There are some that call him … Jim.
He was once one of India’s very best secret agents: the rescuer of countless innocents, the killer of countless villains, the man willing to make any sacrifice for his beloved mother country.
Or so he thought. Until one day, he did. Jim’s wife and unborn child were killed in front of him, and he was left for dead, too.
But talented secret agents are a resilient lot. Jim stitched himself up, dusted himself off and got back to work, this time as a nefarious terrorist and killer for hire. And it seems as though someone’s hired him to do a particularly nasty bit of work.
No one in the Indian government knows exactly what that work is just yet. It goes under the codename Raktbeej, a reference to a Hindu demon that would multiply with every drop of its blood that hit the ground. Presumably, the plot could be pretty bad.
But how does one go about fighting a wildly talented, once-presumed-to-be-dead turncoat secret agent? Why, by turning to your own wildly talented, once-presumed-to-be-dead secret agent, of course.
Pathaan is that agent. Years before, he’d been on Jim’s trail and on the brink of finding out what Raktbeej was all about. Alas, a bitter betrayal spelled the end of Pathaan’s mission and nearly the end of Pathaan, as well. But he escaped (naturally), and India’s desperate government turns to him once again to set things right.
Then there’s a woman named Rubai: a double, triple and perhaps quadruple agent. She just may be the key to unlocking Jim’s nefarious plans. Pathaan knows her well. And he has a score to settle with her, too.
Most American films shy away from rah-rah patriotism these days. We’re often a bit more suspicious of our government and its institutions. Still, it’s refreshing to see a hero—and a film—that embraces his country so enthusiastically.
Pathaan is indeed a patriot. While Jim eschews national borders for global villainy, our titular hero sees himself as a soldier for “Mother India,” the country that in some ways literally raised him. (Pathaan was in and out of public institutions for most of his childhood, and he must’ve felt India did a pretty good job by him.) That said, he’s not above breaking a few rules to do what he sees as right: When a colleague is waterboarded by his own government, he breaks in and breaks that colleague out (apologizing profusely to the interrogators as he leaves).
And certainly, one cannot question his heroism. He somehow blows up a missile that would’ve killed 30 kids in an Afghan village. He values innocent lives over catching the bad guys (though he lets the bad guys go fairly grudgingly), and, of course, he has no qualms about putting his life on the line every 90 seconds or so.
Pathaan gets plenty of help from his own squad of do-gooders. And he’s on mostly good terms with his equally committed and patriotic boss, Nandini. He simply calls her “ma’am” throughout most of the movie, which is a nicely old-fashioned bit of deference in this outlandishly aggressive movie.
India’s religious tapestry is notoriously complex, and spiritual nods and references are found throughout. Not a drop of it is Christian.
When someone asks Pathaan if he’s Muslim, he admits that he’s not sure “what I am or who I am.” His name, however, is Muslim—a moniker he received in a village in Afghanistan after an act of heroism. He says that every year, he makes a point of traveling back to that village to celebrate the Islamic festival of Eid al-Fitr (the traditional three-day commemoration of the end of Ramadan).
As mentioned, the codename Raktbeej is taken from a Hindu demon, and at least once Jim says that he himself is Raktbeej. We hear references to “god” and hell, and someone’s last words are, “In the name of Lord Shiva” (the latter a reference to the Hindu god of destruction). We also hear allusions to jinn (supernatural spirits or demons in Islam), and a man says, “It’s time to befriend the devil.”
One interesting note: Rubai wears a saffron-colored bikini during a musical number—a color associated in Hindu with the religion’s saints and ascetics. That color choice helped spark a number of real-world demonstrations by Hindus in India.
Pathaan and Rubai are clearly attracted to one another, and many of their interactions are fraught with sexual tension. At one point, the two spies share a honeymoon suite as part of their cover, and Rubai appears to try to seduce Pathaan. (Their on-screen interaction is sequestered to a rather sensual bandage change to a midsection bullet wound Rubai suffered.) Rubai also greets Pathaan sensually, nearly embracing the spy with her leg—but only (apparently) so that Pathaan can peel off the layer of fake, print-snagging “skin” from it. All that said, we never see the couple even kiss.
At another juncture, Rubai flirts with a mark at a Russian nightclub and gets the man to press his hand on his thigh.
Most of Rubai’s outfits seem to run out of fabric right around where the ribcage ends, revealing plenty of tummy to the camera. She wears cleavage-baring eveningwear and skimpy bikinis, as do dozens of women we see in the background. Rubai and Pathaan hire a Russian prostitute to distract a government official. Pathaan, mesmerized by the woman’s ample cleavage, asks if she’d like to make an easy “20,000 rubles,” but accidentally uses a slang term for breasts instead.
