Will Pathaan be Shah Rukh Khan's Mission Impossible?

Touted as the superstar’s ‘comeback’ film, it will also chart the actor’s future

By Yasser Usman

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A still from Jhoome Jo Pathaan song featuring Khan and Deepika Padukone
A still from Jhoome Jo Pathaan song featuring Khan and Deepika Padukone

Published: Thu 5 Jan 2023, 10:12 PM

To many in the Indian film industry, the situation of the 57-year-old superstar Shah Rukh Khan seems incompatible with a major comeback. Even as his latest outing after a gap of four long years with Pathaan is heating up to a huge release, there is the lingering question — will he, won’t he? There has been mammoth anticipation, no stones unturned in international marketing as well as wild controversies surrounding Pathaan’s trailer and songs. An almost coming to life of Shah Rukh’s words from the teaser — “Mausam bigadne wala hai” (The weather is about to deteriorate).

From his eight pack abs to Deepika Padukone’s saffron bikini to ministers, saints and even the Indian Censor board seem to be rattled by the film. Yet, everything proves a simple fact: no one in Bollywood still commands more attention than ‘King Khan’. Everything about Pathaan is a primetime headline. From experience, the controversies surrounding a film do help the trailer and songs gather millions of views but it can go either way at the box office. Sometimes a controversy can help a film become a success like Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat or it can completely ruin a film like Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha.

Too much is riding on Pathaan with many critics finding SRK appearing to be ‘trying too hard’, while fans celebrate his ‘reinvention’ as an action hero. The thought takes me back to an evening a few years ago when I interviewed the superstar before the release of his film Raees. I asked him that after playing the ‘King of Romance’ for almost two decades, is he now planning to ‘reinvent’ himself? He smiled and replied that he doesn’t believe in terms like ‘image change’ or ‘reinvention’. He said, “If you go back (to my career), I have always attempted big ideas. Some of them were much ahead of their time. Some worked, some did not. People always remember the ones that worked. But you move on… to bigger stories.”

Was Shah Rukh being true to himself in this introspective assessment?

Shah Rukh rose to stardom with Baazigar (1993), a role rejected by many before him because the protagonist was a murderous anti-hero. He took the negative image further as an obsessive lover in Darr (1993). Then he flipped these unconventional roles on their heads to play the clean-cut, cute-looking guy-next-door in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995). He became the ultimate romantic intergenerational fantasy of the nation with many blockbusters to his name. But even at his peak, he attempted films on different ideas within the mainstream arena — Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000) on media rivalry, Paheli (2005) on feminist choices, Asoka (2001), a visually brilliant period drama two decades before audiences raved about Baahubali, the memorable performance as an NRI pining for his homeland in Swades (2004), superhero with home-grown VFX meeting international standards in Ra.One (2011), he took on Islamophobia in My Name is Khan (2010) and Chak De India (2007). However, only a few of these were truly successful on the scale that had come to be expected of the superstar through romantic films like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Om Shanti Om (2007).

Shah Rukh’s last major success Chennai Express (2013) was a decade ago where he played his regular ‘Rahul’. Ever since, audiences seem to be rejecting even his routine romantic roles. Rohit Shetty’s Dilwale (2015) didn’t work. Shah Rukh then walked an unfamiliar terrain in Fan (2016), which was about an ageing superstar’s confrontation with an obsessive fan. But SRK’s brave performance in Fan (2016) was abandoned by his real fans. Raees (2017) was forgettable too but the real shocker was Imtiaz Ali’s Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017). It bombed badly despite the superstar’s trademark romantic role and a fabulous soundtrack. The downslide didn’t stop. His next was an ambitious Zero (2018) where the larger-than-life SRK played a dwarf. It was a resounding flop. The magnitude of the failure of this ‘big idea’ perhaps rattled Shah Rukh so much that he stepped away for a long sabbatical of four years.

This entire rejection could simply be history repeating itself. If we look back, yesteryears’ superstars like Dilip Kumar (Sagina, Dastaan, Bairaag phase) and Amitabh Bachchan (Laal Baadshah, Mrityudata phase) went through similar confusing patches in their careers when age had caught up and audiences rejected them as ‘trying to be young’ heroes. Nothing was working for them and even some good performances during such phases were written off completely. They had to ultimately ‘reinvent’ themselves for their next innings where they played the middle-aged protagonists.

But Shah Rukh’s latest choices are projecting a completely different curve. Among his three forthcoming releases this year, Pathaan and Jawan are out-and-out action thrillers while Rajkumar Hirani’s Dunki is based on illegal immigration. There is nothing ‘middle-aged’ about his protagonists.

As a comeback vehicle, however, everything looks glossy in Pathaan. The biggest star, biggest banner (YRF) and a director (Siddharth Anand) whose last film War (2019) was a huge blockbuster. Training for four years, Shah Rukh Khan has undergone a physical transformation to build eight-pack abs and looks absolutely blazing.

Shah Rukh has often been referred to as the ‘Indian Tom Cruise’. With Pathaan (and the forthcoming Jawan), he really seems to be going the Tom Cruise way. The last two action films of the Hollywood superstar — Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018) and Top Gun: Maverick (2022) — became the biggest blockbusters of Cruise’s career. Perhaps Shah Rukh Khan is hoping Pathaan would do the same for him. While it may look tough now, it is not a mission impossible.


Usman is film commentator and author

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