Not The Kashmir Files, but Pathaan is the most political movie of our times. It has been that way from its anticipation to reception. So should be its interpretation, lest the subtext is lost in the high-octane entertainment.
Giving the lie to bigoted cavilling, which preceded its release, Pathaan has won India’s heart. This triumph should be decoded correctly and not ploughed into a narrative that runs contrary to what the movie espouses.
The Pathaan of the eponymous movie could well be seen as the new stage in the evolution of the Muslim character in Indian cinema. Shah Rukh Khan’s portrayal of the character holds promises for the future.
Evolution of the Muslim character
There was a time when the genre of Muslim social was limited in scope to surreptitious love stories in the quaint feudal milieu. It used to be a mélange of mushaira, mujra, mihrab, qawwali, sherwani, chaste Urdu, and courtly manners. With Pakeezah (1972), it touched its apogee.
Then came the Muslim best personified by Sher Khan, a Pathan, in Zanjeer (1973). A foe-turned-friend who is unflinchingly loyal to Inspector Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan).
The Pathan of Zanjeer could be read as the adversarial Muslim who, after getting bested in a duel, turns into an ally. In the movies that came later, there were different permutations of this character, which became cliched as the sidekick of the main lead. His main attribute was loyalty to the hero. It was the high noon of the Left-liberal hegemony of the ’70s and ’80s, and it was all that was possible for the Muslims in the secular raj. Crumbs would fall his way if he remained loyal to the establishment and kept serving it with the vote bank. In the ’90s, Muslims in Hindi cinema emerged as terrorists and gangsters. He would sport the identity stereotypes — skullcap, antimony in the eyes, and keffiyeh (chequered scarf) on the shoulders. He was feared and bode ill for the community.
Now comes Shah Rukh Khan as Pathaan — unapologetic, individualistic, plays second fiddle to none, and his own man to the hilt. It is he who redeems the Muslim as the frontline soldier of India. Colonel Luthra (Ashutosh Rana) implores him not to retire. Pathaan becomes indispensable to India — a prospect that is possible only with the removal of the prosthetics of pseudo-secularism.
A Pathan is as Muslim as a Rajput is a Hindu. The movie’s Pathaan is so head-to-toe a Muslim that he doesn’t need to make an overt display of his ‘Muslimness’. When Deepika Padukone, the female lead, asks whether he was a Muslim, he parries the question, underplays the identity politics, and identifies himself as the “son of India” in a rather literal sense. He was a foundling who was taken to an orphanage and brought up and educated by the State. He became India’s child. And so, in order to pay the debt, he joined the Army and earned the moniker ‘Pathaan’ for a gallant act in Afghanistan.
I wondered if this foundling could be a metaphor for the lost child that the Indian Muslim had become after Partition. That child was embraced as the prodigal son, nurtured and nourished by the State. It made me think about whether Muslims have been repaying the parental debt or wallowing in the discourse of grievance and victimhood. I thought of people around me who received the costliest professional education for free but never had a sense of gratitude toward the country. Their entitlement has been unencumbered by a sense of obligation. Pathaan seeks to restore the correspondence between rights and duties.
It’s about a Muslim who loudly says the long version of the Muslim greeting — waalaikum assalam wa rahmatullah hi wa barakatahu (Upon you too be peace and mercy and blessings of Allah) — and draws cheers from the audience. He also says Jai Hind and draws equally loud cheers. No one jeers at him for being fake because he asks not what his country can do for him, but what he can do for his country. Since Shah Rukh Khan is both an actor and character in the movie, Pathaan stands on the feet of Raj and Rahul, the romantic characters he played in his younger days. He is a Muslim solidly rooted in Indianness. A patriot who loves his country. His patriotism is proactive, and not a semantic ruse to denigrate nationalist sentiments and question India’s nationhood.
Also read: Pathaan is Shah Rukh Khan’s love letter to his fans. And RSVP for boycott gang
Time for Indian gaze on Islam
Before Salman Khan makes his entry, his black-and-white chequered keffiyeh — a piece of clothing associated with Palestinian resistance — looms on the screen. Yet the audience goes into a frenzy at the mere sight of it. There’s a takeaway from this phenomenon: A symbol of Muslim identity, if in the service of nation, will be celebrated. A loud walaikum assalam or keffiyeh could be a bold symbol for the nationalist Muslim and Indianised Islam. The problem arises when symbols of identity are displayed to foment militancy and separatism — as happened in the recent hijab controversy.
The Islamic ideologues have seen India through the prism of religion. At the most charitable, they categorise it as Dar al-Sulh, which is the ‘Abode of Truce’, where they live separately under a compact of peace with the majority community. If Muslims have to relate to India, their theology will have to do more than just suggest a modus vivendi with superficial reasoning. Saying that loving one’s country is a part of faith isn’t enough. Islamic theology will have to develop the cognitive tools to appreciate the culture and history of the country and the sentiments of other communities. The time has come to turn the Indian gaze on Islam and analyse it from the country’s perspective. An Islam that Indianises itself rather than seeking to Islamise India — one that integrates and doesn’t separate — will be respected, appreciated and cherished.
Pathaan picked up a hobby called kintsugi — the ancient Japanese art of joining broken pieces of pottery with molten gold. Colonel Luthra tells him to be that gold for India. Can the Muslim put together the pieces of the country he broke in 1947? Yes, he can.
ThePrint’s editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta called the Pathaan phenomenon ‘The return of the Muslim’. I call it the birth of the new Muslim. Long may he live.
Ibn Khaldun Bharati is student of Islam, and looks at Islamic history from an Indian perspective. He tweets at @IbnKhaldunIndic. Views are personal.
Editor’s Note: We know the writer well and only allow pseudonyms when we do so.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)