Phenomenally entertaining and consistently engaging, Pathaan, for all the derivative genre components it compiles, is a spy thriller that crackles with energy. It goes the distance riding on the insouciant and cocky charm that Shah Rukh Khan, in his first full-fledged appearance on the big screen since 2018's Zero, brings to an exercise that is at once excessive and exciting.
It isn't, however, the superstar alone who propels Pathaan, which plays to the gallery with abandon. The writing by Shridhar Raghavan is smart although not everything in the unabashedly fantastical film makes total sense. Abbas Tyrewala, who peppers Pathaan with gunpowder-dry punch lines, contributes in no small measure to keeping this action-packed movie on the boil all the way till the end.
On the technical side, too, Pathaan packs a massive punch. The cinematography by Satchith Paulose is from the topmost drawer. Editor Aarif Sheikh lends the film a pacy rhythm that leaves no room for dull passages. And the pulpy panache of Siddharth Anand's directorial sleights is impressive. They combine to make Pathaan a thoroughly riveting movie that instantly gets the willing suspension of disbelief that it demands and thrives on.
The ease is, of course, facilitated majorly by the presence of Shah Rukh Khan, who does not miss a trick in jettisoning his King of Romance persona and donning the garb of an unflappable, unstoppable action hero. He does not let the effort behind the transition show one bit. He sails through the role and the film as if this is what he was always meant to do.
The performances from most of the other principal actors - Deepika Padukone, Dimple Kapadia and Ashutosh Rana - are perfectly in tune with the style and substance of Pathaan. The film hits its straps without wasting any time. The actors, especially Deepika Padukone, do likewise, getting into the swing of things in a jiffy.
The heroine of Pathaan is an ISI agent with a back story that makes her the inscrutable and unpredictable person she is. Her enigma ensnares the hero more than once and provides the film's biggest twists. Deepika Padukone pulls off the dual act of an irrepressible femme fatale and a committed soldier with elan.
However, John Abraham as the very, very bad guy who has a score to settle with the nation he once served with distinction does not exude the level of menace that you would expect from a man wounded and incensed to the point of insanity.
The most striking aspect of Pathaan, a masala entertainer at heart, is that it has the gumption to go beyond the parameters of a massy movie and produce sharp, insightful moments that serve as a commentary on pressing issues of the day. It is far more about humanity than about shallow patriotism, which, coming at a time when the Mumbai movie industry thrives on the othering and demonising of communities to further a dominant political narrative, is an act of courage that deserves to be celebrated.
Although it is essentially about people going for the jugular and centres on a villain who plans to unleash a biological weapon on civilians, Pathaan adopts a pacifist approach to war and espionage. It offers a counter-narrative to the Islamophobic thrillers and historical epics that the Mumbai industry has of late been dumping upon the audience without the slightest attempt to disguise its prejudices and propensity for falsification.
Pathaan is in fact a far cry from Yash Raj Films' previous spy drama War, which was also directed by Siddharth Anand. Pathaan is neither jingoistic nor does it direct all its ire at one nation. It does open with a Pakistani general plotting a reprisal against India on the day of the revocation of Article 370, but the villain of the film is not a hate-spewing mullah but a venomous RAW agent gone rogue.
Although the badman's reasons are palpably faulty, he contributes his mite to the discourse that Pathaan engages in. A mercenary who works on behalf of terrorists no matter of what hue they are, he says he does not believe in the notion of a nation and borders do not matter to him. Nations and borders are created by the powerful to lull people into submission, he thunders, implying that he has broken the shackles in order to make a point.
Jim (John Abraham), whose first appearance on the screen triggers a violent confrontation with a hero who grew up in an orphanage and owes a debt of gratitude to an Afghan family that saved him after a secret mission left him severely wounded.
When asked by Dr. Rubina Mohsin (Deepika Padukone) if he is a Mussalman (this is the only time in the film that anybody's religious identity is broached), the male protagonist reveals that he does not know who his parents were. The nation assumed the form of a mother and sustained me, so I decided to serve the nation the way I would have served my mother if I had one, he asserts with just a hint of emotion.
He isn't a steely hero who is beyond injury and pain. He needs a painkiller when violent adversaries inflict wounds on his body. The medicine is offered to him by another member of the YRF Spy Universe in the course of a fight sequence staged in a hurtling train somewhere in Russia.
With Shah Rukh Khan joining Tiger (Salman Khan) and Kabir (Hrithik Roshan) to complete a trio of invincible YRF spies, expect a lot of big-screen explosions, extremes and extravagances in the coming years. But it is doubtful if anything would be as big, ballsy or unalloyed as Pathaan. It comes closer to what mass-oriented Hindi cinema once used to be than any other recent star vehicle has done.
Pathaan swings and strikes with all the style and aplomb in the world. It will be a hard act to follow.