Is the movie Pathaan a Game-Changer?

By H. Srikanth

That I am a movie buff is a fact. I enjoy watching and talking about movies. I like Shah Rukh Khan as an actor. But that is no reason I go gaga about his comeback movie, Pathaan, now running to packed houses and breaking all box-office records. Pathaan is no path breaking movie. It is a mass masala action spy thriller with riveting songs, dance, fights, and a dose of patriotism. There is nothing more to say about the content of the movie. Still, I feel the need to talk about the movie as it is a game-changer that could reverse the politics of hate that the regime has been perpetuating in the country in the name of religion.
Bollywood is the biggest entertainment industry in the country, providing livelihood to thousands of artists, technicians, and professionals. Every year, artists from different parts of the country flock to Mumbai to try their luck in the film industry. Bollywood produced several masala blockbusters and also serious experimental movies that touched the hearts of millions of spectators in the country and abroad. For a long it remained an inspiration to regional film industries. Many movies from Bollywood were remade in different regional industries.
Known for its plurality, Bollywood, like Indian Cricket, remained secular at large. Although there are some big players, it is not monopolized by any one community, religion, or region. The people work in the industry without bothering about the religious identities of the actors and other artists. Many leading actors, directors, singers, music directors, lyricists and writers belonging to the Muslim community have made their mark in Bollywood. The Indian audience loved them as much as they did with Rajesh Khanna, Hema Malini, Ramesh Sippy and Kishor Kumar. The moviegoers are crazy about their favorite actor. They not only want to see their movies but also show an interest in private the lives of the lead actors–their love stories, heart-breaks, marriages, divorce, rivalry and friendship. To the audience at large, the actors’ religion, region and caste hardly mattered.
Bollywood, which had a glorious past, has not been doing well in the last few decades. It has seen little creativity and innovations in recent decades, be it in storytelling, or in using technology. Unlike the actors and artists of the earlier times who were products of progressive organizations and movements, the new breed of Bollywood filmmakers have no organic association with the people and the society. The stories they wove were repetitive and divorced from social reality. Although it is often exaggerated, still there is some truth in the allegations of nepotism and the mafia influence in the industry. The movie industry in the south has been doing well on all fronts compared to Bollywood. There is indeed a need for Bollywood to reflect and innovate. Positive criticism of Bollywood was indeed needed. But that did not happen. Instead, Bollywood has become a target of attack by right-wing ideologues in the country for other reasons.
Anti-Bollywood trend is to be seen in the context of political changes taking place in the country. In the last three decades, efforts are on to attack the secular fabric of the nation and convert India into a Hindu nation. Apart from controlling politics and the economy, the regime has been attempting to control and direct people’s religious beliefs and culture to attain their political goals. It is here that they find Bollywood a stumbling block. Pre-eminent status of the Khans and the continuing hold of the left liberals in Bollywood became an eyesore to the saffron brigade, which cannot think beyond Hindu-Muslim divide. Their communal orientation and bias made them hate everything and everyone in Bollywood who did not share the vision of Hindutva. Hence, they have been painting Bollywood as anti-Hindu and anti-national. Instead of viewing artists as artists, they identified actors and film artists based on religion and political ideology. Naturally, they opposed not only the patronization of Pakistani artists but also Indian Muslim actors and artists working in Bollywood. The Khans are seen not as actors, but as individuals belonging to an enemy religion. Because the Khans are Muslims, the saffron brigade concludes, the said actors cannot but be pro-Pakistani, pro-Mafia and, hence, anti-nationals. It is therefore necessary that their films, irrespective of the content, are to be boycotted. Apart from the movies of the Khans, even the movies of liberal and left oriented Hindus should also be boycotted, as they are also ‘anti-Hindu’ and ‘anti-national’.
Boycott gangs allege that all Bollywood movies glorify the Mughal ‘invaders’, and hurt Hindu sentiments by insulting Hindu history, culture, and traditions. The Censor Board’s certification is not enough to release the movies; they need to be approved by ‘us’, the embodiments of Hindu culture and traditions. Anyone ignoring ‘us’, the Sanatani Hindus, should be taught a lesson. All Sanatani Hindus should unite to boycott Bollywood movies, barring the movies of those ‘nationalist’ actors and directors close to the political regime. The boycott trend, which started with the movie ‘Padmavat’, picked up momentum after the sad demise of a talented upcoming actor, Sushant Singh Rajput. In the name of seeking justice for the actor, the fringe elements started a systematic hate campaign against Bollywood with the direct or indirect support of corporate media and the party in power. Even responsible ruling party leaders holding political positions came out to support the fringe elements who were bullying the actors, filmmakers and moviegoers in the name of boycott. In such a vicious environment, some decent movies like Lal Singh Chaddha that portrayed the growing religious intolerance and appealed for reconciliation also suffered at the box-office. In contrast, movies with divisive agenda, such as ‘Kashmir Files’ minted crores, thanks to the official and media support it received.
Apart from Bollywood actors and filmmakers, even the audience began to feel suffocated with this growing environment of intolerance. In his inaugural speech in Kolkata International Festival, 2022, Amitabh Bachchan, who usually avoids controversy, expressed his concern about civil liberties and freedom of expression. In the same festival, without referring to the boycott call, Shah Rukh Khan spoke about the need of all right-thinking people to fight against what he called as “narrow, divisive, destructive narrative”. Massive public response in support of the movie Pathaan should be seen in the light of these political events taking place in the country. The masses have not only ignored the calls for boycott, but have also started making point-to-point rebuttal of the arguments advanced by the saffron brigade. It is heartening to see audiences across ages and religions publicly denouncing the dubious logic and hypocrisy of the boycott gangs. This kind of assertion is needed not only for the survival of Bollywood but also for the future of Indian democracy.
To conclude, I don’t think Pathaan is a great movie, but no one in the country has the right or authority to force others not to watch the movie, just because the actors in the movie are not to someone’s liking. It is time we relish, celebrate and criticize the movies without bothering about the religion of the actors and filmmakers. It is time all progressive and secular minded people come forward to fight attempts at sowing the seeds of communalism and destroy the film industry for narrow political interests. Hope the success of Pathaan strengthens the people’s yearning for a society that values reason, peace and social harmony.

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