Early on in her scathing review of Shah Rukh Khan’s new film, Pathaan, Fatima Bhutto reveals her strategy for reading Bollywood cinema. After asking why Bollywood is obsessed with Pakistan (surely a good question), she notes: “Even though our common neighbour China has taken – without too much of a struggle and aided by a helpful press blackout in India – 38,000 sq km of Indian land in Ladakh, on which they are building homes and bridges, you won’t find any Bollywood films with Chinese villains or bad guys.”
She is absolutely right about this fact. But she is absolutely wrong to think that facts are the stuff of cinema. Bollywood trades in fantasy. And there is a truth in fantasy, often more than one.
Bollywood films do not obsess over Chinese villains because India does not care about the Chinese other than as objects of not-so-casual racism. But “India” (by which I mean “North India,” the setting for much Bollywood cinema) is obsessed with Pakistan because Pakistan and India were, in the not-so-distant past, one country. Pakistan and India are phantom limbs of one another, each one twitching in memory of the other’s loss.
The “obsession” that Bhutto talks about is based on this psychic loss that is the basis of both love and longing on the one hand (many Bollywood aficionados were refugees from Pakistan), and hate and violence on the other (this is why “Pakistan” can be used as a bogey to mobilise hate crimes against Muslims in India).
For better and for worse, then, India and Pakistan are joined at the hip: a fantasy of unity and a horror of partition. And this is why Pakistan plays a leading role in Bollywood cinema.
Bollywood’s fantasy worlds
Like all cinema, Bollywood too trades in fantasy – to try and understand it in terms of facts is to miss the point entirely. The films have convoluted plots that are far-fetched, and often laughable. But Bollywood cinema can also be deeply political, and the hallmark of this politics is play: Play as a mingling of genres, play as pushing against borders, play as critique, play as laughter, play as syncretism.
And play as poetry. In keeping with Bollywood tradition, Pathaan inhabits a realm that is drenched in Urdu, and marked by characteristics of Sufi poetry. The very name Rubai (spy agent played by Deepika Padukone) evokes the poetic form of the quatrain, and the film operates allegorically, on multiple levels, in exactly the same way that Sufi poetry does. Pathaan is a film about Shah Rukh Khan’s life, it is about Bollywood, it is about the current historical moment in India, and it is about the plot of the film itself. It is about all these things at once, and we cannot separate any of these strands from the other.
In this multi-level space of poetic fantasy, Pathaan does not proclaim pedantically that the nation is being riven by Islamophobia and other hatreds. But say it, it does. The film opens with the abrogation of Article 370, which it describes as a “unilateral decision” by the Indian Parliament. I have not seen that phrase used in the popular media about this decision before, yet here it is, in plain sight. The “fact” that this decision is not directly condemned is what makes Pathaan an interesting film. In India today, you cannot condemn the abrogation of Article 370 outright. What you can do is present the consequences of its having been rescinded. For a Bollywood film to be able to do this while still remaining a commercial film, is quite astonishing.
Playing with the idea of Kashmir as a trope in Bollywood cinema, the villain says, in response to being asked by the Indian government what he wants in order to stop his terroristic plans: “Obviously, Kashmir.” This “obviousness” refers allegorically to the cinematic history of using Kashmir as a paradise to be gained, to the fantasmatic reality of Kashmir as the battleground for India’s soul, and to the political reality of Muslim-majority Kashmir as the enemy of the Hindutva Indian government. This is only one example of the knowing and clever dialogue with which Pathaan punctures the majoritarian violence that goes unquestioned in India today.
But apart from these two scenes, Kashmir is not the focus of the film. The real action is set—apart from in Spain, Africa, France, and Switzerland—in Afghanistan. This international setting evokes a certainBollywood nostalgia. Not only is the film peppered with several (extremely clever) references to films past, but it is also shot through with a nostalgia for the Bollywood of the past. For the Bollywood of Amar Akbar Anthony that has forcibly been replaced with The Kashmir Files. For the Bollywood that revelled in mixture rather than aspiring to purity, religious or factual or otherwise.
Indeed, in a press conference to promote the film, Shah Rukh Khan, seated next to his fellow leads Deepika Padukone and John Abraham, said: “I am Akbar. Deepika is Amar. John is Antony. This is India.” Pathaan gives Bollywood’s secular credentials a new boost of life: the film contains several Muslim characters as a matter of course, and the script is drenched in Urdu.
And then, there is Afghanistan.
Not only is Afghanistan the setting for Pathaan’s earlier missions, but it is also the site of a critique of what the US military has done in the region. It is also the showground for a politics of identity as elective affinity that is disappearing in this age of hidebound identitarian politics.
Pathaan is a Pathan, not because he was “born” that way, or because his “blood” is Muslim, but because he has chosen to be. He rescues 30 children attending a madrasa in an Afghan village, and, in turn, the villagers adopt him as their own. He returns every year to celebrate Eid with his family. As an orphan who was left outside a cinema theatre (!), his Afghan family is the only family Pathaan has known.
At a political moment when the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 has made it clear that “India” will not allow Muslims from neighbouring countries to emigrate here, this act of identification based on love is revolutionary. Not only does Pathaan have an Afghan family, but this family also saves India by putting on a show and luring the villains into a trap at the end. Afghan Muslims, turned away by the Hindutva government, save the day for India. Play has now turned to irony.
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Shah Rukh Khan—battered and bruised by a government that has wanted to show Muslims in India that Hindutva can bring even the most powerful Muslim in India to his knees—seems keenly aware of the irony of the current political dispensation that keeps creating enemies only to fuel its hatred. This irony, this horror, is presented in a matter-of-fact manner: “Khauf humme andhaa banaa deta hai” (fear makes us blind) Pathaan tells Rubai, his Pakistani counterpart and potential love interest. This is followed by Rubai saying: “I am not your enemy,” an assessment with which Pathaan fully agrees.
Pakistanis as allies rather than enemies, Afghans as saviours rather than aliens, Indian Muslims as protectors rather than foreigners—this is the milieu in which the film operates. This is the most political, most daring, and (for those of us horrified by the depths to which India has sunk) most exhilarating assertion of Indian syncretism. As Pathaan says, with an urgency that is brilliantly set in a scene filled with humour: “Desh ka sawal hai.” What’s at stake is the fate of the nation.
We can and must regret the fact that this critique of jingoism is set within the framework of nationalism. But we would be poorer for missing the searing critique of nationalism, jingoism, and hate-politics that Pathaan delivers. Fact might be stranger than fiction, but in the case of this film, fiction and fantasy are our only hope for a change in fact.
Madhavi Menon is Professor of English and Director of the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University.