There is a place in the song “Ai Re Ai Re” from Rangeela where Aditya Narayan sings ‘Horlicks peene main tension hai, doodh peene main tension hai, tension tension tension.’ Cutely rapped by the son of the legendary Udit Narayan, and the only time Aditya Narayan would get as cute would be when many years later at an airport when he would say to a recalcitrant aviation executive: “Teri chaddi naheen utaari toh” (a line I am told progressive websites in the Indian space inspire themselves with when they make-up investigative reports like they did on collaboration between Meta and the BJP gormint because they too will go to any lengths to take off the saffron “chaddi”), these words keep ringing in my ear as I contemplate whether to watch Pathaan in theaters.
On the one hand, I am supposed to boycott Pathaan. I am supposed to do so, because we all need to stand up to nepotism, even though Shahrukh Khan happens to be perhaps the very few examples we have in India of an individual who has become a global brand, with absolutely no family push from behind. But no I am mistaken, it is not nepotism this time, it is because Shahrukh Khan represents Urduwood, where even the song “Chaiya Chaiya” is a dog whistle for Love Jihad, and no this is not a joke this is an actual piece of analysis, what happens when the extreme right tries to co-opt the left’s “progressive analysis rubric” where nothing is as it is, a song isn’t a song and a movie isn’t a movie, but a weapon of identity, where one group uses every cultural artifact it controls in order to humiliate and dominate the other.
No, you stupid, people will tell me, it’s not the person, it’s the theme. Pathaan depicts a sympathetic ISI agent collaborating with RAW, as terrible as “Aman Ki Asha” as you ever saw, and that’s why this should be boycotted. Because of course, out of all the believable things shown in Pathaan, of laws of gravity being broken as easily as traffic laws in Gurgaon, the one smidgen of what-we-believe-the-audience-would-take-seriously-and-extrapolate-to-“Pakistan is a friendly country” is that part of the narrative copied-pasted from Ek Tha Tiger. But no, the problem is really the fact that they show a rogue RAW agent, again a plot point lifted from multiple James Bond movies, the oldest genre trope that there is, an indicator of Pathaan’s sinister design to “blame India”. Even though, the movie clearly identifies Pakistan as the villain (unlike Main Hoon Na, which actually pushes the “both India and Pakistan are equal victims of terror” liberal clap-trap) and is infused with a lot of flag-waving patriotism, which any commercial movie that wishes to succeed puts dollops of, because JNU, college campuses in metropolitan cities, the staff of “The Wire”, and “progressive Twitter” by themselves cannot make a movie recoup its investment.
But Pathaan is a declaration of community pride if you just look at its name. I am kind of outraged no one has been outraged by this, and called for a boycott. They would have had, if a movie by the name of Rajput or Kshatriya was made. No on of course did in the 80s and 90s when movies of this name were actually released, but in today’s world, that would not have been the case, because such names would absolutely be in the firing line for internet progressives. Somehow this outrage has passed us by, and I think I may know the reason.
On another hand, I am supposed to watch Pathaan. Pathaan, as per the great Vir Sanghvi, is a battle for the soul of India, and the last time something like this happened was when Dara Sikhoh fought Aurangzeb, or was it when Modi took on Kejriwal, I forget when. Watching Pathaan in theaters is the way to show the “Hindu fascists” that they may take our lives, but they will never take our freedom. Buying a ticket, and a few, is a symbol of resistance, a smack in the face of the boycott gang aligned with the Hindu right, a flickering flame of democracy in a land where democracy no longer exists, because the people we don’t like have won elections at the center a few times. And every rupee that goes into Shahrukh Khan’s purse will be one that does not go into Adani’s and Ambani’s, and for a man who spent money on buying Pat Cummins and Mashrafe Mortaza and Aaron Finch for his franchise, that’s not too much to give.
