Saturday, February 04, 2023


Just before sitting down for Pathaan, I had the semi-random thought that Deepika Padukone probably should have been in a James Bond movie by now, or Aishwarya Rai ahead of her, but a very little research indicates that somehow, Bond has only been to India on-screen once, in Octopussy, which surprises me a bit, although I suspect that a British secret agent operating in India after it gained independence is something neither the producers nor the Indian government would want to touch with a ten-foot pole, even if Bond's adventures have been more broad, world-threatening material for the past 50 years or so.

Which makes it kind of funny that Pathaan at least mentions some potentially sensitive real-world events to set its story in motion, even though that story will get kind of crazypants reasonably soon.

Related to the crazypants nature of the film: Indian action stars seem to get jacked to a level that looks like it hurts, like the sinew would have to be straining to hold that muscle to the bone without any cushion, and all those blood vessels could just rupture and bleed-out if they rubbed against and abrasive-enough surface. Or at least, that's what I tell myself as I wolf down mozzarella sticks while watching their movies.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 February 2023 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, DCP)

It's hard not to think of James Bond when watching Pathaan, especially if you're an English speaker; filmmaker Siddarth Anand and Shah Rukh Khan have created a shaggier sort of super-spy than 007, but the basics are still there: Everyone in the game recognizes the "secret agent" who has a tight working relationship with the boss, follows a trail that leads around the world to various action spectacles which culminate in an assault on a secret lair. Consciously or not, it's something that works, especially when amped up to big Bollywood scale.

This one opens on 5 August 2019, when the news that India has made aggressive moves in Kashmir inspires Pakistani general Qadir (Manish Wadhwa), who has just been given a cancer diagnosis, to set a plan that he should just be able to finish in motion, with the help of freelance terrorist "Jim" (John Abraham). In the present, top-secret agency JOCR (Joint Operations & Covert Research) is following a trail to former Pakistani agent Rubina "Rubia" Mohsin (Deepika Padukone), who crossed paths with India's "Pathaan" (Khan) and Jim two years ago, hoping she'll lead them to something code-named "Roktbeej", which certainly sounds like a weapon of mass destruction.

Anand and his collaborators are looking to solidify a franchise here, so they've got a fair amount to put in order - an "Outfit" which can tie future parts together, a secret agency that Pathaan and its director (Dimple Kapadia) started to include agents who work best outside the regular bureaucracy, backstories that won't have to be suddenly discovered for sequels. They do it better than many - compare to how hard several of the same actors had to work to launch the "Astraverse" with Brahmastra Part One: Shiva - in part because they're not trying to create who fantasy worlds with rules to follow and in part because the two-act structure of Indian movies means that more or less the entire first half before the interval can be an extended flashback before returning to the present without it seeming structurally weird. Heck, you barely notice that they're a second level deep in reminiscences at a couple points! The filmmakers make this a big story with a number of missions that lead to a climax, but they leave themselves in a good place to pick up running later.

In the meantime, though, it's a big fun movie that moves quickly from one fun scene to another. Folks making western spy movies will probably see how the traditional sequence of introducing the leading lady, having the hero tail her and eventually insinuate himself into her company right up to a plot twist is streamlined here by making it a big, energetic musical number; it elevates the sort of spycraft that, say, James Bond always looks awkward doing into the same popcorn entertainment as the rest of the film. The music is hardly subtle for the rest of the movie, either, helping Anand and the rest keep the film high-energy even as it's crossing over from bombast to drama, keeping it bigger than life without actually being exhausting.

That goes double for the action, which is big and sometimes gloriously absurd, right from the point where the filmmakers make unusual use of a helicopter in the opening gambit. Anand clearly enjoys the chance to dangle people from aircraft, doing it three times (on three continents!) in the first act, but he uses the space necessary and the large-format photography well, and then spends the second act on some wonderfully insane bits of business in the second half. I legit cackled when a pretty good train fight took a big, impossible turn (shot and cut in the sort of manner that one recognizes it as ridiculous but decides to roll with it) and when a character has some ideal but unlikely equipment later on. The closer-quarters material in the middle of all that is pretty good as well: It's a bit tight and quick-cut, the sort of thing that can raise your antennae about how they could do that less, but the principals and their stunt performers are doing good work nonetheless.

Those stars are a good group as well. A post-credit stinger plays on how Khan is maybe getting a little old for this, even if he is in absurdly muscular shape, but he's got a nice energy here; Pathan is focused and passionate about doing the job well, but he's enough of a veteran as to be comfortable with what he's capable of. John Abraham goes the other way, making a meal of every maniacal, angry line given to Jim and having a blast as the villain who isn't a hero in his own mind but certainly thinks that everything he's trying to take is his due. Deepika Padukone and Khan seem to have a good time playing off each other - they know the kind of chemistry they need and there's a bit of an acknowledgment of the age gap when Pathaan is kind of flustered at Rubia turning her sex appeal on him - and Padukone is entertainingly brash here, never the sidekick or just the romantic interest.

Indeed, by the time the film is over, one recalls how the logos in the opening branded this as part of the "YRF Spy Universe", with one supporting character certainly worth adding to the mix along with Pathaan, Tiger, and Kabir. I'll welcome more (and will probably catch up on the rest on Prime); this may play a lot like some of the sillier eras of James Bond, but it's got the means to go big with that and make it entertaining.


Anonymous said...

They aren’t starting a franchise, this is already the 4th in the series. The next is Tiger 3 releasing this November.

Jason said...

Yeah, I saw that after posting the review and updated. It's kind of the start, since the other three were apparently not meant to be part of this, and I thnk this is the first time they're really building lore to connect with the rest.

Looking forward to streaming the rest, though.