More than anything else, Pathaan is a silent and subtle statement of Shah Rukh Khan about his place, his commitment to cinema and, if one can say, his politics, observes Mohammad Asim Siddiqui.
Is Pathaan a more intelligent film than appears on a cursory viewing?
A blockbuster in the true sense of the word, it offers entertainment to different people at different levels.
For the average viewers, traditionally the audience of single screen theatres, who may not know the meaning of words like 'mutate', 'undercover' or 'covert research' (which are key words in the context of the film) there is entertainment in the form of breathtaking action, a lascivious dance sequence and lovely overseas locations.
The action scenes, which defy logic and causality, do not contribute to the narrative as such -- but are fine spectacles nevertheless.
Spectacle films are the flavour of this decade.
For regular viewers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is a promise of an Indian 'Spy Universe' which is likely to expand further in later offerings from Yash Raj Films.
The potential of this particular cinematic universe is realised retrospectively in Pathaan after Ek Tha Tiger (2012), Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) and War (2019).
Although easy to follow as a standalone film, Pathaan is enjoyed and appreciated better if the audience has watched the other three films, as references to the Tiger series and War abound in Pathaan.
While not quite like the nuanced politics of Tiger series, but much like War, Pathaan has the flavour of patriotism in the form of many easy to recall dialogues to silence the detractors of Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone.
More than anything else, Pathaan is a silent and subtle statement of Shah Rukh Khan about his place, his commitment to cinema and, if one can say, his politics.
At a time when jingoism and Islamophobia threaten to kill all pretence of subtlety in Hindi films, Pathaan manages to include many moments of subversion in its narrative.
Shah Rukh Khan and his writers can be complimented for making many oblique meta-references to his life and work and the making of Pathaan which totally blend with the narrative of the film.
There is also one not so subtle reference, or rather a statement, in the post-credit scene when Pathaan and Tiger speak of leaving the field for younger ones after working for three decades.
But then there are no younger ones, certainly not 'that one' or 'that other' (Did one hear Ranbir and Ranveer?) and 'We have to carry on for the sake of the country', as Pathaan chuckles.
There are references to Shah Rukh Khan's life and work in many of his earlier films too.
Shah Rukh played himself as Sahir Khan in Billu (2009).
In Fan (2016), Shah Rukh recreated his stardom and his effect on viewers.
Zero (2019), the last of the more experimental cinema he attempted in the latter half of the 2010s, featured his character embarrassing himself in front of all of the real life SRK's previous female co-stars (in cameo appearances), failing to literally 'move stars' that he was once adept at, a scene that reflects upon his insecurities as a superstar in real life.
But more than any other film, various voices in Pathaan speak of his life in a particular context, sometimes almost mimicking the popular discourse about him and at other times countering that discourse.
On more than one occasion Pathaan's character is introduced by Nandini Grewal (Dimple Kapadia) in terms which can equally apply to Shahrukh Khan.
There is a mystique around Pathaan, and Nandini's assistant wonders why Pathaan's name makes people uncomfortable -- whether or not he really is on 'our side'.
Does not it allude to social media trolls in some way who have been busy questioning Shah Rukh Khan's loyalty to the country, ever since he spoke about the inclusion of Pakistani players in the IPL, as well as his statement about growing intolerance in the country?
Nandini's praise of him 'He was our centre forward, wicketkeeper, four slips' mimics the unconditional adulation that SRK received before the discourse around Hindi films and film stars became highly polarised.
One of the trailers for the film featured Nandini talking about how Pathaan was last spotted three years ago, and that he allegedly got caught during his last mission - which seems like a veiled reference to the failure of Zero three years ago, after which SRK took a hiatus from films until Pathaan.
Another remark of Nandini in the film that 'nothing has been heard of Pathaan in the last two years but he has been writing a whole book all this while' appears to be a reference to the making of Pathaan, a whole book certainly.
Notably, the actor has remained quiet all these years, even when braving a personal crisis involving his family.
But all doubts about Pathaan's character are unfounded.
Even his opponent Jim (John Abraham) must praise his patriotism calling him 'son of India'.
Repeated references to kintsugi, 'the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold', in the film begs the question -- what exactly is broken?
Does it refer to a division along sectarian and ideological lines?
Ultimately, it will be Pathaan who will act like kintsugi, both a reference to the character in the film as well as an anticipated role of the film which brings all kinds of people to cinema halls, regardless of their location, gender, age and ideological position.
But has not Shah Rukh Khan been a kintsugi for the last three decades receiving love and adulation of people cutting across religion, caste, class, age and gender?
But this Pathaan does not have to change his identity or be defensive about it in any way to bring people together.
