Cultural Studies, the film Pathaan and the Construction of Popular Culture

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Film review of Pathaan


By Shashwati Ghose, Ph.D.*

Some sociologists, in analysing the film Pathaan from the perspective of ‘popular culture,’ have identified key themes of identity, nationalism, masculinity, love, and hope, to explain the film’s mass popularity. (Editorial Note, Doing Sociology, 2023)

Moreover, German sociologists of the Frankfurt School of Thought, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1947) had pronounced that popular culture is not about art and aesthetics but is a product of the culture industry wherein the passive masses are driven into a base, commoners’ culture and are prone to mass deception.

 I have here a somewhat different point of view.

My viewpoint is fortified by new cultural studies of Stuart Hall (2017) and a summing-up of foundational research on the nature and terms of popular fandom (Purnima Mankekar, 1999). The path-breaking studies of Shrayana Bhattacharya’s book (2021) titled ‘Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh Khan: India’s lonely young women and the search for intimacy and Independence’ and Lakshmi Srinivas’s (2016) ‘House full: Indian Cinema and the Active audience’ based on the original and painstaking ethnographic study on the character and behaviour of Indian film audiences, have been inspirational. Also, the media reporting of the responses to the worldwide release of Pathaan. The above has brought new information and shed new light which has encouraged me to think afresh on ingredients of mass popularity and to question some of the existing points of view.  

Forty years back in 1983, the Jamaican scholar Stuart Hall came from England to the University of Illinois, USA and delivered a series of lectures on “Cultural Studies.” Academics at that time, were divided between ‘what Hall termed the “authenticated, validated” tastes of the upper classes and the unrefined culture of the masses.’ (Hsu, Hua 2017) Many academics considered a serious study of popular culture as being beneath their dignity. However, Hall did not give much importance to this hierarchy.  ‘Culture, he argued, does not consist of what the educated Ć©lites happen to fancy, such as classical music or the fine arts. It is, simply, “experience lived, experience interpreted, experience defined.”’ And it can be more revelatory about the world than more traditional studies of politics and economics alone could. (Hua Hsu, 2017)

Mass-based culture or the commoner’s culture is termed popular culture. The above-referred sociologists appear to contend that the mass popularity of Pathaan is explained by the themes or concepts of identity, nationalism, masculinity, love, family and hope. I argue that the basis of the film’s mass popularity must be sought in elements and ingredients of mass entertainment and mass pleasure. This is possible only when the abstract concepts of identity, nationalism/patriotism, masculinity, love, romance, family and hope are depicted in ways that the masses can understand and enjoy. For that, you need to have iconic actors (like Deepika Padukone and John Abraham not just SRK), an interesting plot and script, inspiring and meaningful dialogue, engaging frames and episodes of active action and thrills, song-and-dance sequences, and moments of great suspense. The action is fast-paced and energetic like a Real Madrid football match involving ace football players like Messi and Ronaldo in rival teams. Or a T-20 cricket match in which Yuvraj Singh smacks six sixes in an over of six balls. Pathaan is also a film that shows a lot of technical supremacy, modernised action, and modern costume design like that in James Bond or Batman movies or Marvel Universe, factors that further explain its mass popularity. This in essence is, according to me, the route of the blockbuster success of the film Pathaan.

The paper discusses and compares the films Om Shanti Om and Chennai Express with Pathaan to show how these individual blockbusters were ‘hits’ due to the budding chemistry between Deepika and SRK, besides the other factors mentioned above.

Comparing three SRK blockbusters: Pathaan, Om Shanti Om and Chennai Express

Genre and plot:

Pathaan is a 2023 action thriller – spy film, starring  Shah Rukh Khan in the titular role with Deepika PadukoneJohn AbrahamDimple Kapadia, and Ashutosh Rana. Its plot revolves around Pathaan (Khan), an exiled RAW agent, who an abandoned orphan, is adopted by an Afghan family after Pathaan rescues 30 children attending a madrasa in an Afghan village. It is this adoption which gives Pathaan his identity. Pathaan returns every year to celebrate Eid with his adoptive Afghan family. Pathaan  works with ISI agent Rubina Mohsin (Padukone) to take down Jim (Abraham), a former RAW agent, who plans to attack India with a deadly virus. After much suspense, action, and romance, Pathaan finally defeats Jim with Rubina Mohsin’s help, deactivating the deadly virus with Jim’s detonator. India wins. Pathaan joins the RAW.

