(SRK thanking his fans for Pathaan’s success).

India’s superstar, Shahrukh Khan (SRK), after lying low for four years following a spectacular flop, is back with a bang with his new film, Pathaan. The film’s record-breaking journey worldwide cements his status as probably the last of India’s superstars. I say last because, with the multitudes of options created by streaming, audiences no longer have that single-minded devotion to movies or stars. Pathaan was a do-or-die film for SRK, as the critics couldn’t wait to bury him for good. Plus, Bollywood, in general, seemed to be down and out with many big-budget failures, and regional Indian movies (like RRR) were starting to have pan-Indian appeal. As Indian audiences turned to streaming platforms during the pandemic, they were exposed to regional and international cinema. The run-of-the-mill mindless Bollywood musicals were no longer working. 

Pathaan pulls no stops with its razzle-dazzle and breathtaking action. It’s a good value for your ticket. But if you pause to think why Pathaan works, the famed SRK brains’ stamp is unmissable. SRK is one of India’s trio of superstars, almost akin to the big three in tennis. SRK is closest to Federer, with his easy charm, inter-generational appeal, and seeming accessibility. Although he lacks the other superstar, Aamir Khan’s acting chops, or Salman Khan’s brawn, SRK makes up for his intelligence and quick wit. He also sticks to what he does best: romance and action. While he digs deep into these strengths in Pathaan, there are some smart choices that make Pathaan foolproof.

First, Pathaan has a carefully careless vibe. Although it is an out-and-out vehicle to showcase SRK, it does so covertly, never giving you the impression of trying too hard. Unlike most Bollywood blockbusters that project their heroes as larger-than-life singular figures, Pathan boasts of two other stars who surprisingly get substantial screen time. The female lead, Deepika Padukone, is not just eye candy like most heroines in male-dominated blockbusters. She looks stunning but also kicks ass, including on roller skates. Yet, as the femme fatale, she never comes close to overshadowing SRK. By generously allowing her to run away with the accolades, SRK makes us not want her to. 

Then there is the villain. John Abraham, the former hunky model, looks like a million bucks and acts well, but he’s no Heath Ledger. His casting is underwhelming in a delicious kind of way because it proves that charisma and screen presence are not just about good looks. Compare this with the recent Tamil blockbuster Vikram where the central star, Kamal Haasan, risks getting overshadowed by the two other stalwarts, Vijay Sethupathi and Fahad Fazil. SRK is no Kamalahasan and knows it and goes with the adequate yet safe casting of John Abraham. 

Plus, although SRK is supremely toned with killer six abs and looks way younger than his fifty-seven years, he mostly appears bedraggled with greasy hair, his face bloody from his injuries. He seems intent on showing us that charisma is innate and smoldering. We almost applaud when we see a scrubbed SRK with his ponytail, acting his age yet transcending it. Let’s admit it, despite Tom Cruise’s jaw-dropping action scenes in Top Gun Maverick, it was sad to see his face lose the battle with gravity. SRK avoids that by hiding behind his injuries and facial hair most of the time and making us focus on his abs.

One of the keys to a Bollywood film starring a big star is the pompous entry carried by a signature tune, giving the audience a chance to applaud. SRK stays away from that trope; we first see him as the bruised and battered Pathaan during an interrogation. Although SRK is synonymous with being a romantic hero, he has never strayed from his prudish no-kiss-on-the-lips policy, making him a family favorite. He comes close here but won’t compromise even if his career is at stake. 

Pathaan is SRK’s gift to his long-term loyal audiences. He is not taking you for granted and even appears tentative if you will accept him and the film. But the sincerity to entertain is evident. That’s why the audiences are responding in droves. A couple of my friends said they wanted to pay to see the movie in the theaters because SRK, a Muslim, is India’s last secular star. That kind of goodwill is hard-earned, and SRK knows not to fritter it away. But above all, he assuages you that even if he’s down and out, you can always count on his intelligence.

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