From January 25, India and much of the world gets to see Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan, a film that loosely marries a James Bond modus operandi with a Mission Impossible plotline.
How it is received will be a test – of what’s left of Indian secularism, more than 30 years after the Hindu nationalists set a high new bar for hyper-intolerance by demolishing the disputed mediaeval Babri Mosque.
Much is hoped and feared of and for Pathaan, the film. Much of this revolves around the identity of its super hero, a 57-year-old actor whose chief problem is his birth faith.
Mr Khan is Muslim in an increasingly intolerant India led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
To be a Muslim and a prominent one in India today is a test – of patience and fortitude, as well as sheer creativity of response. And Mr Khan has faced more than his share of trials for being Muslim. For the best part of a decade, he has been a target for hardline Hindu groups. The pattern continues with Pathaan. Earlier this month, the Bajrang Dal, a group linked to the BJP, tore down the film’s posters at a mall in Ahmedabad in the west of the country. The rather slim argument was that the film’s leading lady, Deepika Padukone should not have been wearing an orange bikini! Those fighting the culture wars regard orange as too similar to saffron, deemed a sacred colour for Hinduism particularly of the political sort.
Unfortunately, this sort of logic is a feature not a bug of India today.
The test for Pathaan would be to overcome divides and for Indians of all creeds and cultural persuasion to thrill to the action of an improbable plot. Is that possible? We shall see.
Even so, it may be mission impossible for one Bond-style film to reset India’s political plot.