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-[Film Reviews]-, Bollywood, South Asian Cinema

‘Pathaan’ (2023): The Return of Shah Rukh Khan

Directed by: Siddharth Anand || Produced by: Aditya Chopra

Screenplay by: Shridhar Raghavan, Abbas Tyrewala || Starring: Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, John Abraham, Dimple Kapadia, Ashutosh Rana

Music by: Sanchit Balhara, Ankit Balhara, Vishal-Shekhar || Cinematography: Satchith Paulose || Edited by: Aarif Sheikh || Country: India || Language: Hindi

Running Time: 146 minutes

It took me years to realize Siddharth Anand’s War (2019), starring Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff, was part of an established spy-action movie franchise and technically a spinoff of a still growing cinematic universe (thanks Marvel!). Salman Khan’s popular Tiger films (2012, 2017, 2023) operate in the same diegesis as that likable 2019 hit, and while the idea of spinoffs is not a novel concept in theatrical filmmaking, they haven’t been a regular occurrence within Bollywood until the past decade or so to my knowledge.

John Abraham stars as a fun villain with decent motivation in Pathaan. He should’ve had a larger role in the film…

The latest installment in Yash Raj Films’ “Spy Universe,” Pathaan, happens to be the comeback vehicle for Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan and the second highest grossing Hindi film of all time as of this writing. Khan, an outlier in Indian filmmaking without any sort of family connections to the industry, had struggled in the late 2010s without any massive hits, with middling critical reviews of his latest work, and with direct personal confrontations with the reigning Hindu nationalist Indian government. In part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pathaan is the first starring role for Khan since the box office failure of Zero (2018) and the first notable Hindi-language blockbuster for any Northern Indian star since at least Aamir Khan’s Dangal (2016); Khan himself may feel like an avatar for the Mumbai studio system given the reign of numerous high-profile South Indian productions pre and post-COVID (e.g. Baahubali [2015, 2017], 2.0 [2018], K. G. F. [2018, 2022], RRR [2022]), which have started to muscle in on Bollywood’s international turf. Does Pathaan live up to all that background hype?

In this cinephile’s assessment, the answer to that question is a hard “no.” While it’s fun to see Khan after a five-year hiatus and he’s arguably the best part of this movie, Pathaan is the sort of generic, watered-down Indian action blockbuster we’ve seen dozens of times before; Anand’s directorial execution of a boilerplate spy plot falls apart whenever the action set-pieces grow too big or whenever female lead Deepika Padukone starts talking. I think War found a decent balance between the cornball melodrama endemic to Hindi blockbusters like these and some fun homages to Hollywood spy movies, but here one can feel the pressure on the production crew to push things to absurd extremes; a film like this can’t be just big — it has to be huge!

When the action stays somewhat grounded, such as in the opening set-piece and a couple fun chase sequences in Dubai, the film’s cartoony comic book-esque action is fun enough; when the movie devolves fully into green screen-schlock where characters, gunfire, explosions, and wind don’t obey the laws of physics, the fight sequences turn boring and the film’s pace starts to drag. This is a shame, because the martial arts choreography ain’t bad in the less cheesy, smaller scale parts of these set-pieces, particularly when it’s just Khan fighting a bunch of random thugs or facing off, mono-e-mono, with main antagonist John Abraham. These smaller moments allow Khan to work his charisma through clever one-liners, his trademark goofball body language, and the sheer likable chemistry with his costars.

Of course, big exceptions to all the above have to do with female lead Padukone. She played a decent enough bimbo in Om Shanti Om (2007, another collaboration with Khan) and veteran directors like Sanjay Bhansali appear able to expand her limited range, but otherwise I don’t get the appeal of this actress beyond her looks. Her chemistry with Khan is nonexistent while her line delivery feels as stilted as always; much of this may be a function of male screenwriters unable to write feminine characters or Anand’s lackluster acting direction, but Padukone sticks out of the cast like a sore thumb. She fares the worst in the hand-to-hand combat sequences, where camerawork, edits, and shutter speed are clearly manipulated to hide her discomfort with the physical choreography.

Shah Rukh Khan shows both his hard (top) and soft (bottom) side in Pathaan. It’s too bad that neither his female costar, Padukone, who’s 20 years his junior, nor the movie itself, can match that range.

Given my inconsistent, at best, reception to various popular blockbusters from Bollywood and South Indian film industries, it appears I can relate to South Asian general audiences about as well as I do Western general audiences; that is to say, not very well. There are other features of Pathaan I could’ve discussed in greater detail, like its melodic yet somewhat forgettable musical numbers, its decent location-photography, its refreshing lack of preachy monologues, and numerous references, like War, to the Mission: Impossible (1996-2024) series, but none of those left much of a positive or negative impression on me. Much of Pathaan is just kind of there like most middling to poor FX-driven blockbusters, but all in all, the film is too haphazardly structured, its action cinematography too dull, and its cast too inconsistent to recommend to anyone beyond King Khan acolytes.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: I reckon even Hindu nationalists won’t find enough material in Pathaan to anger them to protest Padukone’s saffron wardrobe if they actually watch this movie, because most of it is a bore. The action sequences start alright but devolve into a Saturday morning cartoon show, Padukone herself has no screen presence, and the film’s 2-hour, 26 minute runtime feels longer than RRR’s 3-hours.

However… Khan remains as likable as he ever was, and the cheesiest aspects of his star persona are toned down for this film. Abraham is a decent enough villain who I wish was granted a bigger role in place of Padukone a la War’s Tiger vs Hrithik gimmick.

—> NOT RECOMMENDED; this may be the comeback Khan’s career needed, but quality-wise, Pathaan shows no deviation from the ongoing Bollywood slump relative to its sibling film industries.

? Why are movie bioweapons always colored like a children’s toy laboratory set?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


One thought on “‘Pathaan’ (2023): The Return of Shah Rukh Khan

  1. so much efforts put in by the cast n crew

    Posted by Man Kun | April 29, 2023, 6:08 am

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