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Pathaan is Shah Rukh Khan’s love letter to his fans. And RSVP for boycott gang

In an unexpected twist, Pathaan's success even brought Kangana Ranaut, Anupam Kher, Ajay Devgn and Karan Johar together in praise.

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In a country where two-thirds of the population is below 35, it took a 57-year-old actor’s movie – Pathaan — to bring the ka-ching back to a battered Bollywood. That’s the gravity-defying, logic-defying stardom that Shah Rukh Khan represents.

Not too long ago, the know-it-alls were writing hasty obituaries of Bollywood and about the takeover by South Indian cinema. But Pathaan’s opening day box office collection of Rs 57 crore is now going into the hall of fame folklore, along with the Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) shows at Mumbai’s Maratha Mandir. Shah Rukh Khan didn’t even do media rounds as pre-publicity—no Big Boss or The Kapil Sharma Show appearances. He only screened Pathaan trailer at the International League T20 in Dubai and showed up before a huge cheering crowd three days before the movie’s release.

And in an unexpected twist, it brought Kangana Ranaut (who later insisted the film should be called ‘Indian Pathaan’), Anupam Kher, Ajay Devgn and Karan Johar together in praise. Just like it brought out the frenzied dancing fans grooving to Jhoome Jo Pathaan in cinema halls across Indian cities.

Pathaan’s success signalled all kinds of symbolism.

Pathaan is doing well. Such films should do well. We, in the Hindi film industry, were feeling like we were left behind,” said Ranaut.

“Love forever triumphs hate,” wrote Karan Johar on his Instagram story.

Even Madhya Pradesh home minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narottam Mishra said that there was no point in protesting anymore against Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan.

Success triumphs all. ‘The king is back’ seems to be the running theme.

And this is why Pathaan is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of The Week.

Also read: Pathaan is not just any other Hindi movie. It’s a battle for India

SRK’s love letter to his fans

Pathaan’s success, though, wasn’t a given. It had everything going against it. The movie comes at a time of rising hostility toward the sway of Muslim superstars over Bollywood and amid boycott calls. The controversy around Deepika Padukone’s orange bikini in the song Besharam Rang appeared to trip the movie even before its release. Hindu activist groups were tearing down Pathaan posters. And most importantly, Khan hadn’t scored a hit since Chennai Express exactly a decade ago.

In fact, the movie’s success doesn’t seem to be based on how good or bad it was. Admin of the Facebook page ‘Best of Cinema and OTT’ said they are torn between being a Shah Rukh Khan fan and a lover of good cinema.

Pathaan’s success was just a pure outpouring of love for Shah Rukh Khan from his fans. And the movie is his love letter to them. With lines like “kkkk Karen (a reference to the 1993 film Darr) and “Bhaag Pathaan bhaag” (recalling the 1995 movie Karan Arjun), the movie is a private dialogue between Shah Rukh Khan and his fans. It’s a language they have shared for three decades.

The love spilled out days before the release. A fan group called SRK Warriors posted videos of ordering, distributing, and pasting Pathaan posters on their vehicles, outside their shops and on city walls. Other videos showed block booking where fans would book dozens of tickets, print them, wear them like garlands, and post selfies.

On 25 January, queues started forming outside cinema halls in Delhi — as early as 8:30 am. Little groups of wedding band boys drummed to the beats of Jhoome Jo Pathaan as fans turned up holding movie posters. As the day progressed, videos began pouring in, of audiences dancing and hooting on the aisles and rows of cinema halls. It was carnivalesque.

Shah Rukh Khan’s fans were voting with their feet against the hate heaped on him of late. Pathaan may be Khan’s love letter to his fans, but the RSVP was for the haters.

The film is such a runaway success that additional night shows have been added in cinema halls in India. It has even revived 25 single-screen cinemas — across Indian cities — that people thought were dying out. Even James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water, which was released in December 2022, did not get the kind of opening Pathaan did — $12.7 million versus $10.5 million worldwide on day one. It became the highest-grossing movie in the world on day one.

“Those who thought Shah Rukh Khan is finished, Pathaan comes as a slap on their faces,” said movie trade analyst Komal Nahta in a video message. “Those who thought that Bollywood cannot come back on track, Pathaan is a slap on their faces. And Pathaan is a tight slap on the faces of the boycott gang. If you think Pathaan is a hit, you are wrong. It’s not even a super hit. Pathaan is a blockbuster.”

As Dimple Kapadia says prophetically in the movie, “Pathaan’s exile is over.”

Wicked self-reflexivity, new patriotism

For a film that allegedly offended Hindu sentiments, Pathaan’s nationalistic pitch — the reference to Pakistani inability to digest the removal of Article 370 to a soldier’s motto of unquestioning service — parallels the prevailing national mood. But it also differs in one way. It is a patriotism devoid of divisiveness and Islamophobia. Pathaan doesn’t have a last name in the movie because he was ‘raised by his nation’. Ashutosh Rana, who plays the intelligence chief in the movie, says that India needs a Luthra (his character in Pathaan) as much as a Pathaan.

In a turn of events, former Bihar MP Pappu Yadav even called Narottam Mishra’s comments against Pathaan an insult to soldiers.

In a film laden with wicked self-reflexivity, Shah Rukh Khan also comments on the unbearable lightness of being a superstar for three decades and even downs painkillers after a fight scene. He is 57, and he knows that his fans know it too. “The country is at stake, can’t leave it to the younger ones,” Khan says.

Author of Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh Shrayana Bhattacharya tweeted: “Pathaan is sophisticated in its silliness. It comments on the back pain of being middle-aged and identity politics without taking itself seriously. Women shine and are super cool. Full feels and mad masala fun. We are lucky to live in the age of SRK.”

Going by what social media posts are saying, Pathaan appears to be providing a safe space for many Indians to enact performative diversity — without getting slapped with the ‘anti-national’ tag.

Rama Lakshmi is Editor, Opinion and Features at ThePrint. Views are personal.

The earlier version of the article wrongly attributed Komal Nahta’s comment to Taran Adarsh. We apologise for the error. 

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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