Pathaan’s box office success redefines and saves Bollywood

Actor Shah Rukh Khan appears in a promotional photo for Pathaan.  The Bollywood film has proven to be a box-office hit, redefining what kind of films the industry can make - and restoring audiences' interest.  (YRF - photo credit)

Actor Shah Rukh Khan appears in a promotional photo for Pathaan. The Bollywood film has proven to be a box-office hit that has redefined what kind of films the industry can make – and restored audience interest. (YRF – photo credit)

A superhero spy in one of the biggest movie franchises in the world, starring a superstar protagonist who fights on trains, jumps out of planes and saves the world.

You will be excused if you think this is a description of Impossible Mission. But instead, film critic Emaan Khan explained, Tom Cruise was no match for this star.

“He’s bigger,” said film critic Emaan Khan of Shah Rukh Khan, the star of the new Bollywood hit Pathan. “Tom Cruise can’t do these dances.”

And whether you’ve heard of it or not, PathanThe effect of is undeniable. The fourth installment in the YRF Spy Universe film series follows Pathaan, an exiled counterintelligence agent tasked with stopping a terrorist from unleashing a biological weapon in India. And with arguably India’s greatest actor at the helm, returning after a four-year hiatus, the film is breaking records left and right.

After being released in January, the day before Indian Republic Day, it quickly became the biggest film in the world – even surpassing James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water. According to Deadline, it was the first film to surpass $100 million at the box office without a release in China and enjoyed the biggest opening weekend for a Bollywood film of all time in North America and a number of other regions worldwide.

CLOCK | Pathaan Trailer:

But even while it rides like now Pathan – and even Bollywood’s – future has been far from certain in recent years. After years of success both domestically and internationally, Bollywood producers have suffered flop after flop during the pandemic, losing a combined total of around $100 million in the first half of 2022 alone, according to the BBC.

Combined with a push by the Indian government to restrict the pluralistic and diverse content of its films – which was one of the industry’s most appealing elements – Bollywood appeared to be on the way out. And on top of that, the once-reliable Khan star seemed to be fading, as the failure of some of his more recent films was a cause for concern: “The chatter started around ‘Is it finished?'” said Emaan Khan.

But PathanThe film’s surprising success is beginning to change that surly opinion and re-establish Bollywood as one of the world’s most important film industries – with considerable help here in Canada.

In addition to its worldwide success Pathan has some of the biggest bumps right here. According to a statement by Cineplex, out of the 10 highest cinemas Pathan Participated in North America, nine were in Canada.

“We have so many people coming from India and from south-eastern countries and it makes sense,” Emaan Khan explained. “Nevertheless, no one expected it to be so massive.”

This experience was doubly surprising for the how Pathan marketed – or rather not marketed – and the concerted effort to prevent it from gaining an audience at all.

First, Pathan had virtually no media interaction prior to its release and kept its stars from giving interviews as is usually typical of all Bollywood productions. The plan was to build suspense and interest solely through the release of music videos tied to the film itself, and to capitalize on the fan base’s desire for a new Khan film – a risky strategy that could result in few knowing or care that the film exists.

The bigger risk for the film, however, was joining a growing list of films targeted by right-wing Hindu groups outraged by the content.

Pathaan’s “shameless color”

In PathanIn Khan’s case, the main anger was directed at a scene in which Khan’s co-star Deepika Padukone appears in a bikini during the song Besharam rank – which translates to “shameless color”.

Because that bikini was orange, some groups – including India’s ruling nationalist party Bharatiya Janata – objected, saying it was saffron: a color associated with both Hinduism and that party in particular. BJP and others then called for a boycott, while activists in India tore down and burned advertising posters – and BJP Home Secretary Madhya Pradesh threatened to ban the film outright.



But instead of killing pathan, his national and international success in the face of this effort not only proved that Bollywood can survive, it proved that Bollywood can thrive.

“The film is doing just as well outside of India as it is in India,” said Sunera Thobani, professor of South Asian cinema at the University of British Columbia. “So fanbase is a factor, but I think there’s a shift in public sentiment.”

There are other changes Pathan also signals. Although its plot is quite similar to previous Bollywood films in that it defends – rather than challenges – Indian patriotism, Khan’s character itself has a special meaning.

In recent years, subtle and overt Islamophobia has increased in India – with anti-Muslim hate speech entering the mainstream as attempts are made to transform India from a secular republic into a Hindu state.

Thobani explained that while Khan was a Muslim himself, his character contributed a lot to representation.

Pathan, she explained, is a term associated with both Afghanistan and communities on Pakistan’s northwest border. Because of this, it is often associated with Muslim identity – suggesting that Khan’s character is Muslim himself.

This tangential relationship was enough for fellow actor Kangana Ranaut to call for the film’s name to be changed altogether. But Thobani said the inclusion of a likely Muslim hero in a Bollywood film is a sign of positive change.

“Muslim men are generally portrayed as nefarious characters – either men involved in terrorist conspiracies or abusive men who beat up their wives or control their daughters very tightly,” she said of most Bollywood films.

“In this film you see a Muslim man in a clearly good role and also as a patriot.”

Bollywood’s changing tides

This role and the film’s subsequent success could be evidence of a changing future for Bollywood. In Canada. And just by looking at the overwhelming crowds in Canadian cinemas, a once-dwindling enthusiasm for the genre is coming back in full force.

At the same time, this excitement suggests that deliberate efforts to derail progressive elements in Bollywood are unlikely to work.

Mark Zimmer/CBC

Mark Zimmer/CBC

“When I see a Bollywood film, I take off my political lens. I just look at it from an entertainment perspective,” theatergoer Rajiv Kaushik told CBC News ahead of a screening of Pathan in Vaughan, Ont.

“I grew up in a secular India, [and] That’s how I see the movie. So I’m here today to do the same.”


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