The Gendered Nationalism of ‘Pathaan’


By Yanis Iqbal

In the movie Pathaan, Shahrukh Khan, playing the titular protagonist, is an Indian spy whose life began as an orphaned child after his parents left him at a cinema hall. Since he was brought up by his country, he chose to join the army so that he could serve his country. Pathaan comes out of retirement to fight an international terror organization known as Outfit X. Its head is another former Indian spy, Jim (John Abraham), who changed his loyalty after his pregnant wife died due to the Indian state’s refusal to negotiate with the terrorists who had captured her. Now, he is working for a cancer-afflicted Pakistani general who wants to use biological weapons on the Indian people after the abrogation of article 370. Pathaan and Jim have their own conceptions of nationalism: while the latter thinks of the nation as a lover, whose betrayal justifies his resentful propagation of terrorism, the former thinks of the nation as a mother, who can never betray her own children. While the maternal rendering has been hailed as an instance of inclusive patriotism that does not discriminate between the nation’s diverse progenies, the allegory has its own conceptual narrowness that makes itself felt through the course of the film’s events.

The nation-as-mother is concretized in the figure of Nandini (Dimple Kapadia), who is the boss and mentor of Pathaan. She ultimately has to sacrifice herself in order to the prevent the Outfit X-designed contagious disease from spreading to other parts of India. This ideal of self-sacrifice is prevalent in the ideological construct of “Mother India”. Such a discourse objectifies the female body as a de-sexualized receptacle of “virtue” and “honor,” making it co-incident with the boundaries of family, community and the nation. The figure of the mother becomes the symbol of the distinctiveness of Indian culture from the West – a public fantasy that has entailed the perpetuation of traditional restrictions on the behavior of women. The submissiveness and chasteness of Mother India corresponds to the image of dutiful sons, who are tasked with protecting maternal glory through grand offensives against enemies. Their protectionism is the nationalist voyeurism of the unconscious, which is fixated upon the vulnerable and destructible body of Mother India. This masculinist fixation is libidinally invested in the maternal figure due to the conjugal fidelity of the latter, which ensures the purity of patrilineage and generates an “eroticism of continuity”.

So, the maternal conception of the nation converts the female body into a passive receptacle for the erotic desires of sons and strengthens the desire for national purity. A natural consequence of this narrative is the acceptance of uncritical collectivism, which integrally links the individual to the national community, leaving little space for dissident voices. Against Jim’s legitimate criticism of militarist hysteria, which sacrifices soldiers to further the strategic interests of power rulers, Pathaan – paraphrasing former US president John F Kennedy’s famous speech – says: “Don’t ask what the country has done for you. Ask what you have done for the country.” This streak of asceticism melts when confronted with the presence of Rubina (Deepika Padukone) – a former Pakistani agent who works with Jim but objects to the prospect of mass murder. Her interactions with Pathaan are complex, depicting an ideological development through which she separates the jingoism of Pakistani institutions from the human solidarity of the country’s citizens and finally decides to work with him. This multi-faceted trajectory is summarized well by a reviewer: “Here, neither of them trusts the other but are tremendously attracted to each other. The simmering tension between the two from the get go makes for a heady chemistry that shines through in the action sequences, especially when they are performing the stunts together.”

The character of Rubina embodies the discourse of the nation-as-lover. According to Alain Badiou, love begins with an encounter between two differences. It involves a separation based on the difference between two people and their boundless subjectivities. The construction of love “suggests a new experience of truth about what it is to be two and not one. That we can encounter and experience the world other than through a solitary consciousness: any love whatsoever gives us new evidence of this.” While the sons of the nation treat their mother as an object whose possession is continuously threatened by foreign actors, the lover’s relation with the beloved is grounded in interactive openness. The romantic subjectivity is characterized “not by having but being or, better, being-with, acting-with, creating-with. Subjectivity itself arises from social cooperation.” When Pathaan teams up with Rubina to stop Jim from carrying out his plans, he abandons the reproductive purity of Mother India in favor of what is unrepeatable, unstable and foreign. The feeling of nationalist belonging symbolized by the maternal figure of India is replaced by the deeply humanized individuality of Rubina, who is not burdened with the weight of divine ideals but functions as a placeholder for the randomness of love, in which two individuals transform absolute differences into creative existence. As Pathaan opens himself up to difference and its implications, the territorial confines of national duty give way to the imperative of saving human lives, without any regard for the national identity of those who are being saved. In a paradoxical moment, the preservation of national identity is accomplished through its dissolution in the acid bath of compassionate cosmopolitanism.

