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Home > 2023 > Revisiting Pathaan: Identities performed, Nation redeemed | Alok Ranjan, (...)

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 51 December 16, 2023

Revisiting Pathaan: Identities performed, Nation redeemed | Alok Ranjan, Sanjana K.S.

Saturday 16 December 2023



Cinema often anticipates and projects collective fancies and discomforts within popular culture. ’Mainstream’ or conventional cinema is assumed to be a usually accessible suspect that performs this function. This essay moves against this intuition in approaching Pathaan through a focus on its affective power and experiential effect on popular culture. The essay parses out the socio-political imagery of the film to observe that it articulates a kind of nation that offers a negotiating space for identity and belonging. It contextualizes Pathaan in contemporary cinema politics to explicate its theme of a composite love for the nation going beyond sectional identitarian affiliations. It further reflects on the relationship of cinema, nation and hyper-masculinity.

The Shah Rukh Khan wave unleashed through Pathaan on January 25 [2023] prompted unusual intellectual discussion on the significance of the film and the actor’s stardom as the film turned potential critics into complicit fans wanting to celebrate the actor on screen after a four-year interval. A sense of guilty pleasure accompanied many people who would otherwise have ridiculed a conventional mainstream entertainer but failed to criticize Pathaan. Rather, they found themselves valuing ’immersive watching’ over ’critical reading’.We understand immersive watching as an act in multi-sensorial exchange with the film that brings together parallel performances both on and in front of the screen.

Establishing Co-performativity

Pathaan presents Sharukh, the romantic, as the RAW agent, ready to fight and save the day! It is one among a pantheon of action films in Bollywood. Hence, the question: why is there a need to revisit and analyze another conventional Bollywood film? One way to answer this question is to state that this conventionality is productive. It is not an inhibition on what is further possible, but it allows people to negotiate belonging to the world while being part of it [1]. Pathaan’s conventionality functions both as a site of an assemblage of popular notions of heroism, pride, and national vulnerabilities as well as a mode of tweaking the entrenched senses of who embodies these projections. In a time of cynicism gaining political currency, this conventionality enabled a cinematic celebration for people to participate in reshuffling their presumptions about marked miscreants and protagonists. It was, in another sense, an ethics of joy suspending politics summarily.

The title "Pathaan" hardly received any attention as a sign of courage, nor did the bikini colour pose any hurdle to people feeling ’besharam rang’. This mass euphoria brought ’strangers in communion’ [2] in the movie viewing experience, creating affective bonds that gripped the viewers with thrill and joy. These bonds capture the exchange between the performers on the ’reel’ and the performers in the ’real’ landscape of movie halls. It is in the convergence of these two parallel performances through affective bonds that co-performativity is established. The logic of co-performativity in the case of Pathaan got one to believe in ’Pathaan ka vada’ (Pathaan’s Promise) without realizing that the one making them dance was a seemingly Muslim character and actor. This dance with uncensored Pathaan established a synergy of belonging free of prejudices. These performativities beget inquiry into the question that was asked at the beginning of the essay- the need to revisit and capture the spectacle of Pathaan. The following section will elaborate on the performativity of the movie in articulating a certain kind of nationalism, simultaneously negotiating space between identity and belonging to that very nation.

Performing the Nation

Pathaan fits nicely into the cinematic action-thriller genre but with a mix of nationalism. It hops onto the trend of framing storylines within the rubric of the nation, albeit redrawing the boundaries of self and other. What makes Pathaan interesting is its break from the essential political ingredients of aggression, majoritarian victimhood and violence that has now become a ready-to-use formula for a string of movies, including Sooryavanshi, Tanhaji, Kerala Story and Kashmir Files. Shahrukh’s Pathaan is an odd one out in that case. Though it uses the tropes of nation and nationalism, its conventionality enabled a celebration of overtly positive emotions affiliated with the nation- hope, love, commitment and togetherness.

The movie’s plot revolves around protecting the people of the nation, who are under attack by a non-state private actor, Jim (John Abraham). The background character sketch of Jim no longer belonging to any nation is emphasized in the story, avoiding any affiliation to a particular perceived conventional threat. Additionally, the movie gives him a backstory that provides motivations that Jim acts through. He is, at present, the criminal terrorist mastermind who had once been a diligent agent yet betrayed by his nation. A sharp contrast to Jim is Pathaan, who chooses a different path despite finding himself in a similar situation in the later part of the movie. His undying faith in his ’nation’ is reaffirmed when he ultimately saves the nation. The nation does not betray him because he served it dutifully despite all odds against him. The movie also features Rubai (Deepika Padukone), an agent from Pakistan who betrays Pathaan but is redeemed when she switches sides after knowing the true intentions of Jim and her own nation’s. Again, departing from the conventional stereotypes on the notion of an ’external enemy’ the movie, through Rubai shows a character that is devoted to her nation yet is able to forfeit her loyalty when the threat costs the peace and well-being of another nation. Her ’change of heart’ is for the good of the larger humanity. The movie implies that a good citizen achieves true solace in serving the nation faithfully, but this service is free from aggression and violent othering of other citizens. Love for the nation equals love for the citizens as well.