Om Shanti Om is a 2007 romantic fantasy film starring Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone and Arjun Rampal. The film is about Om (Khan) who is a junior film artist in 1977 and after dying in a fire (caused by the villain Mukesh (Rampal)) when he loses both his love Shantipriya (Deepika) and his own life, is reborn and emerges as a rich superstar in 2007. He sets out to seek revenge from Mukesh who had betrayed his wife, Shantipriya. and in turn meets Shantipriya’s look-alike Sandy. Om organises the finale where Mukesh is killed by a chandelier that falls on him at the behest of Shantipriya’s ghost.

Chennai Express is a 2013 action romantic comedy film. It stars Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan. The film revolves around Rahul Mithaiwala (Khan), a rich man who accidentally boards the train Chennai Express and journeys from Mumbai to Rameswaram with the daughter (Padukone) of an influential don who is fleeing from a forced marriage to another don.

These three SRK films are all action-packed thrillers: Pathaan is all about spies, agents and a nation in danger. Om Shanti Om is a romantic fantasy about unrequited love and re-incarnation.  While, Chennai Express is a romantic comedy that dwells on a train journey as well as on rescuing the damsel in distress.

Star power: All three films are star-studded with Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone being common and the third villain being different.

Themes: While Pathaan harps on nationalism, patriotism, masculinity, it shares the themes of love and romance, with Om Shanti Om and Chennai Express. Om Shanti Om is a fantasy film whereas Chennai Express is a comedy on (railway) wheels. Besides, Om Shanti Om portrays the mythmaking of Bollywood[1]

Script pace: Pathaan scores over the other two films in terms of its fast-paced script like an action-filled sports event with iconic players.

Dialogue: These films have a smattering of memorable dialogues which hit the common man: “Ek soldier yeh nahi poochta Desh ne uske liye kya kiya.. Poochta hain woh Desh ke liye kya kar sakta hai.” (Pathaan)

“Agar kisi cheez ko dil se chaaho to puri kayanat usey tumse milane ki koshish mein lag jaati hai.” And “Picture abhi baaki hai mere dost…” (Om Shaanti Om)

 “Don’t underestimate the power of a common man” (Chennai Express)

‘Masala’ movies: The ingredients of mass popularity of all these three films are more or less common: star-studded, song-and-dance, action packed, fast-paced, and full of thrills and suspense.

On the Sociology of Doing. Doing what? The sociology of Mass culture or Popular culture where culture is no longer art or aesthetics but is an industry producing products of mass entertainment like films, television, recorded music, sports, newspapers and magazines called the ‘culture industry.’ As Anthony Giddens (2009) says “Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno (1947) argued that in mass societies the production of culture has become just as standardised and dominated by the desire of profits as other industries… cultural products are targeted at the largest possible audience. In a mass society, the leisure industry was used to induce appropriate values amongst the public.” According to Adorno and Horkheimer, the culture industry, particularly popular films, are used to manipulate mass society into passivity; the culture industry was an instrument of mass deception.

Literature about the viewing publics in India (Mankekar 1999) is extremely limited and audience reception studies are late entrants in Indian film studies (Srinivas 2002, 2010, 2016).

Author Lakshmi Srinivas (2016) says that the Eurocentric Model of Adorno and Horkheimer assumes a passive audience that receives and processes a movie’s message. In this model, an audience consists of individuals each ‘reading’ a film as though it were a ‘text.’ They are not expressive or active. Not so with an Indian audience.

Srinivas’s study of audience reactions contradicts such a model of Eurocentrism and bases itself on the Indian experience of active audiences. Rather, these active audiences are the engines to decide whether the film succeeds at the box office or flops in generating revenues. Bindu Menon Manil’s (2023) essay, on ‘Interrupted Histories: Pathaan, Ambivalent Fans and the Affection for Cinema’ is in the opposite spectrum of Srinivas’ observation that fans are very clear-headed, they either worship if the film is to their liking or they react negatively if they are disappointed with the film in question.

