Oh yeah, old school Hindi Film 101! One of those where I go back back back in time because it’s important to have the proper grounding.
(Disclaimer: I’m not an ethnologist, I’m not an expert on this region, I am just trying to explain how this community seems to be presented in popular culture especially in India)
I want to start with the Science Fiction/Fantasy novel Dune. It was published in 1965 and it is set in a harsh desert planet with strong independent natives who have acclimated to the setting, while being constantly conquered by colonists who want their rare native minerals. I was reading it going “this feels really REALLY familiar”, and then I realized that the way the novel talks about the “Natives” and their whole “surviving in a harsh environment” thing is very similar to the way the Pashtuns/Pathaans/Afghans are treated in Western literature. And then I realized that it is similar because both Dune and Western Literature created an ideal fictional version of real people. It’s not that Dune is fantasy based on reality, it is fantasy based on a fantasy.
(is this fan art of Dune, or fan art of Lawrence of Arabia? Can you tell just by looking at it?)
The “Hindu Kush” is a massive mountainous region that is today split between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Because of the harsh environment, the people who lived there tended to be nomadic, living in small close communities, and developing unique habits to thrive in this area. For example, wearing heavily layered clothing that allowed them to move between multiple temperate zones in comfort, while still maintaining freedom of movement. They also developed their own breeds of pack animals and riding animals, and their own manner of riding, suited to the harsh terrain. And rather than warfare on large open plains, their wars tended to be fought among small groups moving quickly through large territory. They tend to eat meat and other food that does not need to be farmed slowly and can be cooked on the move. They are of multiple religions, but the geographic harshness and communal identity is stronger than the religious identity.
All of this reminds me of the Appalachian region in America. Harsh mountainous areas lend themselves to small tight communities, small fierce battles, and a unique way of life that outsiders struggle to understand. And because it is hard to understand, it is easy to romanticize.
(the American version of the fantasy, gorgeous men and women who don’t care about outsiders and have complex internal communal debates)
The Pashtun people of the Hindu Kush have lived there for thousands of years. And there are thousands of accounts from outsiders coming in going “who are these strong silent magical people???” Their tribal loyalties, complex family ties, amazing ability to disappear into the landscape, horsemanship, swordsmanship, it all seems miraculous from the outside.
I don’t like turning any real life people into something “magical”. The Pashtun people aren’t magical, they are just a people who accommodated to their environment like anyone else. Their environment is unusual, which makes their way of life unusual, but not Magical. On the other hand, you can’t talk about the Pashtuns/Pathans without acknowledging the effect of this “magical” image on how they have been treated.
A lone horseman, with a sword and flowing robes, tall, far seeing, harsh faced, his word is his bond, he lives by an elaborate series of personal rules and bows to no law, he is deeply loyal to his family but travels long distances from them and lives by his sword, this is the Pathaan of Indian lore, and the Afghan of the West, the Pashtun of the middle ages, and he doesn’t really exist. What exists is a community of people who are so isolated that they haven’t been effected by changing nation states and laws, and who probably choose to send their scariest people out to face the world and keep the “normal” folks at home.
(Amitabh in Khuda Gawah, weirdly one of the few Hindi film actors who is NOT Pathan, playing a Pathan)
Under British colonialism, the British created a list of what they called “martial races”. It was one of their (many) methods of control, only offer army positions to certain races and not others, neatly categorize people, it makes it harder for a grassroots movement to spring up. And one of their most martial of races was the “Pathaans”, the Hindustani form of address for the Pashtun people.
Here is where I can start talking about Real People. Salman Khan’s family is the closest I can come to matching the Pathaan stereotype to reality. His ancestors first came to modern day India, out of the mountains, as mercenaries. If you go back to the Appalachia comparison, when you have a community living in poor farmland with little development, the military is often the only way out for young men, and the best way to earn money to send home. So lots of Pathaan men left and roamed and found work as soldiers. Salman’s ancestor did well, working for a local ruler. He was able to bring his family to him and settle in a town, and then his child went on to be a police officer for the British, another way of being a mercenary. By the next generation, they had become merchants. Merchants who lived in a large house with swords on the walls and horses that are ridden for fun, not necessity. And finally, Salim Khan went to Bombay and became an artist, 4 generations removed from the wandering soldier who first left the Hindu Kush in search of his fortune.
“Khan” is a Pashto name, the most common name in the region, essentially just an ethnic identifier name. Until recently, the vast majority of folks working in the Hindi film industry in Bombay were part of the Khan community. Like the traveling mercenaries of years before, folks leaving the mountains for a better life migrated to the new industry of film. They were tall, pale skinned, strong featured, and (most importantly) spoke a gorgeous pure version of Hindi. Thanks to the disputed nature of the region, most Khans spoke Persian, Pashto, Urdu, and Arabic. This gave them a language ability unrivaled in Hindi film, able to speak a version of Hindustani that could be understood through out much of India instead of the more common street versions that were largely local. That same type of filmi Hindi has lasted through to today (although it is now increasingly adulterated by English), Hindi with far less of an accent or regional flair than you would hear in common usage.
