Pathaan doesn’t just find the right spot to scratch an itch for modern-day action movies. But it spends the first few minutes reminding Bollywood fans and the uninitiated that superstar Shah Rukh Khan (SRK), 57, is more alive than ever in cinema.
In fact, audiences get familiar – or reunited – with SRK’s own magnetic presence. An explosive opening rolls out a bloody red carpet for his titular lead role. Pathaan composes its own symphony of destruction, dropping kicks and bullets to a choir. This fun, albeit over-the-top chaos, isn’t new for anyone who’s seen a Marvel or 007 film, but Pathaan simply embraces this larger-than-life presentation to match SRK’s comeback to films. The results are zany, fun and infectiously entertaining to see on screen.
For the uninitiated, Pathaan isn’t exactly a standalone spy thriller. It marks the fourth film in Yash Raj Films’ (YRF) own spy universe, which started with Ek Tha Tiger (2012), Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) and War (2019). Each film carries their own charm as kinetic popcorn-munchers. Luckily, Pathaan comes at a time when action movies are getting good again.
Audiences get the best of both worlds with over-the-top Bollywood set pieces and the right action delivery in a post-John Wick era. Director Siddharth Anand gladly takes the reins of YRF’s spy universe and propels it into a saturated John Wick world. It’s very welcoming to see Pathaan as Bollywood’s latest answer to contemporary action films.
“Fortunately, Anand knows anticipating viewers aren’t showing up for chit-chat.”
Fortunately, Anand knows anticipating viewers aren’t showing up for chit-chat. Actions speak gleefully loud to drown out all logic and questions. The film puts on its own greatest hits album for action sequences. This surprisingly works as a love letter to the genre. Pathaan puts viewers through all the elements. Eyes won’t blink at a motorcycle chase on an icy tundra filled with explosions (and skates). Pupils will dilate to kinetic and well-choreographed fights over a Dubai freeway with some nods to Mission Impossible. In signature Bollywood fashion, the film finds creativity and fun by putting its near-superhuman spies in impossible situations. The fewer questions viewers ask, the more enjoyable Pathaan gets.
Theatregoers will become moths to plenty of attractive CGI explosions and flashing gun barrels. Cinematographer Satchith Paulose has clearly taken notes from John Wick by not cutting the action. As a result, Pathaan’s fast-moving parts feel incredibly easy to keep up with. The careful camera work pays off with a one-shot fight scene aboard a prison train which blends Daredevil with Uncharted 2. It’s gleeful to soak in every frame of action the film sends without drowning viewers out. Pathaan’s top-notch sound design gives every punch, gunshot and explosion a purpose. In contrast, the audio is enough to match Pathaan’s violence with impact. Viewers lucky enough to see this in IMAX or UltraAVX will get more sensory overload out of their ticket stubs.
Pathaan is far from escaping the pitfalls of other action films. The typical spy plot is a means of taking viewers from one flashy set piece to another. Pathaan unburies its title character (SRK), a RAW operative for India’s intelligence agency. He’s set loose into the universe with a mission to take down a private terrorist organization called “Outfit X” bent on world domination. To accomplish this, India’s best scientists are kidnapped for work on a mass-killing bioweapons.
“Pathaan is far from escaping the pitfalls of other action films.”
Sound familiar? The film doesn’t bother to raise the narrative bar. The spy film more than achieves a standard of prioritizing fights, chases and slow-motion smouldering of its leads. When Pathaan takes a break from its action, the viewer is left with fewer reasons to remember everything else, But SRK’s suave and nonchalant demeanour sells Pathaan’s identity. The plot takes its time to develop him outside his deadly profession. While the audience gets a thoughtful flashback of his namesake, the supporting cast can’t go unmentioned for minutes.
The dialogues are filled with typical cheesy action banter, all delivered in a new voice. But SRK keeps his confidence trained on insulting enemies and charming the audience through the screen. This scene-stealing literally plays out in narrative segments while upstaging most of the supporting cast. Fortunately, the film exists with SRK and keeps the plot close to its lead at all times.
For some reason, the film’s main villain answers to a higher power who gets less than 5 minutes of screen time. The film tries to establish the presence of an evil general but quickly gets buried under SRK, his chiselled abs and two Bollywood dance sequences.
But Pathaan isn’t the only wise-cracking elephant in the room. He’s matched – and outclassed – by Jim (John Abraham), the leader of Outfit X with a RAW-sized grudge. Viewers and fans will get plenty of slow-motion smouldering, which somehow reintroduces Jim every time he shows up. Abraham’s performance of Pathaan’s resident baddie is carried by one Marvel flick too many. Anyone who has seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier will DiCaprio-point at Jim’s entrance as a masked assassin with a rocket launcher. The film starts to fall back on tried and true villain tropes with Jim’s backstory. Of course, it’s serviceable enough to give the two leads every opportunity to trade blows.
Deepika Padukone adds more star power to accompany SRK’s return. Padukone channels her own experience as a charismatic agent from XXX: The Return of Xander Cage (2017). This time, she joins Pathaan as skilled ISI operative Rubina “Rubai” Moshin. She stays close to Pathaan through the globe-trotting mission, much to his reluctance and differences. But Rubai also maximizes each action scene with her resourcefulness and unpredictability.
Viewers will be reeled with SRK and Padukone’s chemistry, which makes Pathaan’s actionless moments memorable. Pathaan is sparing with its tongue-in-cheek humour that can disarm the most serious viewers. But also leverages some drama with Rubai’s flashbacks. It’s still serviceable as most of the on-screen breathing room is given to Pathaan.
Without spoilers, SRK’s character is ultimately bestowed by rounding up YRF’s other badasses for more missions to come. Pathaan makes a few cheeky efforts to stitch previous films through name drops. While one fun Salman Khan-sized cameo sets the stage for Tiger 3. With the YRF at its peak production, I’m excited to see how this spy universe takes on a life of its own.
Pathaan is a masterfully crafted Bollywood action film that adds another go-to for insatiable fans of the genre. No audience should be held back from this satisfying – if not easily the best – gateway into the YRF spy universe. Pathaan just knows how to stimulate viewers properly with entertaining set pieces and the highest production values which gives other franchises a run for their box office money. SRK’s confidence – decades in the making – is out in full force to lead YRF’s spy universe into a new era for Bollywood blockbusters.
King Khan has returned. With his comeback, a new spotlight as an action hero.
Note: Pathaan is out in select theatres and will stream on Amazon Prime Video on April 25, 2023. Viewers can also watch the YRF Spy Universe on Prime Video.