“Pathaan” is receiving all the love from around the country, and rightly so. It has been a while since the Hindi film industry has given us a massive hit such as “Pathaan”. It gives us a sense of optimism because, since the pandemic, the industry has been going through a slump, and it took a Shah Rukh Khan movie to revive it. Other than “Pathaan” being a Shah Rukh film, many viewers have concluded that Deepika and John Abraham’s characters were given enough meat to pull off the role with utmost ease—something that has not been noticed in any other film in this genre in the past. Yes, there is Zoya and Tiger from the Ek Tha Tiger, but Zoya was hardly a femme fatale. On the other hand, Deepika’s character can be considered a femme fatale, for a woman as beautiful as she has been assigned so as to make sure Pathaan falls for her.
The “Femme Fatale” is not an uncommon trope in Hindi films. There are plenty of examples from Bollywood, at least, which can be given out to understand what femme fatale constitutes. Tabu from Maqbool, Vidya Balan from Ishqiya, Priyanka Chopra from 7 Khoon Maaf, and Tabu again in Andhadhun. These leading ladies made sure they remained shrewd and conniving without letting the men in their life know how their minds worked. All the while, they plot to do something other than what the men expect of them. They hide their motives, secrets, and in many cases, their identities too; all of this and more defines what a femme fatale does. Priyanka Chopra in 7 Khoon Maaf is an archetypical example of a femme fatale; where she married seven men at different points in her life, and each time, ended up killing them for each of them had a flaw which was a deal breaker for her. If this is not the definition of a siren, then what is? In Maqbool as well, Tabu, as Nimmi, was the one who was pushing Maqbool to kill Abbaji. She was the driving force that made Maqbool choose between his loyalty to Abbaji and his love for Nimmi. Nimmi’s character was dark and sinister. Vishal Bharadwaj is responsible for these deliciously crafted femme fatale, who would never stop until her ambitions are fulfilled.
Deepika’s character, Dr. Rubina, an ISI agent who is heading to Spain for an assignment as per the intel provided to Pathaan. On reaching Spain, Pathaan is mesmerized by her beauty, and she doesn’t hold herself back from seducing this stranger. As he follows her, he soon realizes he has walked into a lion’s den, where Jim lies in wait for him. Pathaan falls for all the charm Dr. Rubina throws at him, and in the hope of getting some answers from her, he gets drawn into a scenario that he least expected. Soon, Dr. Rubina saves Pathaan from Jim’s team, only to reveal that she is not an ex-ISI agent but an active member whose end goal is the same as Pathaan’s. Pathaan, again at this point, believes her and briefs her on the plan, which she partly knows. The rest of the plan will be conceived by Pathaan. Dr. Rubina, on reaching Moscow, again seduces him to make him emotionally vulnerable. Soon she double-crosses him and takes away the weapon that they got hold of, and Pathaan is left with nobody to rescue him and is finally be captured by the Russians.
The femme fatale in “Pathaan” could have easily taken a detour if the writers Shridhar Raghavan and Siddharth Anand had taken the usual route of indulging in a full-blown romance between Rubina and Pathaan. It is delightful to watch directors not following the usual formula of making the lead actor and actress fall in love with each other in the midst of an action film. A subplot such as this would have easily derailed the film for good, and it would have been difficult for the makers to recover from it. Dr. Rubina here is not a standard damsel in distress who is waiting to be rescued by the men around her. She has agency over her plans, mind, and body, even though she uses it at a whim for her plans to work out. Dr. Rubina does not let any man take advantage of her because, if things around her fall apart, she will have to rescue herself. After all, Rubina knows the ISI will not extract her from the situation. Rubina not just single-handedly gets rid of all of Jim’s men to rescue Pathaan, but she also makes sure she is never under his mercy from the day they make the plan to head to Moscow. Rubina is driven by the fact that her father was tortured and murdered by the system in Pakistan, and she joined ISI with the goal of serving the nation and never the regime. She is strong and beautiful and is aware of the fact that Pathaan is an emotionally weak person, which she takes advantage of at various points in the film. The femme fatale trope is taken rather seriously in this film because Rubina not only manages to rescue herself but is smart enough to understand that though she can fool Pathaan, she wouldn’t dare use the same tactics to get hold of Jim.
Deepika, as Rubina in Pathaan, finally breaks away from the usual move of introducing so-called “strong female characters,” but at the writing level, there is no agency for the woman in the film. This was the case with Alia Bhatt’s Isha in Brahmastra, Sonakshi Sinha in Akira, every action film featuring Salman Khan as a lead, and countless Telugu films in this genre. Most of the time, it happens because it is a man writing a female character. But again, in Pathaan, the men who wrote Rubina’s character thankfully stayed away from that approach taken up by many writers and directors in the films mentioned above. There were shades of grey to Rubina’s arc, and it is easy to understand why she would betray Pathaan and come back to help him again. All the writers and directors involved in other action films had to do was to provide depth to the female characters they had cast to show representation. This would have solved the problem, which is the lack of female-driven stories in male-dominated films, a problem that began a long time ago. Dr. Rubina has empathy for things she does not stand for and is ready to rectify her mistakes. All the writers that worked “Pathaan” did good to the character of Dr. Rubina and made sure she just was not just a tacked-on character who’d been added for the sake of it. Even though there was no conclusion to her character arc by the end of the film, it will be interesting to see if Dr. Rubina will show up in any of the future Yash Raj Film’s spy universes. Looking forward to that.