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Pathaan: Shah Rukh Khan got you to cheer for Pakistani agent, and you can’t even deny it

On a podcast a couple of years ago, director Quentin Tarantino spoke about a filmmaking phenomenon that he described as ‘subversion on a massive level’. While dissecting Todd Phillips’ controversial Joker, Tarantino said that the movie was mostly ‘fine’, until a moment that altered ‘the entire atmosphere in the theatre’. He was talking about the dramatic talk show scene towards the end of the film, in which the titular anti-hero shoots a beloved TV host in the face, somehow getting the audience to root for a loony to murder someone who isn’t even a villain. “That is subversion on a massive level!” Tarantino said excitedly. “They got the audience to think like a f**ing lunatic and to want something they would never normally want.” They won’t admit it, Tarantino said gleefully; ‘but they’re liars, they did.’ He may as well have been talking about Pathaan.

Something similar happens deep, deep in the third act of Shah Rukh Khan’s grand comeback film. The moment involves Deepika Padukone and a gatling gun that appears to have been shipped to set by Rocky bhai himself. Unlike the Joker scene, which taps into our shared fascination for violent retribution, the Pathaan bit is almost… corny. In this unforgiving world, it wants to give you another shot; it wants you to mend your ways, to rethink past prejudices, because it believes you can.

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Here’s what happens. While SRK and John Abraham are going mano-a-mano in a cliffside log cabin, Padukone is given what can only be described as her long-overdue entry shot. The only catch is that it comes more than two hours into the movie. This is deliberate, of course. Director Siddharth Anand needed to be sure about what he was trying to achieve before pulling the trigger. In a breathlessly stylised shot, Padukone’s Rubai grabs Rocky bhai’s machine gun, takes a formidable stance, and fires away at the enemy. The crowd at my screening went wild; the noise was louder than the gunfire on screen. But did they notice the subversion on a massive level? Could they tell, in that moment of collective euphoria, that they had been played; that for over two hours, Anand had — clinically and with great precision — built towards a moment in which he was about to get Indians across the world to cheer for a Pakistani ex-ISI agent?

This is Pathaan distilled down to its essence; a moment so undeniably subversive, so effective in its execution, you can’t help but sit back in awe of what Anand has so deftly accomplished. Not only on a narrative level — he intersects four different plot threads at once in those thrilling climactic moments — but also on a thematic level.

In fact, an equally subversive moment happens just before the final showdown, when Pathaan stumbles into a back room where Rubai is literally being waterboarded by Indian agents. This is the scene in which Anand begins winding the audience up, as he clinically orchestrates the grand hero shot to follow. In this scene, the Indian authorities are the villains, and you’re already rooting for Pathaan to beat them up and rescue Rubai, the sole Pakistani in the room.

The movie had meticulously been embedding this complex idea in our minds at regular intervals. For instance, we are told that Abraham’s antagonist, Jim, was a true Indian patriot who was left for dead by his own country, as he watched his wife and unborn child die before his eyes. Jim isn’t some convenient Pakistani villain, or a Muslim terrorist. He is an Indian.

The movie doesn’t skirt around the fact that Rubai was an ISI agent — possibly the most detestable category of Pakistani in the eyes of the general Indian public. Neither does it take the easy way out and make her some kind of defector, on an independent contractor. Her nationality plays a vital role in her mission, just as Pathaan’s does in his.

Consider how carefully Anand and his writers — Shridhar Raghavan and Abbas Tyrewala — build towards the subversive moment. Unlike Katrina Kaif’s character in the Tiger films, who is a largely passive presence in Tiger’s life, Rubai actively betrays Pathaan earlier in the movie, when she’s revealed to be in cahoots with Jim. The movie effectively categorises her as a villain in this scene, not because that’s who she really is, but because to achieve the massive subversion that it has set out to, it must first make Rubai irredeemable in the audience’s eyes. Pathaan, the film, doesn’t simply demand that you empathise with her on a human level; it wants the moment to feel earned.

shah rukh khan pathaan Shah Rukh Khan in a still from Pathaan.

Observe the optics of this, for a second. By slotting Rubai as somebody who would backstab our hero, a patriotic Indian agent played by national treasure SRK, Pathaan is playing into your expectations for how a Bollywood blockbuster circa 2023 would portray a Pakistani character. But it weaponises your familiarity with this same storytelling grammar an hour later, when it exposes the rhetoric that you’ve been conditioned to accept — if not actively endorse — about the other side over the last eight years.

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Having Rubai betray Pathaan is a political statement. Having Pathaan forgive her and give her a second chance is also a political statement. But having her fight alongside him and earn your trust — vocally, undeniably — is the biggest political statement of them all. You might lie about cheering for her; you might pretend (mostly to yourself) like you were cheering for Padukone and not the character. But you know what you did.

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And this is where Shah Rukh Khan comes in. Unlike the stars of so many recent patriotic movies, he isn’t here to capitalise on hate and trauma. His movie is designed to appeal to your better nature. Pathaan has the power to unite the enablers and the erased, the apologists and the apathetic. Its success hinges not on your adoration for SRK, but on your capability to empathise with a character and people you’ve been told are the ‘enemy’. Pathaan is an act of faith; yours in Shah Rukh Khan, and his in your inherent decency.

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Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.

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