In Atlee’s Jawan, the life of Azad Rathore (Shah Rukh Khan) — compassionate jailer on the streets, socialist vigilante in the sheets — has to be explained to his wife, Narmada (Nayanthara). Cue flashback: Azad’s childhood in the jail, his mother being hung to death, the promise she extracts from him to deliver justice. Narmada misunderstood him as a terrorist. She needs to be told otherwise — why he does what he does; the context of his target; the wind behind his convictions; his traumas that sublimate as heroism; mommy dearest Padukone.
Why are heroes explained to us? Why are their past pains imagined for us, freshly, on screen?
Atlee’s previous film, Bigil (2019), too, has a scene where Michael Rayappan (Vijay) the do-gooder-goon, the philanthropic heart, has to be revealed to us — in flashback, like Jawan. The girls football team that he coaches thinks of him as a no-gooder-goon, not knowing it is his money, his goodwill, that funds their team. This gets explained to both characters in the film and the audience outside of it. These are seminal moments when perceptions flip.
That ultimate male fantasy seems to be to not just be understood, but feel understood. The hero film, the mass film, or however you choose to label these cheery screeches of absolved male pain in your mind, will have you know there is something more tender under the bullet barter.
There is a loneliness at the heart of the filmic hero. If you squeeze your eyes through the blitzkrieg sound design of these films, dust the moss from the mass movie, you can cite something soft. Why would they not feel lonely? They are all ageing, for one; more comfortable taking on roles of father and grandfathers like Vikram, Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, Vijay, and now Khan; letting the grays inflect (but never impinge) on their heroism the way Ajith and Hrithik Roshan have. For another, they are all wounded by life. Eternally misunderstood, they are perched above situations at the cost of looking down at the world by themselves, this feeling of protecting a world you don’t belong to.
You feel it in Bigil, when Michael is standing on the bow of a boat, looking seaward, crying, knowing he will never be able to live a fulfilling life with the woman he loves — rival gangs after him, threatening the lives of those around him, whom he loves. The cost of the muscle. You feel it in Vikram (2022), those heavy Kamal Haasan eyes standing over the gas, milk boiling. You feel it in Rajinikanth’s tired stride in his garden in Jailer (2023).
Most evocatively, you also see it in Bachchan’s films of the Seventies, yearning for only companionship, the mother’s protective hand as he has grown in hollow wealth in Deewaar (1975); the way he craves erotic love watching a widow light a lamp during sunset in Sholay (1957); his weather-worn empty gaze in Kaala Patthar (1979). His intensity always stemmed from his isolation. These are soft moments that let you pass your hands through the feathery lining of the hard shell that is his heroism.
As Mukul Kesavan writes in his poem Men At Work:
“Often they’re just checking on their there-ness
(That testing question, ‘Am I still around?’)”
You don’t see this in the glossy Pathaan. You certainly don’t see it in the ugly Jawan. (Critic Baradwaj Rangan makes a distinction, the former being masala and the latter, mass.)
Shah Rukh Khan is charting a different kind of heroism — one that replaces this isolation with charm. He is never awkward around women. He always knows what to say. He pulls, so to speak. In the midst of muscling chaos, he cracks a comical quip. (Salman Khan, Vijay, both come to mind, here) He lets his women foreground him, pummel him, outsmart him, out-muscle him, because there is this odd security he has in his crowd-pleasing limelight. The thing is, however, he is only able to light up the screen by emptying himself of any intensity. Take Khan’s Don alongside Bachchan’s Don. What he brought, by way of charm, he let go in gravity.
Even his deep, gruff voice is not threatening but sexy. Look at him chomping on the cigar in the pre-interval sequence of Jawan. You never fear him as the hero; women never feel threatened by him. For example, in the opening hostage sequence in Jawan, when, bald and strange, he shoots at a woman in a burqa, you know, immediately, that he did not actually shoot her, and the whole thing is staged. (He did not actually shoot her, the whole thing was staged). This is a character, like Pathan, wholly incapable of interiority; all scrubbed, gorgeous surface.
It is not that Khan, the patron saint of urban sexuality, has never performed or is incapable of performing loneliness. He has, arguably, acted out the finest specimen of it in ‘Safar’ from Jab Harry Met Sejal, gazing sadly to the Irshad Kamil lyric, “Sheher sheher fursaton ko bechta hoon; khaali haath jaata, khaali lauta hoon (City to city I wander selling ennui, leaving empty-handed, returning emptied)”, an anthem for the wayward loner.
It is not that he has never been threatening on screen. I would urge you to turn your eyes toward Fan and the creepy films of the Nineties when he would tattoo the name of his lover with a knife in blood.
But for an action star — a recent swerve for Khan — it is this loneliness, this intensity that gives the hero his teeth. Charm is mere lubricant, which, incidentally, Khan endorses as part of the Jawan promotions. And we all know what they say about too much lubricant.
In both Pathaan and Jawan, he has put forth the figure of a charming, bumbling hero, continuing a thread in his filmography as he swaps genres. In Jawan, it is particularly jarring. Past trauma is a mere ornament. There are two Shah Rukh Khans — the first loses his wife; the other loses his mother. Neither seem to carry this grief in their body. To see how grief can change the shape of a body look at Michael in Bigil and his father — hunched by both age and grief, a head held high by the achievements of the son — move through the world.
This might be because Jawan is not really a film. It has no sense of scene, transition, rhythm, beauty, build-up. Catharsis is like a bucket upturned on our head, we feel it all at once; not the slow inhaling of sweet poison. You see a scene of Azad as a child losing his mother. You see Azad as an adult. The connecting tissue of grief does not register. You have to actively think — oh, this is the man who lost his mother two scenes ago. You are never invited, as a viewer, to connect the debris, to build character in your head as it unspools on screen, for the mind and the heart to meet. The film is impatient to jettison from one seizure-cut to the next, unwilling to see characters as anything but vehicles of spectacle.
It almost makes sense that Azad’s father (also, Khan) has lost his memory because like most characters, he walks around like a vaguely wronged puppet in the film, with no stain of the previous scene on hin, zombies of trauma. The film rummages, never transitions. In this frenetic filmmaking, where you barely have time to grasp the surface, where to find the space for anything beneath a surface? Where to find a moment for Khan to rest his sight?
This is, perhaps, what I mean by interiority. A sense that the character fumbles, even if it is in the uncertain gaze. A chafing against their mortality. As essayist Jacqueline Rose, who mostly tinkers with psychoanalysis, writes, “Identities that flounder, moments when we lose our way, contain psychic truth.”
This lacking interiority might have to do with the demands from Khan as a hero — they are certainly different, distinct, from that of Bachchan.
There is something translucent about Shah Rukh Khan. Like what Katharine Hepburn felt about John Wayne, it feels thrilling to lean on him, like a tree, like a shaded spot of rest. We read too much into his every gesture. We see him for what we want to see in him. Some see too much, some see too little. Bachchan’s heroism, his cynical, uncomforting vigilante lives calloused by loneliness, is of no use to us today, perhaps. In Khan’s curve towards the action hero, with clear ethical foundations, hazier political implications, he cuts a more glamorous, comforting figure, and for better or worse, this is the heroism of our times.