The very first page of Lakshmi Srinivas’ “House Full ! …,” which gives a detailed ethnographic description of an Indian cinema audience, is electrifying, runs as follows:

“People talk throughout the film; piercing whistles yells and cheers from boisterous “front benchers” punctuate the screening. Cinema halls are sites of performance and spectacle both on and off the screen. Young men shout out improvised dialogue, make “catcalls” and lewd comments, people sing or hum along with the songs, and some may even dance. Audiences are known to import ritual practices of (Hindu) worship to the cinema hall as they propitiate the stars on-screen with incense and lighted camphor and throw coins and flowers at the screen in appreciation. If the film fails to live up to expectations, or if the electricity goes off, viewers take out their frustration on their surroundings, ripping the upholstery with razor blades and knives. Audiences also wreak havoc on seating, “pull the stuffing out” in carnivalesque exuberance when, for example, they respond to on-screen spectacle such as the heroine’s charms.”

This is not only about Indian cinema audiences in general. As the Indian Express reported (January 26, 2023) on videos of the first-day-first-show screening of the movie, Pathaan fever gripped film fans. Cinema halls across India were transformed into dance clubs and Shah Rukh fans burst crackers, from Kerala to Bhagalpur to Jalgaon.

Pathaan madness: Several cinemas are now reporting damage to the screens because of the frenzy caused by Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Pathaan, which released to blockbuster response on January 25. Exhibitors limit inflow of people as fans break into frenzy, dance near screen and break seats.[2]

A viral video from Kolkata says it all. “This is #Kolkata now, the #Boycott gang has no impact here.  Fans coined new slogan to counter #BoycottPathaanMovie brigade. They say “shiray shiray rakto, shah rukh khan er bhakto” ( Blood flowing in the veins are of #ShahRukhKhanš“€  devotees)[3].

Srinivas (2016) also shows that the audience has broadened to include a growing middle-class clientele, including women – not to mention the Indian diaspora, ‘Non-Resident Indians’ (NRI).

The special place of NRIs in building the mass popularity of Pathaan was revealed when SRK fan clubs organised shows across the world, in countries as varied as USA, UK, Egypt, Syria, Peru, Argentina, Mexico, Malaysia and even most of the Gulf countries. Shah Rukh Khan's Fan Club had organised Pathaan First Day First Show for 50,000 SRK Fans.[4] SRK’s fans in Dubai, Lima, Brazil, Germany and the USA had already booked their tickets and were awaiting the first-day first show of Pathaan.

Fandom and Mass popularity

The question of passive audiences being victims of mass deception raised by Adorno and Horkheimer, inter-alia also raises the questions:

Are masses homogeneous? Is mass popularity indivisible? Or can it be divided into its various heterogeneous segments? The studies of Shrayana Bhattacharya (2021) and Lakshmi Srinivas (2016) provide us with a complete answer.

Shrayana Bhattacharya the author of the book - Desperately seeking Shah Rukh Khan – is a World Bank economist and a fervent fan of Shah Rukh Khan. In fandom slang, such a self-identified academic fan is referred to as an ‘Acafan’. Ghazala Jamil (2022) in her EPW review of Bhattacharya’s book, remarks that she has seen more academics unabashedly fawning and following Shah Rukh Khan than any other star. Their numbers are not small. Besides, Bhattacharya’s main focus is on the plentiful flock of lonely young women who are romantically attached with the persona of their object of adoration: Shah Rukh Khan. Women cine-fans are also separately studied by Lakshmi Srinivas (2010) in her article titled “Ladies Queues, ‘Roadside Romeos,’ and Balcony Seating: Ethnographic Observations on Women’s Cinema-going Experiences.” Lakshmi Srinivas (2002, 2016) also identifies the common crowd, the middle class and the NRIs as constituting the audience of popular Indian films. If we add all this up, SRK’s fandom is a sum of these heterogeneous fandoms, i. e. Acafans, lonely young women, other women, the common crowd, the middle-class, and the NRIs, subject to some overlapping of these separate, heterogeneous fandoms. All these fandoms, as characterised by their descriptions in the different ethnographic studies, are constituted by thinking people who react and respond. Hence, they cannot be passive cinema audiences subject to mass-deception, as portrayed by Adorno and Horkheimer. This brings us to the construction of popular culture.

