Writers: Atlee, S. Ramanagirivasan, Sumit Arora
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Nayanthara, Vijay Sethupathi, Priyamani, Deepika Padukone, Sanya Malhotra, Riddhi Dogra, Sanjeeta Bhattacharya, Girija Oak, Lehar Khan
Duration: 169 minutes
Available in: Theatres
A mass movie is a vessel, but it’s an empty one without the liquid to hold. Masala is hot, but it’s only ground dust without the dish. The ‘hero-entry moment’ is a legacy, but it’s only a stranger striding in slow-mo if we don’t know who he is. Atlee’s Jawan – a film I’d have watched in back-to-back morning shows if I didn’t have to write this review – celebrates the identity of this stranger. He is an overflowing vessel, but he’s also the dish of the year. When he asks “Main kaun hu? (Who am I?),” it’s a question in the shape of a reminder. The reminder is not just trapped by the big screen. It’s everywhere – it’s in his name, his narrative, his fatherhood, the interviews he’s stopped doing, the loyalty of his fans, the cheekiness of ‘Ask SRK’ Twitter sessions, the venom of his trolls, the boycott hashtags, the stoic nationalism, and a decade-long comeback in the making. If Pathaan was the first line of that reminder, Jawan is the whole punchline. And what a punchline it is.
Jawan (“soldier”) is not just any social drama. It’s a drama based in a country so embattled that the only mantra left is: When in doubt, Shah Rukh Khan. The leaders have failed, the system is corrupt, and a superstar has decided to take matters into his own hands. This intervention is disguised as one of the most enjoyable, pulpy, ditzy and progressive entertainers in recent memory. It’s Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000) with swag, Rang De Basanti (2006) with zero shame, and Ghayal (1990) on steroids. It’s anti-establishment rage with pro-people hope. It’s hard to write a single line of plot without spoiling the experience. So let’s just say that Khan in Jawan signifies the sort of happy-hour vigilantism that’s immensely satisfying to see. He’s a soldier and a jailer, a patriot and a saint. And he is fed up. Every time he appears, it’s a hero-entry moment – and there are at least ten of these. (I may or may not have hooted at the coolest pre-interval scene in ages; if you listen closely, you might almost hear Khan growl: Who’s your daddy now?). Which is to say that things are so bleak today that Khan needs to be introduced – and remembered – multiple times. He needs to be there, even when he’s not. And he needs to keep arriving, by hook or by crook, as hero and antidote, as enforcer and protector.
In other words, being fiction isn’t enough. In Jawan, the singularity of storytelling wears the plurality of life. For instance, the Robin Hood theme is timeless but also pointedly current. When a hijacking happens, the protagonist – who loves old Bollywood songs – pretends to be a baddie, and his first target is a burqa-clad passenger. Later, a woman is falsely charged and jailed for drug use; she takes the fall for government apathy. When a skirmish at the border goes wrong, soldiers become pawns in a political scam that leaves the army with faulty weapons. It’s all there: Farmer suicides, fumbling ministers, a shortage of oxygen cylinders, a billionaire who funds the government. It’s no surprise that electronic voting machines (EVMs) and an impending election play a key role in the premise, too. There’s a back-from-the-dead and memory-loss track, a nod to the fact that a (movie) soldier has had to rediscover his stature as a secular icon. There’s an all-female team of avengers – an ode to Khan’s unique image as both a feminist hero and beta-male lover – and an aspirational women’s prison that reframes the cage as a container of pent-up potential. All alleged flaws – a bandaged face, a bald head, middle age, pregnancy out of wedlock, macho cigar-smoking (which almost taunts the “cigarettes are injurious to health” disclaimer) – morph into superhero capes. When politicians are reduced to caricatures who transform at the drop of a hat, it’s not lazy writing. The rush suggests that the film perhaps has no time for figures who generally have no time for the people that vote them in.
I’m usually not a fan of film-makers being in awe of the stars they cast. But Atlee’s blinding reverence for Shah Rukh Khan and his Daddy era (as well as Nayanthara and Vijay Sethupathi) works wonders for the film. The lovesick treatment (Level: Hrithik Roshan in War) ensures that when the director fast-forwards through the romance, flashbacks, climax and reaction shots in a hurry, our excitement is rooted in the anticipation of the next punchy scene. And the next, and the next. It stops mattering that the connective tissue is a formality, or that tears are used as narrative shortcuts. Everything else is a footnote, a filler in service of bold messaging, at a time when even silence is viewed through the lens of dissent.
The directness of this courage (especially a monologue towards the end) is moving, because it reveals the cards of a film that isn’t afraid to request its viewers to reflect rather than tell them to think. Its activism is almost chivalrous, despite the loud tone. It doesn’t hesitate to break the fourth wall and use its commercial packaging – replete with the contradictions of a weak soundtrack but a terrific score, wanton violence and pan-Indian emotions – to reason with the very concept of democracy. Add to this the colour – like a delightfully unhinged villain, a cheetah chilling at a high-scale meeting featuring a Bane-styled billionaire, a vertically challenged henchman pulling his gigantic colleague as they record a video – and Jawan becomes an irresistible cocktail of guts and mainstream glory.
Most of all, the subtext is there for everyone to savour. The thrill of watching a Shah Rukh Khan film has long been defined by his uncanny ability to make it about himself. Over the years, he’s renovated the idea of celebrity narcissism, turning it into meta-entertainment at the movies. Khan has often let his life – or at least popular perception of his life – inform the spirit of his roles. Our enjoyment is derived from the illusion that we’re watching him as much as the men he plays. Earlier, this auto-fiction was limited to excavations of his own superstar duality (Duplicate, Om Shanti Om, Fan, Ra.One, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi). But it’s only as an action hero that this self-reverence has gone from entertainment to art. The genre physicalises (and mythologises) Khan’s journey, pitting him against real-world demons instead of imaginary people. While it’s natural to wonder why he took so long to do all-out action cinema, the timing is perfect – his underdog swag can now afford to be personal and political at once. It can be aggressive and kind at once.
As a result, his heroes aren’t fighting against, they’re fighting for. The “bete ko haath lagane se pehle baap se baat kar (before threatening the son, deal with the father)” threat in Jawan brings the house down for a reason. The flashback of his character stars a child who resembles a young Aryan Khan in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), for a reason. A Lion King reference (Khan and his son voiced Mufasa and Simba in the Hindi version of the 2019 live-action remake) hits home, for a reason. None of it is grandstanding or self-homage anymore. Within the defiant parameters of action cinema, it acquires the grammar of self-expression. The fight is literal; the scale is fitting. It becomes more. And Jawan is that more. It understands that cinematic truth isn’t about logic but pop-cultural authenticity. It gets that mass is weightless without a sense of matter. And it proves that masala film-making isn’t about giving the audience what they want; it’s about asking them what they need.