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PATHAAN (2023). Spy thriller starring Shah Rukh Khan, left, Deepika Padukone and John Abraham, directed by Siddharth Anand. Credit: Yash Raj Films

Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone in Pathaan.Yash Raj Films

  • Pathaan
  • Directed by Siddharth Anand
  • Written by Siddharth Anand, Abbas Tyrewala and Shridhar Raghavan
  • Starring Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone and John Abraham
  • Classification 14A; 146 mins
  • Now playing in theatres

Critic’s Pick

Aandhi aaye ya toofan, we’re going to watch Pathaan, I thought, as the snowfall warnings on the radio Wednesday morning cautioned people to avoid travelling. In other words, come hell or highwater, we’re going to make it to the downtown Toronto theatre to watch this Bollywood blockbuster. As the kids prepared to leave for school, I told them, “We’ll leave home at 4:30 p.m. today. Be ready.”

“Oh. we’re watching it in the theatre?” my son asked, remembering that the last Indian movie he saw was RRR on Netflix.

I couldn’t wait for them to watch the movie starring Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan. I was hoping they would get a proper Bollywood movie experience that cinema-goers in India have indulged in when thronging to theatres to watch Pathaan: whistling at dialogue delivery, dancing in the aisles and whooping at the action sequences. Maybe because of the mid-week opening, the sold-out theatre we watched the movie in was small. And the audience was polite, only occasionally clapping and laughing at the onscreen shenanigans.

There’s a lot riding on Pathaan. Hindi cinema has been in a slump since the pandemic, whereas the Telugu film RRR wowed audiences in India and abroad, even vying for Oscar attention this year. Khan, despite his star power, hasn’t been seen in films for four years, and his past few outings were failures.

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But I am here to tell you that Bollywood and Shah Rukh Khan are back, aided in no small part by other celebrities such as Deepika Padukone and John Abraham, in this slick action-thriller.

Don’t bother looking for a plot. To be honest, things like a coherent narrative arc are not top priority in such action flicks. The story is merely a ruse to take the audience on a whirlwind globetrotting tour as beautiful specimens of good guys take on bad guys, the odd gal thrown in the middle somewhere. Jaw-dropping stunts that defy laws of aerodynamics and logic are performed in front of green screens. Smouldering glances, sly grins and hairography are delivered in exquisite slo-mo.

If you insist on a story, here goes: The eponymous Pathaan (Khan) is an Indian soldier whose bones may be broken, but not his spirit. Along with other former Indian agents, he devises an agency to take on a terror organization called Outfit X, headed by Jim (Abraham), a former RAW (Indian spy) agent gone rogue. Outfit X is made up of ex-spy agents from around the world, including ex-ISI (Pakistani spy) operative Rubai (Padukone).

Open this photo in gallery:
PATHAAN (2023). Spy thriller starring Shah Rukh Khan (shown), Deepika Padukone and John Abraham, directed by Siddharth Anand. Credit: Yash Raj Films

Pathaan tries to marry a Hollywood-style action film with Bollywood camp.Yash Raj Films

At the start of the film, when India scraps Article 370, which gives Kashmir a degree of autonomy, Pakistani ISI agent Qadir hires Jim to destroy India. Jim happily obliges, since he has his own personal vendetta. The plot then jumps back and forth as we learn how Pathaan, Jim and Rubai came to be who they are. The latter third of the movie involves saving India from a deadly virus.

The script is careful to point out that Outfit X has no ideological affiliations and throws in references to outfits like Daesh, Boko Haram and Aleph for good measure. Rubai works with Pathaan for a variety of reasons, in yet another display of Indian and Pakistani spies working and flirting together after that other Bollywood spy hit, the Ek Tha Tiger series. (Watch out for its third instalment this Diwali!)

It’s a smart subversion of the subtle, and sometimes overt, nationalistic jingoism creeping into Indian movies of late. When asked about his religious identity, Pathaan responds that he was found abandoned in a movie theatre – a clever reference to Khan’s own persona as a movie star. The meta moments don’t stop there. Khan and Padukone toss off cheeky lines that reference their roles in past and recent movies, which are sure to draw a chuckle from Bollywood aficionados.

Each new Indian movie seems to up the action ante; whereas RRR’s central character Bheem threw motorcycles in the air, Jim and Pathaan wrangle with helicopters. None of this advances the plot of course – all that matters here are the stars who have come out to play in front of a camera that loves them.

First of all, there’s King Khan himself – and I am not even a fan of the Bollywood superstar. But Khan, at 57, brings back some of that twinkle-eyed charm that has won him legions of admirers. Yes, he’s ripped. But it’s the way he teases out his signature grin that holds your attention. Padukone looks super sexy, even if her butt-kicking is a little more stilted. Unfortunately, like most female characters in Indian movies, her role is peripheral.

The real revelation is Abraham, who is lookin’ fiiiiiine, if you know what I mean. Never known for his acting – even though he made an attempt in Deepa Mehta’s Water – Abraham smirks his way through this role. There’s also a cameo by another famous Khan, which had audiences hollering.

Pathaan is by no means flawless. It tries to marry a Hollywood-style action film with Bollywood camp. Sometimes it delivers, and sometimes the script is just too banal. It could also be edited more judiciously. But the film entertains and leaves you grooving to an infectious tune at the end. Aur kya chahiye? (That’s “what else do you want?” in Hindi.)

Special to The Globe and Mail

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