The verdict was out on the very day of its release. Pathaan, the Shah Rukh Khan starrer, was set to be a blockbuster. And so it is – in the first week after it hit the theatres, the film has grossed over Rs 600 crore worldwide, and over Rs 300 crore in the domestic market.
It is shattering all manner of box-office records as screaming, ecstatic fans throng cinema halls everywhere and lap up the gorgeous King Khan’s latest turn as a Mission Impossible-style action hero (but did we ever see such jaw-dropping abs on Tom Cruise?), a patriot nonpareil, prepared to shed the last drop of his blood to save his country, and, indeed, the world.
The monster success of Pathaan is not just an affirmation of the 57-year-old Shah Rukh Khan’s mesmeric hold on the public imagination. It is not merely proof that even after three decades in the film industry, SRK has what it takes to deliver a giant hit and lift Bollywood out of the doldrums into which it had fallen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The success of Pathaan is also exhilarating because it shows that despite the best efforts of some of our political leaders to spread hate and divisiveness, Indians retain their essential humanism. They can and will reject hate after a point, especially if its object is to vilify that which they hold dear.
The right-wing fusillade against Pathaan started more than a month before it was released. Narottam Mishra, the home minister of Madhya Pradesh, who is usually first off the block when it comes to banning this or that for their alleged moral turpitude, decreed that the film’s song Besharam Rang, featuring a stunning Deepika Padukone in a variety of skimpy swimwear, was picturised with noxious intent. Her saffron bikini was particularly objectionable, the BJP leader said, and declared that unless the offensive bits were excised, the film may not be shown in the state.
What happened next followed an all too familiar pattern: the call to oppose the movie was quickly picked up by the proxies of Hindutva groups and their troll armies on social media. Until the movie released on January 25, #BoycottBollywood and #BoycottPathaan trended on social media, right-wing goons ripped off the movie’s posters, and one wondered if Pathaan would suffer the same fate as Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha, which got a lukewarm reception, due in part to a vicious campaign against yet another Khan who bestrides Bollywood.
But perhaps the common man had had enough. When the guns were trained on one more beloved icon, who happened to be Muslim, perhaps it simply did not go down well with people. Perhaps they recalled SRK’s ordeal in 2021 when his son Aryan was kept behind bars and denied bail for almost a month, on charges of drug use which could not be proven. Perhaps they remembered the way the superstar had maintained a dignified silence on the episode, even though it stank of unabashed persecution. And when Pathaan released in the face of this pumped-up, manufactured hate, perhaps people decided to repudiate it by showing up in droves at the theatres.
Sure, the movie is a fast-paced crowd-pleasing cocktail of spectacular action scenes, deshbhakti, evil Pakistani general, a deadly tussle between “good Indian” and “bad Indian”, and a comely Pakistani spy (played by, who else, but the long-stemmed Deepika Padukone). And it has a subtext that is of significance in these communally polarised times. The hero is an orphan – he does not know if he was born a Hindu or a Muslim – and was christened ‘Pathaan’ after he saved an Afghan village from a missile attack. In other words, his only identity is that of a patriotic Indian who will always be on the side of the good.
That Pathaan is a hit is not a surprise. But would the scale of it have been as mind-boggling if King Khan not been perceived to have been unjustly targeted? After all, the film is also gloriously mindless in parts and requires you to suspend disbelief in large doses.
In truth, the euphoric response to Pathaan, one that is pushing its revenue collection to stratospheric levels, is an outpouring of love and support for a superstar who shuns controversy but has evidently not pledged his fealty to the powers that be. The mood of the people was not lost on the politicians, and BJP leaders, including the prime minister himself, suddenly started urging people not to give calls for boycotting films.
In other words, if the pushback against hate is strong enough, its purveyors will backtrack. And therein lies the real triumph of Pathaan. You never know what will trigger a popular revolt against the poison of divisiveness. Maybe, just maybe, Pathaan marks the beginning of that turnaround.