The number one film in Australia last weekend was Avatar: The Way of Water. And coming in at number two was … Pathaan. It was also number two in the United Kingdom. And even more remarkably, Pathaan was the number three film in America—as in, the United States of America. In India, it’s the biggest box office success of all time.
If you’ve never heard of Pathaan, you’re probably not Indian. And if you’re not Indian, you won’t realise what a beacon of hope the film represents for Hindu-Muslim relations and the preservation of peace in nuclear-armed South Asia. Many Indians might not quite realise it either.
Pathaan is the latest breakthrough blockbuster from Bollywood, starring the veteran Indian action start Shah Rukh Khan as the eponymous late-middle-aged secret agent ‘Pathaan’. The name is based on the Hindi/Urdu pronunciation of ‘Pashtun’, the majority ethnic group of southern Afghanistan.
In the film, agent Pathaan earned his pseudonym when, as a young soldier, he saved the children of an Afghan madrassa from an American missile strike. He was adopted by the village as a honorary son—a connection made all the more poignant by the fact that Pathaan was himself an orphan. Indian films are nothing if not melodramatic.
In line with the expectations of the genre, Pathaan flies around the world fighting a shadowy stateless terrorist, chasing MacGuffins in Somalia, Dubai, Delhi, Mallorca, Paris, Moscow, and (in the film’s climax) Afghanistan. In a touching twist, Pathaan’s adoptive village family rally around him to thwart the villain and save the day.
And at the very end, the discarded old agent Pathaan is welcomed back into the fold. He is commissioned to rebuild the shattered spy agency—and set up a series of sequels, something that must be very welcome to the 57-year-old Khan. Until the overnight success of Pathaan, he had been widely written off as yesterday’s man.
So far, so Hollywood. But the story behind the story also has a distinctively Bollywood flavor. Khan is, as his name would indicate, Muslim. His character, an orphan, is portrayed as a literal child of Mother India. The agent Pathaan is loyal to the point of self-destruction, patriotic to the point of ridicule, and … unabashedly Muslim.
Pathaan’s love interest, Rubina (played by Deepika Padukone), is a Pakistani secret agent. Of course, Pathaan and Rubina must learn to trust each other despite the tensions between their countries, etc. Controversially (in India), not only is Rubina portrayed sympathetically, but the film suggests that there are sensible people within Pakistan’s intelligence agencies who want a new start, opposing state terrorism and hoping for the end of Pakistan’s forever war with India.
Perhaps even more controversially, India’s intelligence agency is portrayed as waterboarding the captured agent Rubina, despite Pathaan’s assurances that she would be safe in Indian custody. When Pathaan rescues her, he explains that “sometimes fear makes people do terrible things”. In a country where the disparagement of state institutions is criminalised as sedition, this is serious stuff.
Had Pathaan been any less in-your-face patriotic, it might have been written off as political posturing by the cultural elite: in majority-Hindu India, a heroic Muslim agent saves the day by reaching out to (and falling in love with) the historic enemy, Pakistan. Indeed, some Hindu activist groups seem to see the film in just that light. India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, who is closely aligned with Hindu organisations, went so far as to warn his party workers not to “grab headlines” by making “unnecessary comments” about movies.
On the other side of India’s culture wars, the character of Pathaan might be seen as playing into the ‘loyal Muslim’ trope: any Hindu is automatically accepted as being authentically Indian, but loyal Muslims must prove their Indian identity by ostentatiously demonstrating extreme patriotism. Hindu Indians can criticise their own country out of a sincere desire to improve it, but the dangerous Muslim man must always wear an Indian flag pin to show that he is not a secret Pakistani at heart.
Yet anyone who actually watches Pathan—certainly any Westerner—will see that both criticisms fall flat in the face of the plain and simple patriotism that suffuses every minute of the film. Pathaan is no jaded latter-day James Bond. He is convinced of the fundamental good of his country, and convinced that even when his country does something bad, it does so for the greater good.
His Muslim identity notwithstanding, Pathaan is portrayed as being 100 per cent Indian.
Indian and Indian diaspora audiences seem not to mind that fact—at all. And they don’t seem to mind the film’s suggestion that a younger generation of Pakistanis may be ready to talk about peace with India. As it happens, the film has been released exactly as social turmoil in Pakistan has led to an opening for rapprochement with India. Pathaan may play some small roll in priming Indians to accept that opportunity.
India’s culture warriors tried but failed to make an issue of Pathaan. Indian audiences are having none of it. They seem to accept as unproblematic the notions that a true Indian patriot can be Muslim, that there are many good people in Pakistan, and that their country is not defined by religious communalism.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who follows the actual data coming out of India, instead of being led astray by the shrill rhetoric of newspaper intellectuals. Professional social surveys tell exactly the same story about the rise of a modern, post-sectarian India that has left behind the unthinking prejudices of the past. They just don’t tell it as entertainingly as Pathaan.
Salvatore Babones is The Philistine