Talk about a comeback.

One of the biggest movie stars in the world is at one of the most tenuous moments in his career. Bollywood titan Shah Rukh Khan hasn’t made a movie in almost five years, his two most recent films failed to captivate audiences, he’s at odds with India’s ruling government, and his industry has been plagued by pandemic disruptions, boycotts from right-wing activists, and anger over nepotism. His latest film, which was released on January 25, is perhaps the biggest test of his star power in his 30-year career.

But the stakes of Khan’s movie Pathaan go far beyond the actor’s relevance. A Muslim man from a middle-class family, Khan hasn’t succumbed to the growing trend of Hindu nationalism that has dominated Bollywood for the last several years. He’s in fact been a target of the right-wing Hindutva government that has been in power since 2014, due to the charismatic star’s singular influence in India and many other parts of the world.

When the sleek high-budget action film Pathaan came out on the eve of India’s Republic Day, it became the biggest film in the world, knocking down Avatar: The Way of Water, which had held the top spot for weeks. Few predicted this level of success for the movie, but many are celebrating the beloved star’s return to the spotlight. The film has broken all sorts of records. It is one of the highest-grossing Hindi films of all time and, according to Deadline, the first Bollywood movie to earn $100 million without a release in China. It’s one thing to have huge box office numbers; it’s another to reach these kinds of milestones.

Though Bollywood is facing myriad issues, one thing is apparent: The Indian government’s mission of promoting Hindu nationalism above all else has wounded Hindi cinema’s freedom of expression, influence, and even profits. It seemed possible that these attempts would sink India’s biggest icon as well. But it didn’t. To unpack the significance of this film and the present and future of Bollywood, I spoke to Rahul Desai, a film critic at the Indian entertainment news site Film Companion. He walked me through why Pathaan’s success is attributed to much more than the substance of the movie and, after a decade of divisive Hindu nationalist sentiment in India, what happens next.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Like Hollywood, Bollywood — the Hindi film industry — was all but shut down during the pandemic. What was the state of the industry leading up to the release of Pathaan?

Before the pandemic, Hindi cinema was already struggling. There was a big nepotism scandal after a famous actor who was an outsider, Sushant Singh Rajput, died by suicide. There was a narrative that mainstream blockbusters from the South had an edge on the Hindi film industry, which is in northern India. The public caught a feeling that, to put it bluntly, Bollywood was the villain in Indian cinema. Covid only made things worse.

To be honest, since 2015 or 2016, I’ve struggled to make annual best movie lists because there have not been enough contenders. So unpopularity wasn’t completely unwarranted, but things got very toxic in the last few years, and Bollywood movies have been underperforming. The Marvel films that release in India and Telugu blockbusters like RRR outperform Hindi movies even in Mumbai, which is the center of the Hindi film industry.

Moviegoers take their pictures in front of a poster of the Bollywood movie ‘Pathaan’ at a cinema hall in Amritsar.

Fans take a selfie in front of a Pathaan poster in Amritsar, India.
Narinder Nanu/AFP via Getty Images

India has also changed a lot politically. The country, though a Hindu-majority nation, was founded on secular principles. But since 2014, the right-wing government has been promoting Hindu fundamentalism. It seems like the government is influencing Bollywood more than ever.

There has been a relationship between Bollywood and the government, but that relationship stopped at freedom of expression. Many film stars may have had their own political opinions, but that did not stop them from making movies that were expressive, and that were brave, and that were secular in many ways. Communalism and religious prejudice have always plagued this country. It’s just that this current particular establishment has weaponized that compared to the previous ones. Why? Because Bollywood has maximum influence over the masses, and they realized very quickly that this medium is how they will get their ideas across.

Because of that, the government has broken many of the powerful people in the industry into some kind of submission. Stars won’t speak up when one of their contemporaries is being harassed or when one of their own is being bullied. I can’t fault them for that, because their livelihoods and careers are at stake. It’s a very precarious situation for a lot of the celebrities to be in.