Pathaan and Jim both are seen shirtless, and the film clearly wants to make the audience aware of—and perhaps ogle at—their respective physiques. A couple of dance numbers feel wildly sensual and even titillating.
If fight scenes were calories, Pathaan would be the equivalent of a of a porterhouse steak with a supersize side of fettuccine alfredo.
Most of the film is stuffed with action and violent sequences—way, way too numerous to unpack in any sort of detail here. But if fistfights and spectacular wrestling moves and throws and flips are your thing, you’ll see plenty. (And even if they’re not, you’ll still see plenty.)
Amid all the movie’s violent frenzy, audiences will hear, and in at least one case see, bones snap. Characters can be hung or strangled. Several folks are shot and killed. (A bad guy points a gun at a pregnant woman’s belly. The camera turns away, but we hear what appears to be a machine gun at work, and we know both the woman and her unborn child are gone.) Characters are stabbed with knives and other sharp implements (including broken champagne glasses). And a few folks die (presumably) after being pushed or fall from dizzying heights. Someone nearly drowns.
We should note that our hero, Pathaan, has no qualms whatsoever about killing. While in Western films the heroes often make half-hearted efforts to keep the bad guys alive long enough to face justice, that’s no concern here: In fact, a government official makes Pathaan promise to kill Jim—and make it hurt.
A couple of extra-special elements to make note of.
We see people tortured quite a bit—and sometimes the movie seems to condone it. One villain has clearly gone through the interrogation wringer; but when he’s not forthcoming with information, Pathan threatens the man’s family, too—and is finally told what he needs to know.
A man gets strung upside-down and covered with plenty of bloody cuts. Another is tied to a chair, and he’s clearly been punched and beaten while there. We see flashbacks to a man being waterboarded, and a woman in the present is waterboarded as well.
Several people commit suicide. While all of those deaths take place off camera, we see one person point a gun to her head before committing the act and soon hear several gunshots.
Vehicles blow up. A train slithers off a broken bridge and crashes into a canyon. A plane nearly blows up. Bad guys get mowed down via automatic weapons.
[Spoiler Warning] Raktbeej centers around a modified strain of smallpox—one without an antidote, and one that kills its victims in hours. We see several people contract the disease and watch as horrible boils cover their faces. (We’re told that, on a scale of 10, the pain the victims will experience will be around 13 or 14.) A village apparently contracts the plague, too: The ground around the village is strewn with bodies. A character is dying from cancer.
A few uses of “d–n” and “h—” is all that mars the dubbed dialogue.
Two karaoke-singing part-time pilots seem to be crazy drunk while they perform. During a critical flight, one pilot quaffs what appears to be beer from a huge bottle and nearly spoils the operation while trying to pick up the dropped carafe. A couple of characters take analgesics.
Characters deal with acts of betrayal, either real or presumed. Nandini (Pathaan’s boss), makes fun of her boss’s paunch—thinking he’s a hologram.
Pathaan is one part James Bond, one part Mission Impossible, one part superhero flick and all parts crazy.
I don’t necessarily mean that as an insult, by the way. Indian action movies tend to go big (see our review of RRR as more proof), seemingly pushing their scripts through some sort of caffeinated action refinery machine. Pathaan makes Ethan Hawke’s MI derring-do feel like the stuff of a quaint BBC drama. It makes the Fast and the Furious movies look like staid documentaries. Captain America looks at Pathaan and wonders just what sort of super serum he took.
It’s not every movie in which a character speed-skates over a frozen lake to retrieve a biological bomb while being chased by motorcycles. Or where two characters strap on turbo-powered wings and battle like Top Gun pilots sans planes. Or where another pair of characters double-handedly take down an entire train of evildoers and a helicopter, and then escape said train by running on its roof(s) as the whole shebang plummets down a canyon.
Now, with all this action comes problems. Plenty of folks don’t make it to the credits alive, and some die in pretty violent ways. Pathaan sports plenty of blood. And in the few rare moments where the story pauses to catch its breath, characters are liable to break into sensuous dance numbers that somehow feel more erotic than many an R-rated nude scene.
Pathaan slides into theaters without a rating: If the MPA did decide to rate it, it’d likely slide through with a PG-13 one—even if at times, it feels worse.
Expect more of the same. Part of distributor Yash Raj Films’ shared “spy universe,” Pathaan sets the stage for a future Avengers-style mashup. (We get a cameo from “Tiger,” another superspy from said universe, who already has two films under his belt.) But for those sensitive to blood, leery of lithe titillation or like their spy stories more stirring, less shaken, future trips to this universe might be out of the question.
And Pathaan might want to slip back into the shadows.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.