In one of Jim Corbett’s books, he writes of the torment of a toothache while hunting a maneater. There is a moment when – I forget exactly why – the pain goes away. There is no pleasure, he wrote, as great as the sudden relief from great pain.
I do not know why the sequence made such an impact on me as a child. I was too young to understand the concept of great pain, and yet it has stayed with me.
Watching Pathaan for the first time, the line came back to me. We are told that the suspension of disbelief is the key to making any engaging story, but the plot, the sequence, even the physics of the film demand much more. It requires you to lock up any semblance of logic in the baggage counter outside the hall, and only tentatively retrieve it thereafter.
It is worth asking if the film is successful, not despite this, but precisely because of this, and what that tells us about the country and its current moment. That it was relief from the near constant Sturm und Drang that Indians have had to live with for the last decade.
Translated usually as “storm and stress”, after the name of a play by Friedrich Maximilian Klinger, Sturm und Drang was a literary movement popular in the late 1700s in Germany. Seen as individualistic and anti-rational, the major products of the movement favoured moving their audiences to extremes of emotion. This was partially as a reaction to the constraints of the Enlightenment period, which advocated science, rationalism, and universalism.
Interestingly, the Encyclopaedia Britannica notes, “Self-disciple was not a tenet of the Sturm und Drang, and the movement soon exhausted itself. Its two most gifted representatives, Goethe and Schiller, went on to produce great works that formed the body and soul of German classical literature.”
Indian politics recently has been all storm and stress, from bombastic speeches, to dramatic announcements of things like demonetisation or a sudden COVID-19 lockdown. Every pronouncement of the government, and its attendant cheerleading on TV studios or social media, is designed to heighten emotions, overthrow rationality, and reject any universalism.
One would think a spy thriller, with its visual pyrotechnics, its high stakes “save the world” missions, and jingoist nationalism, would fit perfectly into this. And yet – although rationality is very much rejected – what Pathaan traffics in, is something else entirely – a sense of camaraderie and capacious universalism. Whether it is the invocation of the Japanese art of Kintsugi – of rebuilding a broken piece to make it more valuable, cooperation with an enemy spy, two middle-aged superspies exchanging painkillers, or even the residents of an unnamed Afghan village, the movie goes out of its way to embrace a wider world with a smile.
Even the main villain – and John Abraham has the best lines in the film – is principally a product of heartbreak.
Maybe this is why, after all the credits had rolled, and the audience had left, a young woman was restrained by her mother from peeking in one last time, and told, “It’s done.”
Films, like all art products, are dicey ventures. Nobody knows why they work, why they don’t, except in very few exceptional cases. We make up theories after the fact to explain what happened. My theory is no better than yours, but as I gingerly re-engaged my rationality after watching the film, I wondered if the reason it has become so quickly beloved is that while it may have asked us to surrender our brains, unlike our present politics, it did not ask us to ignore our hearts. Instead, it took for granted that we had capacious ones, and maybe that was a sudden relief after enduring great pain.