New Delhi: It may sound bizarre to talk of a relationship between Shah Rukh Khan’s action-dance-masala blockbuster hit Pathaan and academic scholars.
On the face of it, there’s probably nothing in common between the two. But 10 feminist sociologists, queer theorists, and media scholars felt otherwise. So, they collaborated to write a collection of essays titled Pathaan, Meri Jaan…Memoirs, Analyses, Reflections.
SRK fandom is an emotion in India. When Pathaan was released, even closeted fans wore their love for the actor with pride and thronged theatres. If fans could come up with editorials and Instagram Reels, why couldn’t academicians write theses on him?
Curated and edited by Gita Chadha, visiting professor at Bengaluru’s Azim Premji University, the collection is scheduled to be released on 31 July at Doing Sociology, an independent, free, and open-for-all women-led blog about sociology and social anthropology. The platform is a labour of love of three sociologists–Rituparna Patgiri, Deepali Aparajita Dungdung, and Maitrayee Chaudhari.
All contributors are Shah Rukh fans, but the ideas that they grapple with range from fandom, masculinity, nationalism, and the self.
“Pathaan is very interested in reconnecting us to the history of Bollywood, connecting it to single-screen cinema, big theatres, heterogeneous audience, and reconnecting with the idea of a masala movie and how it operates,” says filmmaker and writer Paromita Vohra, who has also contributed to the collection.
While there exists a body of academic work based on Bollywood films, it usually dissects a particular genre or performers. It is not usual for a Bollywood commercial movie to find itself at the centre of academic debate within months of its release. Lagaan, a 2001 Ashutosh Gowarikar movie inspired a management course at a Himachal Pradesh university 17 years after its release — academic interventions have mostly come about after at least a few years have elapsed.
In 2017, Wayne State University Press explored SRK’s Fan (2016) in five essays in volume 58 of The Journal of Cinema and Media. “In particular, we ask the question ‘What is cinema?’ through a dedicated consideration of the fan as a critical object and as a corollary of the star,” write Anupama Kapse and Meheli Sen, the editors of the journal. While the edition is, like Pathaan, Meri Jaan…, based on a particular film, it has a paywall and includes authors living outside India.
“I think our series is unique because we write ourselves in — as those who are owning the popular film not just as an academic text but as a site of our own affect. We focus on one film and one male star figure,” says Chadha.
The contributors are not all sociologists or even necessarily a part of academia. But they are united by one actor, and their love and relationship with him.
Queering Pathaan and locating nationalism
Two of the essays in Chadha’s collection look at Pathaan through the lens of queer theory. Pushpesh Kumar, who teaches sociology at the University of Hyderabad, analyses the portrayal of masculinity in Pathaan. The paper, titled Pathaan: Military Masculinity and Possibility of a Queer Reading, focuses on the ‘military masculinity’ of Shah Rukh Khan.
For Pushpesh, there is a resonance between SRK in Pathaan and Rajkummar Rao in Badhaai Do (2022).“Shah Rukh is in possession of all qualities viz physical fitness, ability to use violence and aggression, self-discipline, risk-taking, self-reliance, [and] intelligence — the qualities of military masculinity. But his muscular, six-pack hegemonic masculinity lacks display of his overt heterosexuality — a precondition of military masculinity. This offers itself to a queer reading,” says Kumar.
However, the authors don’t mean to say that the movie champions queerness. There is an accompanying critique of what could and should have been.
Sayantan Datta, a science journalist and faculty member at the Centre for Writing and Pedagogy, Krea University, and Bishal, pursuing PhD at Mumbai’s Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education—Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (HBCSE-TIFR), penned Bohot Kuch Hota Hai: Towards a Reparative Reading of Pathaan for the collection. “We began by analysing how John and Shah Rukh’s bodies came together in some scenes,” says Datta.
In their writing, the academicians broaden the perspective and develop a more thorough analysis — highlighting how nationalism is portrayed in Pathaan. “Both Outfit X and JOCR have been created by individuals who have been rejected or have rejected the nation,” adds Datta.
Show the love loud and proud
Paromita Vohra, who has written extensively about Shah Rukh Khan in newspapers such as The Indian Express and is a diehard fan of the actor, has explored the ideas of romance, class, and nationalism in relation to King Khan. In a 2021 Outlook op-ed, Vohra looked at the actor’s ‘global desi’ persona — an evocation of a certain kind of ‘Indianness’ while also being global.
In her essay in Pathaan, Meri Jaan… titled Vasantasena’s Lychpin, Memory Games and Re-Membering In Pathaan: A Reading In Three Scenes, she adds another feather to her hat.
“We are going through polarisation, and the idea of something being heterogenous isn’t popular,” she says. This, for Vohra, is the reason why some of SRK’s films — Zero (2018) and Fan — had been failing before Pathaan gave him the much-needed comeback. And Vohra sees Pathaan’s success as an indication that people are looking for the kind of heterogeneity his persona embodies once again. “Shah Rukh embodies the possibility of being both Muslim and Indian without one cancelling the other,” she says.
But one question remains: Does the film even demand such academic scrutiny or fandom? “The idea of the fan, who is irrational, versus the idea of the non-fan, who is somehow rational, is a deeply colonial idea,” Vohra says. In India, fandom has been a closeted affair, especially for those who identify as intellectual.
“The very idea [is] that it is shameless to show love. It is as if you show so much love, you must be stupid,” she says. For Vohra and the others, the answer is simple. It is all about the love for Shah Rukh Khan, and they’re doing it loud and proud.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)