On the third hand, I am supposed to watch Pathan but also boycott Pathaan. I am not making this up, but I have read, on Twitter, the source of all truths, that Shahrukh Khan should not be a cause celebre for progressives, because he did not speak for CAA and JNU, in the way Deepika Padukone did (she also endorsed Rahul Gandhi when Congress ruled, so definitely courageous). Hence exulting at the success of Pathaan is fine for giving the Modi government a black eye, but let us also not lionize Shahrukh Khan. Yes, despite speaking for Pakistan as a good neighbor (something that I personally wish Shahrukh Khan had not done) and speaking against the othering of Muslims, long before it became a Modi-only thing, Shahrukh Khan is sufficiently lacking in progressive temper, and so while you should definitely watch this movie, because that would get the chaddis in a twist, you also should not watch it, because it also glorifies India.
So now to be a bit serious. As someone who was one of the few commentators then to speak out against “Slumdog Millionaire” and as someone who found “PK” to be carefully-constructed Hinduphobia passed off as “against all religion”, long before it became viral to do so, I find this posturing around Pathaan on both sides to be hilarious. Before Lal Singh Chadda released, I had said it will be a flop because it is a terrible idea (transplanting a narrative based on American history to India) that would not warrant a trip to the theater during a covid scare, and not because a boycott would succeed. When it bombed, I was told no it bombed because of the “aroused” Hindu right wing voice which has found critical influence using Whatsapp, and not because it was a movie no one felt any passion for, and hey what can you do when provided with such data-driven argument?
Of course, they are not going to accept the success of Pathaan either. The true believers will say that the apparent commercial success of Pathaan is all paid PR and that all screens are empty and the people watching the movie are paid actors and look this theater is empty on this show.This mimics the world view of many who believe Modi wins only because of a sinister trifecta of election bonds, hacked election boxes, and Godi media. In this world of polarized echo chambers, the truth matters less in front of belief.
But, going by what seems to be stellar box office numbers, this just goes to show that people just care for entertainment, entertainment and entertainment, and as long as you can produce a theater-only spectacle that cannot be fully experienced in OTT, and you have a mega-star doing nothing “arty” (no Zero or Fan please), the money will flow, no matter what neo Marxist rhetoric left over from Buzzfeed may condemn you for, and the irony now is that the rhetoric is now used by both sides of the political divide.
As to me, I will not be watching Pathaan in theaters, instead waiting for it to drop on OTT, when I will watch it with a drink, in the same way I watched the previous entry in the “YRF spy universe”—War. I am going to do this not because of my politics or my need to make a statement, but simply because I am pretty sure that the entertainment I will get if I pay full ticket price will not be adequate return on my investment in terms of price and time. (At home, I can simply turn off the TV if its get too painful). Years ago, I would have gone to the theaters to see a Shahrukh flick, and as someone who went to see Qaid Main Hai Bulbul starring Bhagyasree’s husband Himalaya I cannot claim to be discerning connoisseur of high-class cinematic entertainment, but now older, I think I have lost some of my enthusiasm for stuff I know will be formula. And I am not even sure how much of Shahrukh Khan I will even get to see here, given the VFX tendency to buff up the muscles and add a few more packs, in a Ship of Theseus way, and even if it is him fully in flesh, this is a Salman Khan franchise, catering to his fan-base, and I am definitely not in that set. To be honest, something about a “YRF spy universe” from the guys who brought you the Mohabbatein film universe where even ChatGPT cannot tell you how many love stories there were in Mohabbatein, is inherently off-putting, and I think I will indeed enjoy it more if I saw it half-drunk.
But please do feel free to carry on on social media, please do feel free to think of it as the world. Please feel free to, cause I will be doing it myself.
3 thoughts on “Why I haven’t watched Pathaan yet”
Wow!! Just wow!!
Tooo many really looong looong sentences
& disappointed that there was no mention or reference to me at all….
Well, next post perhaps ;-))
Thanks for writing such a clear piece (as usual :)). Comes as a validation for many who continue to be exasperated by the unnecessarily polarizing arguments. It’s like people have become so adept at “reading between the lines”, they uncover entire plots when there were no sentences to begin with. In the meanwhile, Sonam Wangchuk remains under house arrest, and it will take more than 3 idiots to get our focus on things that matter.