Pathaan: Cinema over Politics

03 Feb,2023



By Shailesh Kapoor


Shailesh KapoorTill about three weeks ago, there seemed imminent danger that Yash Raj Films’ Shah Rukh Khan starrer Pathaan, which released on Jan 25 this year, will have to face headwinds from several right wing affiliated groups. There were threats to disrupt the film’s release, over ‘issues’ that can best be described as manufactured. Our news channels did their job in blowing up these trivial issues (the orange dress objection is outrageously amusing), and it seemed that the film may struggle to get a proper release in some of the states.


Today, on the 10th day of the film’s release, it has gone on to break every possible box-office record in India, ad remains in contention to be the highest Hindi film grosser of all time. It has revived the overseas box-office of Hindi films, and ushered in the SRK 2.0 era. The protests have disappeared, as have the pro-right news channel debates. A comment from the Prime Minister, urging his party workers to stay away from talking about films, was a command too direct to ignore.


There’s a lot to learn from the unfolding of events over the last two weeks. Boycott campaigns targeting Hindi films had been normalised in 2022, and when a film failed, a large part of the failure was attributed to these campaigns. In many cases, those involved with the film (actor, director, producer, etc.) fueled this narrative themselves, as if to exonerate themselves of the responsibility of having failed to make an audience-friendly film.


With Pathaan, the theory that politically-motivated campaigns can impact the fate of a film at the box-office have been laid to rest. As long as a film can release, in a way that it’s safe to visit a theatre, the audience will embrace it on merit. Which is not to say that the audience’s political leanings will not impact their movie choices. In an analysis published on the Ormax Media website in 2021, films that propagate nationalist ideas, such as Uri: The Surgical Strike and Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, showed stronger audience traction among those supporting the ruling party (BJP).


But these films wore their politics on their sleeve. In Pathaan’s case, there is little in the content that’s overtly political. Taking a simplistic and safe approach, the film packages its ideas of secularism and ‘nation over religion’ in a way that’s largely apolitical, and never sermonic or ideological. The origin story of the protagonist, Pathaan, has a distinctly secular ring to it. But it’s never used as a messaging device. The film, primarily a crowd-pleasing entertainer, makes its political points, but leaves it to the audience to interpret them, through their own political lens.


The audiences are smart enough to tell a real controversy from a fake one. That Shah Rukh Khan is a Muslim is not an argument this country will buy, to not watch a film. Ironically, this may have propelled some of his fans, who belong to all religions and political ideologies, to support the film even more. As if to make the point that even though cinema can tell political stories, it is not a medium for politicians to play their murky games.


SRK’s Amar Akbar Anthony comment at a recent press conference, held to celebrate the film’s success, is the only authentic political message in or around Pathaan. In a way, that comment sums up why the inane controversy around the film fizzled out. Because unlike the film, it did not appeal to its target audience.


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