This has a knock-on effect on the kinds of films that are being made. The government’s hands are in the kind of stories being told and the kind of actors that are propped up, especially if they openly showcase their Hinduism. You see a rise of patriotic films that pretend to be patriotic, but they are obviously preaching a very different kind of nationalism as compared to, say, the films of the past that represented secular ideology and gentle patriotism, saying, We are proud of the country we are in, but it doesn’t have to cross the line. Now a lot of lines are being crossed.

This brings us to the topic at hand: Pathaan has been one of the most anticipated releases in Bollywood over the last few years. There are many reasons why, but one of the biggest is Shah Rukh Khan, or SRK. Give us a sense of who he is.

Khan has been the biggest superstar of the modern era in Hindi cinema, since the early 1990s. He has been the name that a lot of people associate with India. If you go to the most obscure foreign country, the one name people will know is Shah Rukh Khan. They’ll name one of his movies from the ’90s or hum one of his famous songs. He’s been an icebreaker for Indian travelers all over the world. He’s been that icon for three decades.

Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan greets his fans on his birthday, at Mannat, Bandra on November 2, 2022 in Mumbai, India.

Khan greets a crowd outside his Mumbai home on his birthday in November 2022.
Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

And, of course, Bollywood has many, many stars! In fact, there are two other Khans — Salman and Aamir. Along with SRK, these three Muslim actors were dominant in the 1990s and 2000s, and are still relevant today. But SRK, who is from a middle-class family and the only non-nepo baby of the group, speaks about secularism, has a father who was a freedom fighter for India’s independence, and transcends other stars in India.

Khan has the ultimate underdog story: He is the most famous outsider in the industry, and it’s always his story that wins cinema. People don’t just go to watch him so much as celebrate his story. He represents what can be accomplished if you just leave everything and travel to Mumbai with your bags, no matter how promising you were in other fields — and you become a superstar. To this day, people still come to Mumbai with him as the example to strive for. That very idea of the India that he and the three Khans represent is an inherently secular idea of India.

The three Khans have been mostly dominant for the last three decades. But for SRK, the last decade or so, as he entered his late 40s and now his late 50s, has been a struggle. His last films stopped working for a bunch of reasons, mostly because they were not very good. They were terrible. And he was not very good in them either, because he was at that awkward age where he didn’t know whether to be Shah Rukh Khan, or to be an actor, or to be a character actor.

It happens to many stars — he was trying to get a box office success, especially as the two other Khans, Aamir and Salman, continued to shine. If you look at the biggest hits in Bollywood, the top five spots before Pathaan were taken by Aamir and Salman Khan. I felt like at some point, SRK got insecure that he never broke records, though he was a safe bet. He was always everyone’s sort of ideal lover, ideal son, and a cultural icon. But he was not the biggest box office draw anymore. I think that got him into the race for box office success, and that’s when he started doing films that were pretty bad. For the first time in his 30-year career, he didn’t have a film release for almost five years, so it’s all built up to a story within a story, and that’s the prelude to Pathaan.

Shah Rukh Khan attends the UK premiere of RA One at 02 Arena on October 25, 2011 in London, England.

Khan at the 2011 UK premiere of Ra.One.
Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images

So SRK is a huge star in India, but three decades in, he’s trying to find his way through a changing industry. That part of his story is pretty typical — Tom Cruise and many others have experienced this. The thing that’s different with Khan is his relationship with India’s current government.

Funnily enough, a lot of my generation growing up in the 1990s didn’t think of the Khans as Muslim or Hindu superstars; we just looked at them as superstars in Bollywood, and we considered “Khan” the most stylish surname. When I was watching films in Mumbai many years later and focused on the myth of Shah Rukh Khan, I started to get more and more connected with how the narrative of religion is being used by this current establishment. If the new Hindu nationalist ruling party had to really take down the idea of secularity, they had to take down the ultimate symbol of it as well. It’s no coincidence Khan has been indirectly targeted in the last four or five years.

