Pathaan Completes the Westernization of Bollywood
The box office record-breaking “Pathaan” is the least Bollywood, Bollywood film ever, and that’s a bad thing for the storied industry.
Shah Rukh Khan and his contemporaries, such as Salman Khan (Hum Aapke Hain Koun, 1994) and Aamir Khan (Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, 1992), entered the Hindi film industry with a bang in the early ’90s, lending a more vibrant, noticeably western jolt to the signature Bollywood formula. Yet, their western flair was always grounded in reverence for traditional Indian values (I.e., modesty, marriage, and respect for elders). Ensuring their “bad boy” looks were complemented by Sherwanis and Bindis in the next scene. Though a bulk of Bollywood features during this era were, essentially, Hollywood rip-offs (at least plot-wise) they were still firmly rooted in the iconic Bollywood style, rife with lavish musical numbers and three-hour runtimes, with only blotches of the western counterpart seeping through.
Even SRK’s star-cementing, romance classic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) — where he played a dashing, leather jacket sporting NRI out of touch with his Indian background— populated the idea that it was possible to be both western and wholly Indian at once. Assimilating into a foreign culture need not mean camouflaging oneself within it. Proving it was cool to be in touch with your “Indianness” regardless of whether you’re in the grey cityscapes of London, the mountainous beauty of Switzerland, or the verdant mustard fields of Punjab.
This era of shifting demographics, boasting a growing number of youth more susceptible to change, surprisingly retained its Bollywood identity. Emphasizing traditional Indian values and culture, with only slight dashes of the Hollywood influence fluttering onto the silver screen.
In 2023, that dynamic has inverted, with the Hollywood machine enveloping the better part of the subcontinent and its storied cinematic structure. Shah Rukh Khan’s latest blockbuster, Pathaan (his first feature role since 2018’s Zero) represents the apotheosis of this encroaching westernization— and its shattering global box office success only means this growing homogenization of Indian cinema (and world cinema for that matter) will only gain steam.
The globetrotting spy actioner is not only the highest-grossing film of SRK’s career but is the second-highest-grossing Hindi film of all time, even surpassing the North American collection of S.S. Rajamouli’s lauded Telegu epic, RRR. For many North American audiences, the latter film represented an electric entry point into Indian cinema, as its kinetic dance numbers and bombastic action sequences represented all that was lacking in the more muted, overly serious fare that has come to dominate the western form of blockbuster filmmaking. Despite, international cinema making greater waves in the Americas (especially after Parasite’s big Oscar win), Indian cinema’s perception among western viewers seldom shifted until the monumental release of RRR.
Its distinct, unabashed “Indianness” is at the core of its success, but Pathaan (despite its overt patriotism) lacks almost all the tenets of its predecessors. Gone are the bevy of dance numbers, the three-hour-plus runtime, and cultural modesty, and in are the corny one-liners (delivered in English), meta references (featuring a funny nod to SRK’s Daar), and cinematic universes. Its plot centered on the titular Indian spy (Khan) who must collaborate with a Pakistani agent (Deepika Padukone) to take down the nefarious leader (John Abraham) of a mercenary outfit is nothing to write home about. But it’s given force by being the fourth entry into the “YRF Spy Universe”, kicking off the first official crossover of established characters, with Salman Khan’s successful “Tiger” persona duking it out with the bad guys alongside SRK’s Pathaan halfway through the film. Not to mention a Marvel-like mid-credits scene that references the third entry, War, while alluding to future films in the series.
In using the established success of cinematic universes, Pathaan emulates the American blockbuster model to draw greater worldwide audiences, in direct contrast to what made hits like RRR and Aamir Khan’s Dangal eclectic and ultimately eye-catching. The result is filmmaking that is all but western in name, dampening the culture shock that might scare prospective viewers away. It’s no surprise that other Bollywood cinematic universes, such as Rohit Shetty’s “Cop Universe” and the superhero-like “Astraverse”, are following suit with more planned entries. Pathaan’s inviting but homogenized approach, littered with moments devoted to building up sequels and spin-offs, threatens to zap Bollywood of its central identity, solely rendering it a culturally diverse extension of the tired action output that dominates much of western cinema today. Instead of being a bold cultural blend, its tapestry of action is defined by tones far more anglicized than Indian.
This is directly seen in the moment-to-moment dialogue. Though Hindi is often spoken with seemingly random bursts of English, the screenplay puts more emphasis on the latter. The antagonist often underpins his evil reveals with phrases like “what’s it going to be buddy?” and “checkmate”. At one point even Pathaan himself takes the time to tell Padukone’s Rubina that she “looks bomb”. These westernized one-liners, in tandem with the bombastic gunplay, shudder the film into a realm more in common with the cheesy American blockbusters of the 90s than with the subcontinent’s iconic cinematic tradition.
Moreover, the film merely boasts two short dance sequences, with the more famous, TikTok trend-inspiring of the two occurring during the credits (which is a feature not uncommon in Hollywood films). While the signature plot-halting song and dance are among many of the gripes foreign viewers have against the Bollywood form, in Pathaan, the sole in-narrative number surprisingly serves a functional purpose. Introducing Rubina’s character and leading to a mid-act plot twist. While modifying a core tenant of the Bollywood formula to appeal to a global audience isn’t an issue in itself, it is when the musical number is as brief, over-edited, and forgettable as it is in Pathaan. Though numerous dance numbers are designed to increase secondary revenues through album sales, many Indian dance sequences are choreographed with such care and dedication, they often become one of the most defining elements of the film. Look no further than the internet-breaking (and Oscar-nominated) “Naatu Naatu” sequence in RRR.
In downplaying its “Indianness”, and emphasizing an Americanized tone and universe-building, Pathaan fails to create a unique identity for itself, coasting off its iconic star power and familiar, Occidentalized beats to box office royalty. Its global success is sure to mark a stylistic turning point for Bollywood— one that is fixated on being the “Indian” version of more famous American films. Rather than relishing in the bounty of stellar stories and cultural vibrancy of the Indian experience, Pathaan ushers in an era where Bollywood is content floating on the safe, tepid waters of the modern western blockbuster.
Where once the charismatic persona of Shah Rukh Khan, with his signature pose, reassured Indians it was possible to be in tune with their cultural roots while being western— now, only an overwhelming vision of the latter remains. Replacing that beautiful cinematic marriage of cultures with only a whitewashed image. While it is great to see a Bollywood film thrive in North America, can we really call it a “Bollywood” movie if it sheds everything that portmanteau represents apart from a mere link to the nation it hails from? It’s the least Bollywood, Bollywood film ever and marks the beginning of the end of the industry’s distinct, storied identity.
– Prabhjot Bains