How the Mass Popularity of Pathaan is Constructed?

We consider here the proposition that the mass popularity of Pathaan is constructed in terms of different themes of identity, family and home, nationalism/ patriotism, secular harmony and romantic love. To reiterate, our thesis is that the mass popularity of Pathaan is not explained alone by the themes or concepts of identity, nationalism, masculinity, love, family and hope. I argue that the basis of the film’s mass popularity must be sought in elements and ingredients of mass entertainment and mass-pleasure, which the audience can understand, appreciate and enjoy.  

Identity, family, and home

Paromita Vohra (2023) draws our attention to the Kya Tum Musalman Ho? scene in Pathaan. Pathaan’s answer to this question is ambivalent and roundabout. He does not provide demographic or religious details of his birth but provides a story of belonging and connection. As Madhavi Menon (2023) recounts in her review of the film Pathaan in Frontline, “Pathaan is a Pathan, not because he was “born” that way, or because his “blood” is Muslim, but because he has chosen to be. He rescues 30 children attending a madrasa in an Afghan village, and, in turn, the villagers adopt him as their own. He returns every year to celebrate Eid with his family. As an orphan who was left outside a cinema theatre…, his Afghan family is the only family Pathaan has known.” It is this Afghan family that saves India by luring the villains into a trap, at the end. Pathaan’s identity is not just a mark of religion, caste and kinship or residence but is in holistic and humane terms of belongingness and comfort. It is this graphic representation of identity that the masses – whomsoever – can easily identify without being confronted with any distinctive characteristic of privilege or hierarchy. In fact when Pathaan was screened for the first time, the public responded loudly and passionately: Social Media reactions ranged from ‘Vanquisher’ to “#Pathaan is High Voltage Action Drama with convincing story, …#ShahRukhKhan performance is outstanding..,Too many surprise and twist.” And “best spy thriller film. The solid comeback of Shah Rukh Khan. …Explosive action scene and that cameo”[5]

Nationalism/ Patriotism 

In Pathaan there is an India-Pakistan angle as the exiled RAW agent Pathaan represents India whereas Rubina Mohsin is an ISI agent and a spy for Pakistan. Abjuring the temptation of building a background of India-Pakistan rivalry, Islamophobia and a Hindu-Muslim religious divide, Pathaan strikes a surprising chord of secular harmony (Madhavi Menon, 2023).  Whereas the appeal of the film Kashmir Files which portrays the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits is based on the politics of narrow nationalism and polarisation, the amazing width of the much greater mass appeal of Pathaan is based on the underlying filmic expression of secular harmony. These two world-views appear to compete and collide in the space of filmdom. That is why Hindutva forces valiantly and desperately tried to defame Pathaan as being anti-national only because the female lead was portraying a Pakistani spy who, to top it all, was wearing a saffron bikini.

In an interview with Vox.com, an Indian film expert, Rahul Desai, explains Pathaan’s subversive political message. “The significance of the title is that patriotism isn’t a Hindu birthright anymore. It’s not tied to a certain kind of religion. …(But) it’s not about what kind of Muslim you are or where you come from. It’s the fact that your love for your country,…should not be hijacked by one particular community…” (Sharma, Swati, 2023)

Desai adds: “The film is a signal that there is still a place for a very old kind of patriotism and secularism that our country and Bollywood specifically grew up showcasing.That is why the box office success of Pathaan is a measuring stick for the conscience of the nation right now.” (ibid)

Madhavi Menon (2023) is ecstatic: “Pakistanis as allies rather than enemies, Afghans as saviours rather than aliens, Indian Muslims as protectors rather than foreigners—this is the milieu in which the film operates. This is the most political, most daring, and… exhilarating assertion of Indian syncretism. As Pathaan says with an urgency…: “Desh ka sawal hai.”” Patriotism here is not abstract but has a real context of syncretism and ‘nation in danger’ and how to save it. The masses go crazy and lap it up.

Love and Romance

In Pathaan love and romance are obviously not abstract themes but depicted as accepted reality, both obvious and subdued. The two songs Besharam Rang and Jhoome Jo Pathaan are accompanied by enthralling dance steps. Romance in Pathaan is sometimes understated and subtle as when Pathaan tells Rubina his Pakistani counterpart that “Khauf humme andhaa banaa deta hai (Fear makes us blind). To which Rubina responds “I am not your enemy.” And Pathaan seems to agree. The masses have no difficulty in understanding the nuances of love.  