SRK himself is a Muslim actor, and even if he’s playing Hindu characters in these films — which was mostly the case — there’s always a sense in the back of your head that this is a superstar who’s very open about his religion, who’s not ashamed of his religion, who doesn’t hide his religion. The current government has wanted stars to cozy up to its Hindu nationalist narrative. Shah Rukh Khan, though, has resisted and kept his silence, which has become a statement. He hasn’t spoken up for the government as much as a lot of the other celebrities in this country, so you always feel like he hasn’t conformed and he is not broken.

All this reached a head last year when the saga with SRK’s son unfolded. Aryan Khan [then 23] was arrested and jailed on trumped-up drug charges. As ironic as it may sound, that’s when the tides turned against the right-wing government and toward SRK. People felt the government went too far. It was too blatant. They went after a Muslim superstar and everyone’s favorite hero. That’s part of Pathaan’s success as well.

The movie was a fun one, but let’s be honest: It’s an action movie that we’ve seen a hundred times before. It’s not a masterpiece. I can name three other better Hindi action films in the last 10 years, but the context cannot be divorced from the movie. It’s so important to take it into consideration, because that’s why a lot of us are rooting for the success of Pathaan. When you push your country’s favorite superstar into a corner, people feel obligated to root for that star after a while. I don’t think he still was the biggest star in the country until all the things with his son happened last year. That’s when he was brought back into the limelight.

Once I became a professional film critic, I never really liked to get into this discourse, to talk him up as “the India we need, and not the India we have.” But as it turns out in the last year or so, there’s no escaping that discourse.

As you say, there are a few things happening before Pathaan: Bollywood desperately needs a hit, Shah Rukh Khan’s popularity is being tested. And then — I don’t want to exaggerate this, but it seems like it’s the question — can an actor at odds with the government be successful or not?

I’ll be honest, I didn’t see it coming. I actually was preparing for the worst. Seeing what has been happening in this country in the last 10 years, I thought, we are going to see SRK almost begging people to go watch the film, which is not a good look for anyone. To my absolute shock, the film was a huge success.

The patriotism we see in Pathaan — I won’t say it’s brave, I won’t say it’s rebellious in any way. But it’s sort of subversive, because SRK is playing a character called Pathaan, which is the name of the Pashto-speaking group in Afghanistan and Pakistan who are mostly Muslim. He’s not saying he is an Indian Muslim; he says he feels connected to a village in Afghanistan. That has nothing to do with India. You’re not exactly going straight on or hitting the heart of Hindu nationalism here. What you are doing is being Shah Rukh Khan and starring in a film called Pathaan and then releasing it in this atmosphere we are in. After all of Bollywood’s struggles and the state of the nation, it’s a breather. All the stars aligned.

Bollywood actors John Abraham (L), Deepika Padukone (C) and Shah Rukh Khan (R) gesture during a media event of their Hindi-language film Pathaan in Mumbai on January 30, 2023.

Pathaan co-stars John Abraham and Deepika Padukone join Khan at a press event for the film.
Sujit Jaiswal/AFP via Getty Images

Tell me more about the significance of the title of the movie, and Pathaan the character.

The significance of the title is that patriotism isn’t a Hindu birthright anymore. It’s not tied to a certain kind of religion. I see a lot of people criticizing the fact that SRK’s character doesn’t say he’s an Indian Muslim. We don’t know his real name — Pathaan was given to him by a family he met in Afghanistan. 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, your love for film, your love for people, your love for art in general, should not be hijacked by one particular community.

That’s what the film does so smartly. They don’t take potshots at Hinduism, the way a lot of Hindu nationalist films have been taking potshots at Islam for the last 10 years. Instead, what it does is put forward a very different idea of Islam. That’s the more human and more dignified way to make a statement, rather than running down one community to glorify another.

