract, not ideology,” says Nandini (Dimple Kapadia), Pathaan’s boss, like someone describing an IT cell. We also meet Rubina, played by Deepika Padukone, a leggy lass who becomes the mediator — some would say death trap — between Jim and Pathaan.
Like War, Pathaan spares no expense on its action design. Name a vehicle—hummers, trucks, trains, choppers, jetwings—and there’s a chase or combat sequence built around it. I loved the eclectic selection of weapons: in his first fight, Pathaan begins with a pair of improvised escrima sticks, before switching coolly to a shotgun. Jim, meanwhile, favours a small shiny crescent knife among all the endless options at his disposal. The VFX in Pathaan is not very consistent but I suppose most audiences will gladly turn a blind eye. I also wish there was more wit and ingenuity to the action choreography. Witnessed in the wake of RRR, the various rope-based escapes and manoeuvres in this film feel undercooked.
Shah Rukh Khan swims solidly through all the chaos. He is enjoyable in the big action moments but it’s the smaller touches that really sell the performance. During an intense double-cross, he suddenly crinkles up pretty, ditching heaviness for the sort of scrappy romanticism that marks his best roles. The film somehow works best in moments where Rubina is in charge and Pathaan is dustily tagging along, like their Spain interlude. Deepika gets to kick some serious butt, and her scenes with John are just as effective. “Who says love only happens at first sight?” Rubina tells Jim beseechingly, poetically. Only Deepika Padukone can be trusted with delivering such lines in the midst of an action film (and escape unscathed).
There is a funny Salman Khan cameo – the only justifiable one in a while. I won’t spoil anything further but say that Pathaan goes about its business with humour and diligence. As an actioner, it’s neither irredeemably silly nor overly maudlin (like the recent Bond movies). For the most part, it keeps its head low and — as befits a star vehicle – lets its heroes do the talking. There are still some miles left in these old machines. As they assure themselves in the post-credit scene, the young ones just won’t cut it.
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