To transpose Butler’s concept of performativity to the articulation of nation through the cinematic medium, we argue that the repetitive acts of othering the minority in movies are no less than a fabrication [3] [4]. The performativity of a majoritarian collective identity is highly gendered- The Hindu male warrior(s) saving the feminine nation from the Muslim men is scripted into the "propagandistic" movies that is performed over and over again in multiple films to demarcate belonging. Pathan abandons these hyper-masculine imaginings of the nation. The latter is performed only to hollow out the very tenets of this aggressive nation that is being promoted through recent Bollywood movies. The romantic angle between an Indian and a Pakistani, also explored in other Yash Raj movies such as ’Veer Zaara’ and ’Ek tha Tiger’, works towards defying perverse notions of boundaries and enmity. Moreover, Pathaan is strong and fragile- he is not the perfect hero. He makes mistakes, falters in his judgement, and suffers the consequences- for instance while trusting and being betrayed by Rubai. He is also not the invincible male saviour as he sought help from ’Tiger’ (Salman Khan) to escape, and the scientists collectively sacrificed their lives to save the country. The exclusivist urge implicit in masculine nationalism is replaced with ideas of ’composite love’ that blurs the sectarian fault lines. Thus, the socio-political imagery in Pathaan spells an alternative resculpting of the nationalist hero in the domain of cultural politics of cinema.

The re-articulation of a nation without the stereotypical enemy and a seemingly Muslim protagonist as the patriot has negotiated a space within the cinematic medium to reimagine identity and collective belonging. Pathaan’s backstory is essential to this argument. He is a soldier helped and healed by his Afghani family in a distant land. The territorial notions of belonging and identity are scrapped in favour of a transnational humanity founded on love, compassion and solidarity. His identity is deliberately left ambiguous- it is not certain whether he was a Muslim to begin with, but he is referred to as Pathaan by the people who take care of him. Pathaan refuses to be contained by reductionist identities and retains this given identity long after. The identity of the Muslim is not pitted against the idea of the Indian nation. Instead, it flows and co-exists smoothly without contradictions of loyalty. This is the intent of the movie. This is the negotiating space- a space that is not based on fear or threat of the ’other’. The nation is saved by a seemingly muslim character, and others pin their faith in him, regardless.

People uncontained

The affective politics of the film extend beyond its characterization innovations and works on popular culture itself. The intent of the film was framed by Shah Rukh when, amidst boycott campaigns as the ever bigger role of cinema in ’sustaining counter-narrative’ in the face of divisive social media narratives [5]. As it turned out, Pathaan became an effective carrier for driving the narrative and people briefly away. The actors performed a subversion of the stereotypical assumptions of identities, and the viewers became co-performers, a mobile multitude undetermined by segregational politics and narratives.

It is hard to visualize a grooving multitude when politics of contempt is dominant with its presumption of a hateful and frustrated citizenry on the lookout for antagonists in history, culture, and the market. Pathaan’s novelty in this context is less about the ingenuity of its plot or message than the atmosphere it created. Its visual wave supplanted the excessive politicization of society and the cultural media. The urban street looked to have taken a joyful break from the pressures of demarcating religious spaces, changing names, and interrogative gazes gauging each others’ patriotic credentials. These breaks are moments of collective breath. The film’s politics was minor, yet total. It was an experiential intervention to repair the dialogical crack. It tamed the hyper-masculine political and its deliberative enclosure. Pathaan was a respite from the clutches of algorithmic political thinking. It was ’people’ walking away- a declaration that people’s vitality was not small enough to be contained in politics.

(Authors: Alok Ranjan is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Sanjana K.S. is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

[1Berlant. G. L. (2008). The female complaint: the unfinished business of sentimentality in American culture. Duke University Press.

[2Plantinga C. (2013). "The Affective Power of Movies" In Shimamura, A. P. (2013). Psychocinematics: exploring cognition at the movies, pp. 94-110. Oxford University Press.

[3Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge.

[4Elbakoury, F. (2017, December 6). The Performativity of the Nation-State. Medium.

[5Indian Express. (2022, December 16). Amid Boycott Pathaan calls, Shah Rukh Khan says social media "driven" by "narrowness of views." The Indian Express.

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