One thing that’s fascinating is the movie had to be a very fun, popcorn action film. If it was a beautiful indie masterpiece and didn’t have mass appeal, it wouldn’t have this kind of impact.

There is no question about the fact that Pathaan was written with Shah Rukh Khan’s particular situation in mind. The director and the writers all but admitted in interviews that of course it was made and designed around Shah Rukh Khan’s comeback. They won’t go so far to say whatever political commentary they wanted to deliver through him, but there is no doubt that all of it was taken into consideration for this to work and for this film to infiltrate the top five Bollywood hits ever. In terms of box office successes, it’s as good as it gets and as timely as it gets.

The movie doesn’t have overt Hindu nationalist themes, but many believe, as Fatima Bhutto wrote in the Guardian, it has a problematic Pakistani narrative. Do you agree?

When I started watching the film, two scenes in the beginning scared me. The first scene shows a Pakistani general vowing to destroy India, and the second is SRK’s introduction, where he tells someone to only speak in Hindi, a metric that this current government has been really pushing down our throats in the last 10 years. I was quite wary.

But then if you read deeper into a silly film like this — and it is silly on its surface — I don’t think the vilification of Pakistan exists as people think it does. The main female actor, Deepika Padukone, plays an ISI [Pakistan’s CIA] agent who rebels against her own government, who does not agree with what the ISI is doing, and says that her people would never agree to biological warfare against India. That Pakistan is the Pakistan that we don’t see in Hindi movies enough.

SRK’s character is more of a rogue agent, because he’s not really working for the Indian government — he’s been brought out of exile. He doesn’t agree with his boss’s, the colonel’s, methods and criticizes him. You see a sense of dissent in the Pathaan character toward his own government and the establishment. He’s more of an individual. That’s why I felt like this sort of patriotism that you see here was the language of rebellion that we’ve all but lost in a lot of Indian movies in the last decade. This kind of nuance may not be for the masses. For them, it’s like any other patriotic film, except Shah Rukh Khan is in it. I’m glad that people are consuming it without really realizing that it’s not the kind of film they think it is.

Moviegoers gather outside a cinema hall to watch the Bollywood movie ‘Pathaan’ in Mumbai on January 25, 2023.

Moviegoers wait to see Pathaan at a movie theater in Mumbai on the film’s opening day.
Sujit Jaiswal/AFP via Getty Images

Let’s revisit what’s at stake. Shah Rukh Khan is thriving — he even spoke about how the movie celebrates unity in India because it stars a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Christian. Is this going to slow down any of these Hindu nationalist plots in Indian films? Is this really a win for secularism in India?

It’s too early to say right now. For now I’d say the one thing it’s done is 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. Hindu nationalist films that we’ve been seeing over the last decade or so are already losing audiences, even before Pathaan. A lot of that is also because people are out again after the pandemic. Cabin fever has receded, and people have become a little more sane compared to two or three years ago, when everything was supposed to be a war against something else.

What Pathaan’s success has done is given some kind of hope to an entire generation of producers and superstars and actors and technicians, who still want to make the kind of films they want to. I’m not saying they’re good films or bad films, but they make films that are more liberal in their worldview. We had seen a lot of those films recede into the background in the last 10 years, so I’d like to hope that this is a turning point. I’d like to hope that the year of Pathaan is the year that things start to change. At the same time, I’m going to be a little cautious about that, because things don’t change overnight.

I don’t think a lot of the mainstream Hindi film industry has a political ideology. Most powerful people do not subscribe to one kind of political identity. They go where the money goes. Right now, what Pathaan has done is shown that the money is going in a certain direction.

A lot of people say that it’s cruel to talk about box office numbers. I used to look down on these figures for the longest time, but every morning I check them. For better or worse, it’s a measuring stick for the conscience of the nation right now.

By Indana