Most film workers didn’t come straight from mountain villages, but rather from the town of Peshawar. Famously, the family of Dilip Kumar, Prithviraj Kapoor, and Shahrukh Khan all lived within blocks of each other in the same town. Peshawar is one of the oldest cities in the world, the center of the Pashtun culture, and just east of the famous Khyber pass. It was also a center of protest and violence during the Quit India movement. Ghaffer Khan, the “Frontier Gandhi” who Shahrukh’s father followed, led a massive non-violent anti-British movement. The town was in turmoil. And so Khans began to migrate from the unstable environment of Peshawar to the stable region of Bombay, landing there just in time to find work in film.
(Protests in Peshawar, there was an infamous massacre on April 23rd 1930 when 20 (British count) or 400 (local count) peaceful protestors were gunned down.)
Dilip Kumar (real name Mohamed Yusuf Khan) in his autobiography sketched out a common story for one of these migrating families. He came from a large old stable Peshawar family. In his childhood, he remembered living there, running between houses, speaking Pashto, and also glimpses of extreme violence, family feuds that killed children as young as himself. His father moved the family to Bombay partly to help their larger trading business, partly to start fresh and independent of his larger family, partly because he could see the fractures coming as the Quit India movement grew. They were not desperate migrants, they were a stable middle or upper-middle class family, extremely well educated, making a move for economic and pragmatic reasons. Dilip was recruited into the film industry thanks to his unusual Khan-like looks (tall, pale, etc.) and his amazing ability with language (Pashto, Urdu, Hindustani, Persian, and English).
Peshawar is a city that is always under siege, always under dispute, again thanks to geography. The Hindu Kush region has oil, trade routes, lots of desirable things. It’s a great place to travel through and take things from, it’s just a really sucky place to live. So you have folks who leave the mountains for the slightly better city life, and then leave the city for the less violent and insecure life in other cities, and eventually become movie stars.
(Dilip Kumar’s family home in Peshawar, they weren’t poor)
And that brings me to the word “Pathaan”. It’s uniquely Indian. Pathaans only exist in India, kind of like how “Hispanics” only exist in America. For hundreds and hundreds of years, folks from the mountains have been migrating down to the plains and the locals call them “Pathaans”. Today their homeland would make them Pakistanis or Afghans by nationality, and within those countries the mountain dwelling Pashto speakers are called “Pashtuns”. But in India, Pashto hasn’t been spoken in generations, they speak Urdu instead. Some of them (like Salman’s larger family) still live in family compounds, still ride horses, still eat Frontier Chicken, and hold on to their mountain roots in that way. Others, like Shahrukh’s family, intermarried to lowland families, became part of the flow of urban life, lost all but the remotest sense of “Pathaan” identity.
I shouldn’t say “remote”, because who are we to define what an identity means? Many of the Bombay movie families, the ones who have lived in Bombay for generations, still proudly call themselves “Pathaan”. It’s that magical identity given by the British idea of “martial races”, polished by the CIA funding Afghans to fight the Russians, and left over from the Indian stories of the mercenaries coming from the mountains. It’s a way of saying, “I am special, I belong to something, as did my father and his father and his father before him”. Pathaans in urban India have no homeland left, no country, just an ethnic identity that lives in family stories and history.
And so now Shahrukh is starring in a movie called “Pathaan”. This tells us his hero will be strong, independent, older (somehow the image of the Afghan/Pathaan is always older, maybe because the environment damaged their faces and made them appear older to outsiders? Or because the younger people were kept home and not usually seen by outsiders?), a soldier and a traveler. It is also Shahrukh presenting a part of himself that he freely and proudly acknowledges in personal life but rarely plays onscreen. When Shahrukh talks about his anger, his protectiveness of his family, his pride in his heritage, that is when he calls himself “Pathaan”. It’s the opposite of the light witty charming talkative type he plays onscreen (and often is in real life), it’s the side of him that is dark and uncontrolled and dangerous.
The identity of “Pathaan” gives him a place to put those feelings. My three year old nephew does the same thing with his toy cars, he will say that his toy car is sad, or angry at Mommy, or scared and needs a cuddle. Sometimes feelings are so scary we don’t want to think about them as part of ourselves, we need some way to separate them from us. And so Shahrukh has grabbed on to this idealized version of the “Pathaan”, the fantasy, and made that the explanation for all his darkness.
As I said at the beginning, I think Pathaans are as fictional as the Fremen people of the planet Dune. But being made up doesn’t mean they aren’t real. That vision, the noble independent tribesman horseman, it was a bogeyman for the West to fight, a heroic vision for soldiers to follow, and some kind of inner guiding identity for the displaced Pathaan community of India.