Despite misgivings expressed about the title of Pathaan, not likely to impress everyone in a polarised atmosphere created by trolls, Shah Rukh Khan and his team not only stuck to the title but also ensured an in-the-face publicity for the film.
Both the songs used in the trailer of the film celebrated the character and the actor in a flamboyant manner.
The identity of the character of Pathaan in the film very much articulates Shah Rukh's own personality which he has tried to project all through his career. He has talked about his Afghan roots and his father's freedom fighter status with pride.
Pathaan is adopted as one of their own by the Pathan village in Afghanistan shown in the film.
To Rubai's question if he is a Musalmaan, Pathaan's reply -- that as an orphan he was found in a cinema hall appears evasive.
However, the cinema hall becomes the film industry in metaphorical terms which adopted Shah Rukh who lost his parents at a relatively young age.
The answer to Rubai's question 'Phir Lawaris se Khuda Gawah kaise ban gaye', a reference to Amitabh Bachchan's two films where he plays an orphan and a Pathan from Kabul respectively, unfolds Pathaan's narrative of his Pathan identity and his celebration of Eid with his Pathan family in Afghanistan every year.
Obviously a R&AW agent must have had an identity before he was sent to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, but that identity remains unknown in the film, his adopted identity over-riding his religious identity even if he had any.
It is his adopted identity which makes him respond to Rubai's ironic salaam aleykum with an even more ironic salaam aleykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh (may the peace, mercy, and blessings of Allah be with you) -- stamping not only his wit but also his inclusive patriotism.
Part of this adopted identity is the love of his people without a touch of hatred for others.
Pathaan stays clear of any Pakistan bashing, making a distinction between a true soldier's fight and that of a vindictive and venomous army general's.
Even an ISI officer turns against her general -- she is called a ghaddar (traitor) by a fellow officer -- because killing innocent people with biological weapons is not a soldier's war.
Pathaan shares this sentiment with Main Hoon Na (2004) which talked about India not being in a state of war against Pakistan.
There is a reference to Main Hoon Na in Pathaan when Tiger jokes with Pathaan that he has made it a habit to remove the pin of a bomb, an inter-textual reference to the climax of Main Hoon Na, establishing a link between the soldier played by Shah Rukh in Main Hoon Na and Pathaan.
Incidentally, Main Hoon Na was that rare film in which Shah Rukh played an action hero and did some spectacular stunts.
There is an unconditional validation of the revocation of Article 370 in the film.
The film begins with the picture of a mosque in Lahore and the newsreader on the television announcing the revocation of Article 370, leading to a cancer-afflicted Pakistani General Qadir (the name recalling Abdul Qadeer Khan, the so-called father of Pakistan's atomic weapons programme) planning revenge against India.
The cancer is both physical and metaphorical, suggesting the sickness within. But the conflict in the film remains free from any religious colour and the terrorism in the film is also not identified with religion.
There are certainly references to many terrorist organisations like Jaish and Boko Haram, but it is the corporatisation of terrorism, its outsourcing, that the film is concerned with.
Jim's demand, or rather order, to remove all soldiers and weapons from Kashmir in 24 hours does not evoke a categorical 'Doodh manga to kheer denge, Kashmir manga to cheer denge' from Colonel Luthra (Ashutosh Rana) but a vague request to give more time to his side to think about the issue.
But in his heart Jim is clear, as he tells General Qadir that India will never part with Kashmir.
In terms of global politics,
His scene where he saves an innocent maulvi in Afghanistan from a misdirected missile makes the point that a madrasa in Afghanistan is not necessarily a breeding ground of terror, and that a poor maulvi teaching in a madrasa is like any other teacher performing his day job.
His identification with the War on Terror does not prevent him from saving innocent civilians and loving them.
An interesting feature of Pathaan is the effort that the leading actors in the film make to lift each other's performance.
Shah Rukh lets both John Abraham and Deepika Padukone dominate the scenes whenever he shares screen with them.
John's character gets better of him in all physical fights, towering over him in all situations.
Deepika's character overshadows him in almost all scenes except for the last few scenes.
Shah Rukh delivers his wit like only he can, but the decision to let others dominate the scene is certainly taken from a position of strength as, like in an ODI match, it is the overall performance which decides a winner.
Pathaan is a winner for not only Shah Rukh Khan, Director Siddharth Anand and Producer Yash Raj Films -- but also for Bollywood.
Czech novelist Milan Kundera is of the view that a novel should be more intelligent than the novelist and if the novelist is more intelligent than his novel the novelist should choose some other profession.
Shah Rukh Khan can disagree.
Pathaan is an extension of his intelligence, wit and vision.
Mohammad Asim Siddiqui is Professor in the Department of English at Aligarh Muslim University.
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com