Towards the end of Atlee’s Jawan (2023), Shah Rukh Khan solves democracy. Or so it seems, given the chatter around his final monologue in the film. Khan as Azad — sitting inside a prison that is effectively his home; surrounded by electronic voting machines (EVMs) that he is using to hold the government to account — exhorts his audience to be more discerning with their votes. He says that people ask questions before buying a mosquito repellant or a bike. “Then why aren’t we equally demanding of our political leaders?” he asks in a speech that is broadcast to every available screen in India.
The well-intentioned but awkward monologue is one of many Khan delivers in Jawan and it’s led to a flurry of questions. Critics, columnists and audiences have rushed to ascribe meanings to moments in the film that seem to be fertile grounds for speculation. From the moment when Khan in his Daddy mode says the villain will have to deal with the father before he goes after the son (which many read as a cheeky reference to Aryan Khan’s unlawful arrest) to the pointed references to farmer suicides and corruption in politics, Jawan seems to be inviting the label of “political cinema”. But is it really?
For veteran screenwriter Anjum Rajabali, Jawan is not a political film because of how cautious it is in its messaging. “A political film not just uses a social issue as its premise, but also provokes the audience by giving insights about the mechanism of why problems like injustice and corruption continue in our society,” Rajabali told Film Companion. He did, however, point out that the film deserves praise for taking the stands that it does. “Jawan could’ve used any issue, personal or social as its premise, and I’d say the impact would be the same. It’s of course creditable that it chooses to insert painful and relevant social wounds like corruption and injustice into the story,” he said.
Hindi cinema’s hesitation to address contemporary social and political issues is an open secret. In contrast, Tamil mainstream cinema has readily included references to politics and controversial issues, including the tragedy of farmers’ suicides — often quoting figures the way Khan does in Jawan — and the industry has filmmakers like Vetrimaaran, whose films have consistently explored issues of failed governance.
“Everyone is trying harder to cling on to their ideologies, consciously or not,” said Vetrimaaran. The director/producer is famous for traversing the course of hard-hitting procedurals based on real-life incidents – like Visaranai (2015), based on M Chandrakumar’s novel Lock Up, and his most recent film, Viduthalai Part 1 (2023), which has an extremist group that seems to be inspired by radical Leftist outfits. Vetrimaaran is also known for expanding the scope of genre entertainers like Vada Chennai (2018) and Asuran (2019), the latter referencing the Kilvenmani massacre.
Vetrimaaran pointed out that audiences seem to be more polarised now than before. While talking about the kind of films that are dubbed political, he said, “Even if a small percentage of the audience looks deeper in the right direction, it’s a small good in this ‘creative’ money-making business,” he said.
In recent years, Hindi cinema has seen a profusion of propaganda-centric films like The Kerala Story — many of which have profited at the box office — while films with progressive politics, like Anubhav Sinha’s Bheed (2023), Hansal Mehta’s Faraaz (2022) and Sudhir Mishra’s Afwaah (2023), have failed to lure the audiences into theatres. Pa Ranjith’s Natchathiram Nagargiradhu (2022) – his relatively intimately mounted follow-up film to the rousing Sarpatta Parambarai (2021) – also got a muted response in theatres. This context perhaps makes Jawan seem more political than it actually is.
National Award-winning director K Hariharan said he isn’t a fan of films that turn a theatre into a “pressure cooker”, where the audiences let off steam. However, he also recognises that mainstream films thrive making vague allusions to injustice that can be solved in the course of a film, rather than focussing on specific issues that an audience will have to confront in their everyday lives once they leave the cinema. “When our heroes find ‘solutions’ to problems through violence, it’s a metaphorical catharsis for the audience,” said Hariharan. “We’re temporarily relieved that the hero has solved the problem in the film. But when we exit the theatre, we’re assaulted with the same old traffic and pollution. [Mainstream] films are an outlet for their audiences.”
For Hariharan, the onus of ‘educating’ audiences should not fall on cinema. “I don’t blame the insensitivity of the people on movies, I blame it on the education system,” said the director, adding that when history is obfuscated from textbooks, the audience is less equipped to sift fact from fiction. “These aren’t storytellers, but mythmakers,” he said of films like Jawan and Pathaan (2023). For films like Sethuhumaan (2022), Gargi (2022), Kadaisi Vivasayi (2021) and Article 15 (2019), Hariharan is glad that streaming platforms are providing new audiences.
Speaking about Tamil mainstream cinema and its penchant for challenging the status-quo — unlike films from other parts of India — Hariharan said, “The history of Tamil Nadu is more chequered than other states. There was a massive Dravidian movement led by Periyar, which almost brought the state on a cliff’s edge.” Periyar’s positioning with Tamil people was far more radical than many political leaders in different regions at the time of Independence and since then, political critique has been an integral part of popular discourse. According to Hariharan, it’s impossible to not get into the politics of anything that gets made in Tamil cinema.
Looking ahead, Rajabali said that while he didn’t believe cinema can bring about social change, he does believe it can nudge audiences to think critically. His advice for filmmakers trying to make political films in the near future is to embrace the basic contours, implications of the issue they feel strongly about, and then shove it out of their conscious mind before starting the writing process. “If you indeed felt strongly about the issue, it will weave itself organically into the story,” says Rajabali.
Vetrimaaran has a more pragmatic answer for films that deal with political nuances in the near future: Be more local. The more region-specific and smaller the scale the film is, the more liberty a filmmaker will be allowed to take, he said (echoing sentiments that the Bengali filmmaker Mrinal Sen had stood by for his entire career). “I think when you want to cater films for greater inter-ethnic nationalities, you’re forced to dilute the writer/director's intent. At least for filmmakers in Tamil, it is a choice. A choice they have to make of their target audiences,” said Vetrimaaran.
Hariharan likened films like Jawan to Diwali fireworks. “It’s a spectacle, a circus,” he said and urged film critics and audiences to closely observe the formal style of a film to know what kind of film they’re watching. “Something like Jawan is designed to converse with families, which is why it ends up as a morality lesson – where a hero is only good, and a villain is only bad,” he pointed out. The film might touch upon issues of women’s empowerment and farmer suicides; it might satisfy the audiences looking to hold onto some of the film’s progressive values, but it’s hardly the crux of the film. For all its political commentary – the core of Jawan comprises two significant ingredients – Shah Rukh Khan, and more Shah Rukh Khan. “Other parts of media might conflate things, but film writers need to be more mindful about these,” said Hariharan.