Pathaan’s box-office success is both redefining Bollywood, and saving it

Pathaan’s box-office success is both redefining Bollywood, and saving it

A superhero-level spy in one of the biggest film franchises in the world, with a superstar lead actor fighting on top of trains, jumping out of planes and saving the world.

You’d be excused for thinking that was a description of Mission: Impossible. But instead, explained film critic Emaan Khan, Tom Cruise isn’t a match to this star.

“He’s bigger,” film critic Emaan Khan said of Shah Rukh Khan, star of the new Bollywood hit Pathaan. “Tom Cruise can’t do these dances.”

And whether or not you’ve heard of it, Pathaan‘s impact is undeniable. The fourth instalment in the YRF Spy Universe film franchise follows Pathaan, an exiled counterintelligence agent tasked with stopping a terrorist from releasing a biological weapon in India. And with arguably India’s biggest actor at the helm, back after a four year break, the film is breaking records left and right.

After it released in January, the day before India’s Republic day, it quickly became the biggest movie in the world — knocking down even James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water. According to Deadline, it was the first movie to top $100M US At the box office without a release in China, and saw the biggest opening weekend for a Bollywood film ever in North America and a number of other worldwide regions.

WATCH | Pathaan trailer: 

But even while it’s riding high now, Pathaan — and even Bollywood’s — future was in no way certain over the past few years. After years of success both at home and abroad, Bollywood producers saw flop after flop during the pandemic, collectively losing roughly $100 million US during just the first half of 2022 according to the BBC.

Combined with a push from India’s government to limit the pluralistic and diverse content of its films — which have been one of the most attractive elements of the industry — Bollywood appeared to be on its way out. And on top of that, once reliable Khan’s star seemed to be fading, as the failure of a number of his more recent films gave rise to concern: “The chitter-chatter started around ‘Is he done?'” Emaan Khan said.

But Pathaan‘s surprising success is starting to alter that dour opinion, pitting Bollywood as once again one of the most important film industries in the world  — with considerable help right here in Canada.

Outside of its worldwide success, Pathaan got some of it’s biggest bumps right here. According to a statement from Cineplex, of the 10 theatres with the highest Pathaan attendance in North America, nine were in Canada.

“We have so many people coming from India and from southeast countries and it does make sense,” explained Emaan Khan. “But having said that, nobody expected it to be this massive.”

That experience was doubly surprising for how Pathaan was marketed — or rather, not marketed — and the concerted effort to keep it from gaining an audience at all.

First, Pathaan had virtually no media interaction before its release, keeping its stars from giving interviews as is usually typical for all Bollywood productions. The plan was to build suspense and interest solely from releasing music videos tied to the film itself, and play on fan base desire for a new Khan film — a risky strategy that could have led to few knowing or caring that the movie existed.

But the larger risk to the film was it joining a lengthening list of films targeted by right wing Hindu groups upset over content.

Pathaan’s ‘shameless colour’

In Pathaan‘s case, the ire was mostly directed against a scene in which Khan’s co-star Deepika Padukone appears in a bikini during the song Besharam Rang — which translates to “shameless colour.”

As that bikini was orange, some groups — including India’s nationalistic ruling party Bharatiya Janata — took issue, saying it was saffron: a colour associated both with Hinduism and that party in particular. BJP and others subsequently called for a boycott, while activists in India tore down and burned promotional posters — and BJP home minister Madhya Pradesh threatened to ban the film entirely.

Pathaan’s box-office success is both redefining Bollywood, and saving it
UBC professor Sunera Thobani explained that the success of Pathaan could indicate a shifting mood in Bollywood’s primary audience. (Mark Zimmer/CBC)

But instead of killing Pathaan, its success both domestically and internationally in the face of those efforts not only proved that Bollywood can survive, it proved Bollywood can grow.

“The film has been doing just as well outside India as it has been doing in India,” said Sunera Thobani, a professor of South Asian cinema at the University of British Columbia. “So fan base is a factor, but I think that, clearly, something is changing In the public mood.”

There are other changes that Pathaan signals as well. Though its plot is fairly similar to past Bollywood films in its championing — and failure to challenge — Indian patriotism, Khan’s character himself has a special significance.

In recent years, subtle and overt Islamophobia in India has been on the rise — with anti-Muslim hate speech moving into the mainstream as attempts are made to transition India from a secular republic into a Hindu state.

Thobani explained that while Khan is himself Muslim, his character has done much for representation.

Pathan, she explained, is a term connected to both Afghanistan and communities on Pakistan’s North-West Frontier. Because of that, it is often connected with the Muslim identity — suggesting Khan’s character himself is Muslim as well.

That tangential relationship was enough for fellow actor Kangana Ranaut to claim the film’s name should be changed altogether. But Thobani said the inclusion of a likely Muslim hero in a Bollywood film is a sign of positive change.

“Muslim men are represented generally as nefarious characters — as either engaged in terrorist plots or abusive men who beat up their wives or very strictly controlling of their daughters,” she said of most Bollywood films.

“In this film you see a Muslim man in an unambiguously good role and also as a patriot.”

Bollywood’s changing tides

That role and the film’s subsequent success could be evidence of a shifting future for Bollywood. In Canada. And looking at the crushing crowds in Canadian theatres alone, a once fading excitement for the genre is coming back full force.

At the same time, that excitement hints intentional efforts to derail progressive elements in Bollywood aren’t likely to work.

A man and a woman stand arm in arm in the lobby of a movie theatre. Behind them is a concession stand.
Theatre-goers Rajiv Kaushik, left, and Preeti Kaushik attend a screening of Pathaan at a movie theatre in Vaughan, Ont. (Griffin Jaeger/CBC)

“When I see any Bollywood movie, I take my political lens off. I just look at it from the perspective of entertainment,” theatre-goer Rajiv Kaushik told CBC News ahead of a screening of Pathaan in Vaughan, Ont.

“I’ve grown up in a secular India, [and] that’s how I look at the movie. So I’m here to do the same today.”

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