Pathaan (2023)

Rating: C+

Star: Siddharth Anand
Dir: Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, John Abraham, Dimple Kapadia

After three films which had operated largely independently (Anupriya Goenka appeared in Tiger Zinda Hai and War, but playing different characters), this is where the YRF Spy Universe truly began to come together. We got the return of Colonel Sunil Luthra from War, but most importantly, Salman Khan’s Tiger character had a supporting role here. It firmly put him in the same world as the hero, Pathaan, played by Shah Rukh Khan (no relation to Salman, though coincidentally, both were also born in 1965). The results of this synergy were a runaway hit, more than doubling the take of War. As at the end of 2023, it had recorded the sixth-biggest gross of all-time by an Indian film.

RAW agent Pathaan creates a covert unit, J.O.C.R. (Joint Operations and Covert Research), along with his commanding agent Major Nandini Grewal (the charmingly-named Kapadia). The aim is to use agents whom RAW have had to let go, for example due to injury, but whom Pathaan and Grewal feel still have something to offer the country. The group’s first mission is to stop a mercenary terrorist group called Outfit X, hired by a rogue Pakistani general to carry out attacks against India. Turns out, Outfit X is run by Jim (Abraham), a former RAW agent who went rogue after the government refused to ransom his kidnapped wife. Also part of Outfit X is undercover Pakistani agent – or is she? – Dr. Rubina “Rubai” Mohsin (Padukone).

In spy terms, this is very James Bond, and I’d say mid-eighties Bond at that, being particularly enthusiastic when it comes to racking up the air miles. For the locations here include (deep breath) India, Afghanistan, Spain, Dubai, Turkey, Italy, France, Russia and Siberia’s Lake Baikal. This aspect is fine. However, the execution in these settings, while sometimes spectacular in ambition, is not great quality. For example, there’s an extended chase through the streets of Dubai, which sees Pathaan and Jim fighting on top of a truck, and on a line between two helicopters. It’s never convincing. Now, by US standards, the budget was not huge – about $28 million. It’s still in the ten most expensive Hindi films ever. I was expecting better.

The best action is likely where Pathaan and Tiger team up to escape a train. The sequence ends in the kind of “I’m so sure” moment which only Bollywood would dare attempt. It’s glorious. But in general, it demonstrates this Khan is the lesser one in terms of screen charisma. The plot is nothing special either, with an extended heist sequence in Moscow that overstays its welcome. Although I appreciated both the way Jim is pretty smart, and the body-count among the good guys, which creates a sense of genuine danger. Another 007 similarity is the way it ends in the hero battling the bad guy, while there’s a countdown to destruction taking place in the background. Oh, yeah: and jet-packs. On the whole, while I was never bored, you’re probably better off watching an upper-tier Bond movie.

One footnote. As an example of the kind of shit Bollywood films have to face, some groups in India claimed that Pathaan “disrespects the saffron colour as Padukone features in a saffron bikini.” I’m not sure I could have even told you exactly what colour saffron was beforehand. But the locals in question seemed very upset about it, with the actors being burned in effigy. Somehow, complaints about The Sound of Freedom are kinda trivial in comparison…