Sunday, March 3, 2024

In the Darbaar of the “King”, we are all believers: ‘Pathaan’ and the mythic realism of Shah Rukh Khan

Since 25th January, the day before Republic Day, two political debates centred around cinematic texts have captured the imagination of the nation. The BBC Documentary, “India, the Modi Question” has become a bone of political contention, being labelled as a ‘propaganda piece’ by the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, Arindam Bagchi. The censorship machine has been on overdrive, proving beyond doubt, the foolhardiness of ‘banning’ as political strategy in the age of the QR code, with lines blurring between public and private viewing.

On the other hand, Shah Rukh Khan’s comeback after four years has surpassed all expectations. Perhaps I am falling into recency bias, but of all the various spectacles in the last couple of years, the national frenzy generated by the release and reception of Pathaan seems most to be on par with the Indian Prime Minister calling the nation to their balconies and streets, to beat utensils and show their gratitude to health workers, during the ‘Janta Curfew.’ That spectacular roadshow made waves across the world. This comparison is not made lightly – the connection I seek to establish is one of ‘star value.’ The platforms of these two figures are different; their audience is different. The dialectic of national fervour has been generated not from some personal fantasy, but by the distinct armies of support that their stardom has generated. Modi has always been outspoken, both through his speech and his silence, on various issues that have required comment from the office of the Prime Minister. Shah Rukh Khan, on the other hand, has had to contend with the boycott gang, even though he rarely makes provocative statements – considering the high stakes of his presence and following as a public figure.

The Star Referent

Various commentators have seen the rise of Modi and the Hindu Right in politics as a coming together of multiple points of rupture in Indian public life. In the presence of weak opposition, Modi’s iron facade and strongman brand became a point of crystallisation for various anxieties, aspirations, and public emotions. The discourse of ‘development’ which was central to his campaign in the early days of his promised ‘ache did coincide with the eroding masculinity of the middle-class Hindu male. Other signifiers included the opposition’s alleged feeble “appeasement” politics and the electoral failure of the Left. These are only a few causalities that made up the plethora of social phenomena that have emerged as ripples in the “Modi Wave” that has swept the nation in the better part of the 2010s. The Indian Prime Minister became a unique referent for various ‘floating signifiers’ that dominated the everyday life and discourse of the average Indian citizen. With the coming of ‘Pathaan,’ a different referent seems to have mobilised the average Indian star-struck cinephile. Another set of overlapping, but singular, floating signifiers have aligned to change the discourse of stardom and covert political messaging in Indian cinema.

This is not a battle of aesthetics or qualitative value, nor a question of ‘truth’ or testimony. For some years, now, the national media has been hard-pressed to look for an explanation for the overwhelming love showered by the country’s populace on its favorite son Shah Rukh Khan. Some have called this film “a battle for India”, while others have penned reviews that have doubled up as love letters. Perhaps some answers can be found in the not-so-understated subtext of the film’s content, placed against the context of the Hindi Film Industry’s tumultuous relationship with the state in the last couple of years. But it is worth going a little deeper.

Cinema, Cinema

We live in a country where the ordinary pious pedestrian is moved to fall at the feet of an actor who is synonymous with the divine character of Ram from the decades-old mythological television series Ramayana. Well-meaning but bigoted fathers have been known to send bodyguards with their daughters when they meet the actor Shakti Kapoor who was notorious for playing villainous characters. In short, we are a country that likes to go to the movies. In fact, movie-going has always been a community activity, tied up with the traditional undivided Hindu family courtesy of Subhash Ghai, Yash Raj films, and several others.