Conclusion

By analysing the film in terms of its popular content and themes that speak to the masses and appeal to the national sentiments of secularism, syncretism and patriotism, I have shown that it is not abstract themes or concepts, Popular culture is, simply, “experience lived, experience interpreted, experience defined” as the great Jamaican sociologist, Stuart Hall, put it way back in 1983 (Hsu, Hua 2017). The significance of cultural and ethnographic studies from Stuart Hall onwards, including those of Purnima Mankekar, Shrayana Bhattacharya, Lakshmi Srinivas, Ghazala Jamil, Madhavi Menon up to those of the most creative blog ‘Doing Sociology’, cannot be undermined or belittled. 

References:

1.    Bhattacharya, S. (2021). Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence. Harper Collins.

2.    Editorial Note. (2023, July 29). Pathaan, Meri Jaan…Memoirs, Analyses and Reflections in Doing Sociology: Building the Sociological Imagination.

3.    Giddens, Anthony. (2009). Sociology, 6th edition. Wiley India.

4.    Hsu, Hua. (2017, July 17). Stuart Hall and the Rise of Cultural Studies. The New Yorker.

https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/stuart-hall-and-the-rise-of-cultural-studies

5.    Horkheimer, M. and Adorno, T. W. (2002[1947]) Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).

6.    Jamil, Ghazala. (2022, December 31). (Scholar) Fans and Fandom Studies. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol LVII No. 53

7.    Manil, Bindu Menon. (2023, July 30). Interrupted Histories: Pathaan, Ambivalent Fans and the Affection for Cinema. in Doing Sociology: Building the Sociological Imagination.

8.    Mankekar, Purnima (1999): Screening Culture, Viewing Politics, Durham: Duke University Press.

9.     Menon, M. (2023, February 14). How ‘Pathaan’ gives the secular credentials of Bollywood a new boost of life. Frontline.

https://frontline.thehindu.com/arts-and-culture/cinema/how-pathaan-gives-secular-credentials-of-bollywood-a-new-boost-of-life/article66508417.ece

10. Puri, Paridhi. (2023, February 15). Bollywood Mythmaking in Om Shanti Om in Opium of the Masses, substack.com.

https://paridhipuri.substack.com/p/bollywood-mythmaking-in-om-shanti

11. Sharma, Swati. (2023, February 10). Breaking down Pathaan, the most popular movie in the world, Vox.com

https://www.vox.com/culture/23592808/pathaan-shah-rukh-khan-bollywood

 

12. Srinivas, Lakshmi (2002): “The Active Audience: Spectatorship, Social Relations and the Experience of Cinema in India,” Media, Culture & Society, Vol 24, No 2, pp 155–73.

— (2010): “Ladies Queues, ‘Roadside Romeos,’ and Balcony Seating: Ethnographic Observations on Women’s Cinema-going Experiences,” South Asian Popular Culture, Vol 8, No 3, pp 291–307.

— (2016): House Full: Indian Cinema and the Active Audience, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

13. Vohra, Paromita. (2023, July 30). Vasantasena’s Lychpin, Memory Games and Re-Membering in Pathaan: A Reading in Three Scenes. in Doing Sociology: Building the Sociological Imagination.

 

*Shashwati Ghose is a doctorate in Sociology from Jamia Millia Islamia and can be reached at shashwati1@gmail.com

[1] https://paridhipuri.substack.com/p/bollywood-mythmaking-in-om-shanti

[2] https://indianexpress.com/article/entertainment/bollywood/pathaan-madness-exhibitors-limit-inflow-of-people-as-fans-break-into-frenzy-dance-near-screen-break-seats-8410403/

[3] https://indianexpress.com/article/entertainment/bollywood/pathaan-theatre-reaction-videos-shah-rukh-khan-siddharth-anand-8405481/

[4] https://www.news18.com/news/entertainment/shah-rukh-khans-fan-club-to-organise-pathaan-first-day-first-show-for-50000-srk-fans-6829765.html

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