“Pathaan,” the new Bollywood espionage action spectacular, opened wide this past weekend in the U.S., where it amassed an impressive tally of $9.5 million. That’s exactly what “RRR” made on its opening weekend in the U.S. close to a year ago — though, of course, that was before “RRR” went on to become a crossover cultural phenomenon, with a visibility and acclaim in the American media that Indian films seldom, if ever, attain.
Nothing like that’s going to happen to “Pathaan.” The new movie is far more typical of Bollywood than the Telegu-language “RRR” was: a sprawling, mountainous tangle of pulp that stacks one genre on top of the next with an arbitrary verve. The film is held together mostly by the glue of its kinetic visual energy and by the iconic quality of its stars: Shah Rukh Khan, who plays a kind of James Bond meets Jason Bourne meets Jason Statham meets Fabio, and John Abraham, who plays the sociopath villain with an aggro creepiness set off by an ’80s Beverly Hills coif.
For decades, Bollywood movies, at least when they were released here, had an undeniable exoticism. They often repackaged Hollywood forms, most notably the musical, but with their own rhythm and flavor and spice. Baz Luhrmann drew upon the rapture of Bollywood when he made “Moulin Rouge!,” and films like “Lagaan” (2001), a transporting three-hour-and-45-minute class-war operetta about a cricket match (it was the last Indian film before “RRR” to be nominated for an Academy Award), and “Dangal” (2016), a wrestling epic rooted in the rising mores of girl power, had inspirational plots that staked out their own nationalistic identity.
In recent years, however, something in Bollywood has shifted. What you’re seeing in “Pathaan” isn’t so much the apotheosis of an Indian action film as the fusion of decades of international styles of mega-powered meta-pulp: the layered double crosses and high-flying daredevilry of the “Mission: Impossible” and “Bourne” franchises, the twirling-in-and-out-of-slow-motion balletics of Hong Kong action cinema, the time-stands-still hypnotics of Sergio Leone, the defiantly over-the-top vehicular madness of the “Fast and Furious” films, and the bodies-bodies-bodies party vibe of a sexy-chic tequila commercial, all poured into a smelting pot and sealed with the who’s the biggest badass? mano-a-mano obsessiveness that’s one of the defining features of the YRF Spy Universe, of which this film is the latest installment.
The characters in “Pathaan” often speak like movie posters (“Be rich. Be powerful. Or be a corpse”). They’re photographed like model-gods, and though “Pathaan” isn’t a musical, the music that plays during the action sequences is an overwhelming constant — that EDM Bollywood throb, revving even routine battles to a maximum rush. Khan, who suggests a sleeker, more ripped Adam Driver in a man-bun, plays the title character, a veteran RAW agent who’s gone undercover and been left for dead, though he shows up in an early scene, bloody and battered, tied to a torturer’s chair. He then frees himself and defeats his captors in the first of what must be the film’s two dozen whirling, crunching, gravity-defying fight scenes. This is the sort of movie in which even Pathaan walking in slo-mo slipping on his aviator sunglasses counts as an action moment.
His mission is to stop Jim (Abraham), an agent who has gone rogue and leads Outfit X, an international terror organization that commits atrocities for profit. I wouldn’t even try to describe the plot of “Pathaan,” which zigs and zags all over the globe, and all over the place, in a way that defies logic. The film’s only real logic is its pop fetishization of power (bullet power, fire power, 12-pack-ab power), along with its enthusiastic mutating of genres — now it’s a heist movie, now it’s a human-superhero-with-machine-wings movie, now it’s a contagion thriller with Jim threatening to unleash the power of Raktjeeb, a killer virus that makes COVID look like the common cold. What’s in it for Jim? From what we can tell, the sheer megalomaniacal pleasure of it all.
This may sound like a recipe for fun, but “Pathaan” has a stop-and-go rhythm, and a strung-together structure, that grows wearying. (Two-and-a-half hours of frenetic derivative pulp is a lot of pulp.) There’s a car chase through Dubai, a motorcycle chase on ice, and a hand-to-hand fight at the climax in which Pathaan and Jim go at each other so hard that the wooden shack in which they’re fighting starts to slip down the mountain stilts it’s perched on. “RRR” was no model of restraint (and some critics salivated over its overwrought fairy-tale technological bravura in a way that felt vaguely patronizing), but it was a work of high classical precision next to “Pathaan.” Yet I must say I’m glad that Indian films are finding a home here. Here’s hoping, as in the old days, that they bring a new spirit to our cinemas, rather than just blending in with what we’re already doing.