It is significant that the first time Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone paired up was in Padukone’s debut film directed by the evergreen Farah Khan (The film begins with a self-reflexive sequence referencing Subhash Ghai in the director’s chair). OmShanti Om, as a parodic, self-aware, and meta-pastiche, was a glorious love letter to the culture of Hindi mainstream cinema and viewership. Each frame in the film glitz into the nostalgic sheen of yesteryear stars. The title song was a celebration, in characteristic Farah Khan style, peppered with cameos from beloved stars of the contemporary cinema landscape. Filled with inside jokes (that include anybody who had been seeing films post-independence) and art direction that celebrated the excesses and sensorial phantasmagoria of the cinematic experience in urban India, Om Shanti Om never really got its due. Blurring the lines between reality and illusion, reel and real life, its hero represented, in his multiple avatars, both the fan, and the object of fandom, the dream world of the struggler, and the lived fantasy of the Bollywood Star. There is a beautiful set of dialogues in the film that references itself and also the character in the film, which is a superstar (a metaphor for Shah Rukh Khan, the persona, in the first place). As the absurd plot begins to split at the seams, surging like a hot air balloon into the ethereal space of make-believe, the film returns to familiar territory in a severe but ironic gesture:

“Main nahi believe karoongi Om? 50 maale ki building se jab tum jump maarke apne pairo pe khade ho jaateho main believe karti hoon! 100 gundo ko akele maarkeheroine ko bachate ho main vo bhi believe karti hoon! Hava mein udte ho, Pani mein daudthe ho, Ye sab Main Believe karti hoon!”

“I won’t believe you, Om? When you jump from a 50-story building and manage to stand on your feet, I believe you!  When you fight 100 goons alone and save the heroine, I believe you! You fly through the sky, run on water – I believe all that!”  

Over the years, I have returned to this more than once, trying to place what it is about Shah Rukh that makes me consume, repeatedly, even some of his most formulaic performances. There is only one question of embodiment and performance that is of any genuine interest in this debate – Where does Shah Rukh Khan begin, and where do his characters end? This theme is a constant refrain in the discourse on fame and fandom. It has become impossible to separate some of the world’s most iconic actors from their characters. The return of Shah Rukh Khan is magnificent and every bit as juicy as promised, even if it is a chocolate-brick-solar-plexus-sex-bomb-action-hero, and even if he seems caught in the insecurities that come with aging. This is the Shah Rukh Khan who humours the hoards that swamp the balcony of Mannat every evening. This is also Shrayana Bhattacharya’s siren of unfulfilled desire. Even in the film, he utters his now famous mantra of ‘Mehmaan Nawaazi’ – is it Pathaan or Shah Rukh Khan he is channeling with those bewitching, unwavering eyes?

Most of all, it is reassuring to see Shah Rukh back to his old antics.

The aura of the megastar is infused with a matter-of-fact attitude about “the job” of being a star, coupled with the earnestness that he brings to the most unbelievable set pieces Bollywood throws at him. He is always ready to laugh at himself – not an easy thing to do for an actor of his stature – Pathaan is filled with references to the evolving YRF metaverse and Bollywood lore, of which he is an integral part. Every fan’s relationship with Shah Rukh, the actor and human being, is not very different from a devotee’s relationship with their deity. Shah Rukh, like God, belongs to everybody and nobody. 

Even in this film, it matters little what the plot is and how much research has gone into the construction of the cinematic universe. What matters is how the heart skips a beat when the camera curls into a closeup of Khan’s moist eyes as his character voices uncertainty and doubt in the face of a statement about his being Musalman. Again, for a second, we believe Shah Rukh, as he refuses to be boxed into an identity that can be used for political posturing by the hegemony of the Indian state: 

“Pata nahi.. Main kya hoon, kaun hoon…bas samajh lo ki mere desh ne meri parvarish ki”

“I do not know who I am or what I am…you could say that it was the country that raised me”.

This parvarish began, of course, once again, in the movies – his character was orphaned, and he was left outside a cinema hall as a baby. 

