September 7 was a euphoric day at the movies. Jawan, Shah Rukh Khan’s second mammoth release this year after Pathaan, opened to packed houses nationwide. I watched the film twice in Hyderabad’s popular Prasads multiplex on its opening day, and you just had to be there to feel the excitement in the air. There was a cut-out of Shah Rukh Khan installed outside the theatre — a rarity for a Hindi film in Hyderabad.
During my second viewing, I was seated beside a group of Hindi-speaking men who stayed serious throughout the film—even when SRK’s unabashedly cool Vikram Rathore set the screens on fire in the film’s explosive intermission sequence. The theatre was shaking, but these men were watching the film seriously. After the film was over, once the lights were on, one of them asked me, “Did you enjoy the film?” to which I responded positively and informed him that this was my second viewing. The man smiled and gave me a high-five. Wondering if he was being sarcastic, I posed the same question to him. His response was so strong. “Yahi tho ho raha hai Bharath mein. Yeh reality hai. (This is what's happening in the country. This is the reality.” It’s only then did I realise that this individual has been seeing the film from a different perspective. The guns, the chases, the dialogue-baazi, and all other embellishments of the film didn’t matter to him in front of the politics and the commentary that the film posited. It hit this viewer personally. This, I believe has been a crucial factor in defining the polarising responses to Jawan.
Regular Hindi filmgoers are in awe of the film’s no-holds-barred heroism coupled with its depiction of India’s social issues. But the South, which is conditioned to watching star-led high-voltage actioners with a tinge of social commentary, invariably saw it just as a glorified rehash of South hits. The films of Atlee, right from his 2013 debut Raja Rani, has had to deal with the criticism of being unoriginal, and Jawan is no exception. Its unoriginality, from its father-son dual role angle (Atlee’s Mersal and Bigil featured Vijay in triple and double roles, respectively) to the hero’s fight against a corrupt system (numerous Shankar films come to mind), has been the prime focus of its critics. Most of it emerges from the fact that Tamil and Telugu film industries have been churning out such large-than-life entertainers for years now.
Is Its Lack of Originality Jawan's Biggest Drawback?
Addressing the criticism about the film being unoriginal, Sangeetha Devi, film critic of The Hindu, shares her experience watching the film. “To be honest, the first time I watched the film, I was in two minds about it, especially with the first half of the film. I felt Atlee did exactly what Shankar did in the ‘90s. I could list out every element that reminded me of films I had seen earlier—from Ezham Arivu (2011) to Mudhalavan (1999) to Money Heist. I could see half a dozen (films) playing in it and felt that he went to Hindi cinema and did the same thing." Numerous scenes in the film are reminiscent of the elements we have seen in films, from Kaththi (2014) to Sardar (2022) to Atlee's own Mersal, but that doesn't dismiss the merits and pleasures that Jawan has to offer.
On the originality front, film critic Sowmya Rajendran agrees with Sangeetha. "I could see the films Atlee had drawn inspiration from. Also, it’s a mix of all the issues that Tamil cinema has represented already, including corruption in different systems like healthcare and politics. I mean, in Tamil cinema, we even have the stock ‘corporate villain’ character. But in the North, that is all new. In the South, many people view it as an insincere effort where you are just clubbing together a wide range of issues that many films have already spoken about."
Sangeetha looks at Jawan as a fresh film for the Hindi audiences. "When I saw people clapping and hooting for the voting monologue in the climax, it struck me that they hadn’t seen something like this in Hindi cinema in years. This is why they are loving the film. It has great masala moments and a film needs to be packaged with entertainment properly because why else would someone listen to a sermon?”
Aavishkar, a freelance film journalist from Mumbai, looks at the film differently. “When Jawan was initially announced, there was some apprehension among fans about its content because Atlee’s previous films Mersal and Bigil didn’t find a massive reception here. There were concerns regarding the second half of the film falling flat after a great first half. We were in that zone. But after watching the film, we all have the same opinion. That Jawan is Atlee’s most engaging film to date. At 165 minutes, it never feels dragged."
The Politics Of Jawan
Aavishkar says that the film’s social commentary too, hits close to home. “I’m from Maharashtra and it’s striking a chord with people here big time because of the issues the film has addressed. The farmers’ suicide issue, for instance, is very prevalent here, unfortunately. We see such a piece of tragic news as such in the newspapers once every two to three days. The whole tractor episode is quite common, especially in the villages of Maharashtra. In fact, the people I’m talking to, even those who have a political background, are glad to see such real issues being addressed. Likewise, with the oxygen cylinder tragedy episode and the army backstory (the lack of proper weaponry), the film integrated real issues into its narrative.”
Sowmya adds that Jawan has come during a very interesting time, making it a relevant piece of work in the mainstream space. "Since 2014, most of the films that Bollywood has been churning out have been pro-nationalist stories that mirror the government’s views on many issues. We have stars like Kangana Ranaut and Akshay Kumar, who have been fiercely making films that will appeal to the government and its supporters. Some of the most important aspects of Jawan are its dialogues and the issues that it puts in the forefront. For instance, I cannot think of another film post Peepli Live (2010) that discussed the farmer’s issue seriously. In the North, the farmer's protest happened to such a great extent recently but then, it didn’t make its way to cinema. The Hindi audience didn’t see these issues being represented in their films, that too by a mainstream star. So I think that has really clicked with them."
It's not just the issues the film is trying to address, but the way it wraps these issues within the framework of a spectacular entertainer. "Take a film like Sudhir Mishra's Afwaah (streaming on Netflix), for instance. It is a very serious, brave political film that talks about what’s happening in the country, but how many people would want to go to the theatres to watch it?" Sowmya asks. "It’s not too fun to watch it because it is not massy. It’s made for a niche audience. One of the reasons why the Tamil filmmakers have been so successful is that they know how to marry 'mass' with political messaging. They know that if they make a serious film with no songs and no action, not many people would go to see it.”
Sangeetha adds that the film’s politics bestows it a special place in Hindi cinema. “For the past few years, we have been seeing people playing it extra safe due to the political climate; they are scared about what they say and how it might be interpreted, especially after the emergence of the boycott trends. A filmmaker once told me off-the-record about the checklists that are in place these days at OTT platforms." Even if something barely related to politics is visible in the background, they are expected to procure a ‘No-Objection Certificate’, she adds. "As a result, nobody wants to attempt even regular stories. What Atlee has done with Shah Rukh is do a throwback to the angry young characters of the ‘70s—where the hero is upset with the system, takes a stance, and decides to set things right. That’s why it’s working.”
SRK Bigger Than Jawan
The film is also being viewed as Shah Rukh Khan’s reply to all the distress that he was subjected to with Aryan's arrest in 2021, Sowmya points out. "Whether that was SRK’s intent or not is a different topic but it is being interpreted like that. Be it the 'Bete pe haath lagane se pehle…' dialogue or his monologue about voting, all of it is being seen through that lens."
Aavishkar admits that he didn't mind Jawan’s similarities to films of the past. “I have seen every Atlee film, and sure, a couple of bits did remind me of moments from his previous films. But in Jawan, the magic is the way SRK is presented. For us, SRK looked bigger than the film. We've never seen SRK fight in slow-mo with a cigar in his mouth before; we have seen Rajinikanth do it many times, but not SRK. We have only seen Amitabh Bachchan do such roles and seeing these massy elements return to our films is certainly creating a euphoric atmosphere in theatres. Even if the story feels old, if the audience is getting entertained and are feeling that kick, it doesn’t matter. Jawan gave it to us.”