In the movie, the conception of the nation-as-lover is overtly linked to the nihilism of Jim. Since he treated the nation as a romantic partner, he turned evil when the nation failed to meet his expectations. Instead of silently accepting his wife’s death as a sacrifice for his country, he demanded that the nation also respond to his demands. He projected a dialectical interrelationship between the nation and the citizen, wherein social relations allow for the enhancement of the citizenry’s capacities. Instead of existing as an alienated body that is opposed to the interests of the citizen, the nation should exist as a social conduit for the democratic calibration of autonomous citizens. Such relational thinking is repudiated by the ethic of self-sacrifice preached by the ideological figure of Mother India. In opposition to this, the nation-as-lover requires that love for the nation be continually renewed and re-created by the fidelity of the lovers. While maternal ideology reifies the nation as a fact to which one owes undying loyalty, love treats the nation as a construct whose fate depends upon the actions of the individual. The relation of Pathaan and Rubina has an essentially democratic aspect in the sense that it is premised on a critical reflection upon one’s choices and the exploration of alternatives, all of which helps in saving the people of India and Pakistan.

The predominance of maternal renderings of India is explained by the patriarchal logic of the society we live in. A move away from the Mother India discourse requires the rejection of desexualized femininity and the acceptance of female desires. But such a political change has been curbed by the civilizational essentialism of Indian nationalism, which erects a strict dichotomy between the Western wife and the Indian mother. Swami Vivekananda, for example, states, “In the west, the woman is wife. The idea of womanhood is concentrated there as the wife. To the ordinary man in India, the whole force of womanhood is concentrated on motherhood.” The ideologically enforced marginality of conjugal relationship in the gender imaginary of India blocks the surfacing of any feminist insistence on the sexual agency of women. “To make the issues of emancipation of woman and equality of sexes primary,” writes Ashis Nandy, “one needs a culture in which conjugality is central to male-female relationships. One seeks emancipation from and equality with one’s husband and peers, not with one’s son. If the conjugal relationship itself remains relatively peripheral, the issues of emancipation and equality must remain so too.” In Pathaan, the attempted shift from the maternal nation through the personality of Rubina encountered a cultural backlash from right-wing activists, who said that the saffron bikini worn by Padukone in the song “Besharam Rang” was an insult to Hinduism and the byproduct of a “contaminated mentality”. This kind of reaction is part and parcel of a rapist culture that distinguishes between the pure and virginal traditional “heroine” and the sexually improper and immodestly dressed westernized “vamp”. Reimagining Indian nationalism involves the pursuit of revolutionary love that can overturn the binaries of patriarchal ideology and dismantle the gendered logic encapsulated in the Mother India narrative.

Yanis Iqbal is studying at Aligarh Muslim University. His theoretical pieces and articles on contemporary affairs have been published around the world, in countries such as the USA, UK, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, India, Tajikistan, several countries of Latin America, Africa, etc. His poems have been published in websites such as Radical Art Review, Cafe Dissensus, Culture Matters, Palestine Chronicle, Live Wire, Frontier Weekly, Youth Ki Awaaz, and Indian Periodical. Two of his poems were also selected for “Anthology of Contemporary Poetry: Meet the Poets of Today”. He has appeared in many podcasts such as The Marxist Think Thank, The Anti Empire Project, A Correction Podcast, and Revolutionary Lumpen Radio.


Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook. Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.

Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Horror-(fic) Turn: Understanding Contemporary Horror Films”, edited by Animesh Bag, University of Calcutta, India.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s