In Solidarity

In one fell swoop, Shah Rukh Khan has reassured all his colleagues and shown through example that the artist must not be messed with. Fearful of creating art at the mercy of the troll cabal, many film fraternities have subjected themselves to self-censorship. Others have played roles or put their heft behind narratives that toe the nationalistic line. Ayushman Khurana tweeted, “Met him. Hugged him. I danced with him. This feels like a personal victory.” What Khan has managed is nothing less than divine. While BJP leaders and self-professed protectors of public interest have been busy miring the film in controversy, the fact of the ridiculousness of their efforts has finally got the prime minister to take notice. To rein in what he would like to believe are “fringe elements,” Modi cautioned his party workers and senior leaders against making headline-grabbing comments and using Bollywood as a soft target in their efforts to garner two minutes of fame.

The air has been an uninhibited celebration in the avalanche of support and goodwill that has engulfed the film. Many have gone to theatre halls to show their solidarity. Commentators have lost their minds, losing all sense of judgment in a joyful orgy of hagiographic analyses about the “visual spectacle” (Filmfare) and the “grizzly charisma” (Rediff) of the “sexy-smoldering” (The Times of India), “guy who can save the world” (Indian Express). I am with them in spirit and sentiment. 

In an age of such divided opinion and stark polarities bolstered by the fickleness of public sentiment, the average Bollywood blockbuster has ceased to be a text ripe for informed decoding. The cinematic product is a signifier of the structure within which it emerges and the political appropriations it can be subject to. The critique of the work of art reaches us before the experience. More often than not, we have made our opinions before the first cut has even been launched. Controversies plague the space of the film’s becoming. We want to feel a certain way. The lockdown and the COVID pandemic had us in long bouts of cabin fever. We had forgotten the intuitive joy of watching a film together in darkness, hooting to superstar entries, and reveling in the shared exhilaration of community.

Pathaan capitalised on all this and more. As a 90s kid, the unexpected moment of excitement came for me somewhere in the middle of the film. Pathaan is cornered, with his back to the wall. The audience knows he will be saved but is unsure how. He is down and out, panting and weak, in a train bogey. At that moment, a blast shatters the train’s ceiling. A white scarf with a checked pattern slips through the hole, and the entire theatre erupts in a barrage of whistles and whoops. Bhai has arrived.

The easy, mature chemistry between Salman and Shah Rukh takes the comic set-up to a fever pitch. Each line is loaded with the irony of the history of their shared appearances. The symbolism of the two stalwart actors cribbing about lower back pain and lending each other painkillers while they stylishly clean up the bad guys cannot be missed. The film’s final punch, just before the last credits roll, is delivered by the two monarchs of Bollywood Royalty. Contemplating retirement from the business of espionage (read ‘films’) after 30 years of service, they wonder who will replace them. Before considering various “young talents,” Pathaan finally says, to a nodding Tiger, “Hame hi karna padega bhai. Deshka Sawaal hain. Bachcho pe nahi chhod sakte”.

“We will only have to do it, bhai. The country is at stake. We cannot leave it to the kids.”

Boycott that

Fans of Shah Rukh have turned to the superstar himself to explain the rush of emotion that has characterised movie halls across the country, but the actor, it must be noted, chose not to promote his comeback film! In response to a question by a journalist on how Pathaanhas been such a ‘roaring’ success despite having little pre-release promotion from the star himself, Shah Rukh tweeted, “Maine socha Sher interview nahi karte toh issbaar main bhi nahi karunga! Bas jungle mein aakar dekhlo. #Pathaan”. (I thought “Lions don’t give interviews”, so this time even I won’t do that! Come to the jungle and see.)

This utterance is quite telling. Shah Rukh Khan has maintained a studied silence through the various controversies fuelled by fundamentalist groups or political figures. His fear is more than justified. As I watched Shah Rukh on screen this time, I felt like there was a renewed sense of resolve in his persona – This was not the carefree Shah Rukh of DDLJ or the mature character actor of Chak De. This wasn’t even the secular, global Muslim urging us to enunciate “Khan” from the epiglottis. Desire and sexiness aside, it felt like King Khan was finally, convincingly here, and without saying a word, he had emerged victorious. This time it was personal, and his son, Aryan, would agree.  

Acha Jawaab Diya, nahi?

Aranya is a poet, currently based in Delhi, a place to which he does not belong. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Social Anthropology.

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