At a cursory glance, “Jawan” is your regular Caligulan ode to the South Indian ‘proletariat strikes back’ action drama genre. Atlee reprises his anti-capitalist revenge story of a lifetime in Bollywood. It is a cinematic gourmet where the plot is driven by pastiche upon pastiche. If you don’t care for the subtext within the narrative and the myth surrounding its leading star, then Atlee probably won’t deliver a lot to you. As Shah Rukh once said that he is just a servant to the myth of SRK, Atlee understands the assignment and makes full use of SRK’s sprawling myth and humongous acting talent while invoking his own guru Shankar and serving his own filmmaking style.
Like SRK’s comeback vehicle “Pathaan” earlier this year, “Jawan” hovers far too close to cliches despite its admittedly brilliant myth-making. Yet “Jawan” is far more entertaining because of the sheer expansion of scope and detail- SRK going gung-hoo in all his avatars. First things first, the screenplay is predictable, and all the boxes that needed to be ticked since the prevue came out have been ticked. After a point, any audience member who is well versed with these mass movies doesn’t even need to look for the plotholes because you know they are there as usual, but you just wait for the suspension of disbelief to kick in. No Major Spoilers ahead.
All the usual Atlee tropes are present- a flashback, dead heroine, homages, and slow motions. No point criticizing his tropes as, at the end of the day, “Jawan” always had to be about entertainment and ejaculatory fanboy moments. “Jawan” is a triumph in storytelling as it is similar to “Anniyan,” “Nayak: The Real Hero,” and “Shivaji: The Boss” in the way it addresses the social problem and despite swimming dangerously close to the copaganda territory it – at least for now – remains safely distanced. Whether it ages well, only time will tell.
“Jawan” is retooled as a vigilante masala, pulling the curtain from many administrative malpractices with a shrewd vindictiveness. But it is not as celebratory and instantly gratifying as the Shankar movies. His protege Atlee uses those templates and plot points to create a film that comes across as sad and hopeless for most of its length. If we, the audience, didn’t have the knowledge of the arc these films have, SRK’s turn as the vigilante comes across as hopeless as a “Bhavesh Joshi Superhero.” The visual language of the film also contributes a lot to this feeling.
It becomes important to consider the country’s changes over the last decade and how they impacted the symbiotic relationship between the Hindi Film Industry and its audience. During times of utter disdain in the country and countless controversies, people of this country have wondered why don’t our beloved stars make a movie to address the societal concern with a strong political statement. There have been blogs and tweets written trying to investigate the spine and guts of our celebrities. Then enters Atlee, who gives the country of mad cinema lovers what they want- the answer. And that is invariably SRK, the country’s “whenever in doubt” man. No major tentpole Hindi movie in recent memory comes to mind that was so directly anti-establishment than “Jawan.”
SRK raises the correct questions about the system (dying agriculture, farmers’ suicide, dilapidated healthcare system, climate change, pollution – almost too many issues to deal with in a film) and asks its own citizens to reflect on their choices. The current political climate and the gigantic stature of the pan-India movement have sanctioned many movies with jingoistic and dubious messaging in recent years. While understandably, “Jawan” as a huge commercial film couldn’t take direct digs on specific incidents, its imagery is rooted in reality and alludes strongly to the culprits.
“Jawan,” unlike the Shankar films, stresses more on introspection than resistance. There are no instant gratifying moments. In a scene where Shah Rukh almost breaks the fourth wall, he asks the citizens of India to stop for a while and introspect before forming a resistance against the malpractices that govern our rusted system. The strong and relevant commentary with a Robinhood-like figure protagonist who raises himself in stature from a “terrorist of the state” to a “messiah of the masses” might come across as a stale template. Still, it comes as a cool, massy extravaganza when it gets concocted with ballsy action set-pieces and charm of SRK.
The brightest aspect of the movie is that Atlee doesn’t let this become another egoist, cocksure folklore about masculinity where a male savior dominates the narrative as a revolutionary figure in guise, like his previous films “Mersal” and “Theri.” Shah Rukh, as Azad, gets an army of women, and some of these girls get a relevant back story and a few dialogues other than “Ready Chief.” Surely, at the end of the day, a movie like this is all about hero worship, but it doesn’t throw the women characters to the margins. But again, this is neither “Chak De India” when it comes to women empowerment nor as cartoonish as it was in “Bigil.” Nayanthara gets ample space in the narrative. Despite her kicking some asses, you yearn for more.
She getting a more fleshed-out character and some great entry shots was a timely apology for how Atlee did her badly in “Bigil.” Vijay Sethupathi gets a character that is the devil personified and trusts this man to pull a role off despite no grey shades in the role and lesser manic energy than his turn in “Vikram.” His menacing act throughout the film makes the climax more rewarding. Deepika Padukone is a fitting choice for the extended cameo- never, even at the slightest, making the bleakness of her character’s predicament feel hammy or weak.
Atlee impresses as a student of Bollywood cinema with his co-writer Sumit Arora (even Shridhar Raghavan has been credited as the script consultant). Numerous references from SRK’s filmography are sprinkled in the screenplay- some evident, some disguised. Bits and pieces of “Swades” and “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” are all there. The direction and staging of the drama are at Atlee’s most polished in “Jawaan.” The scenes inside the jail and the gut-wrenching family drama mimic the Rajamouli template, whereas the look and feel are straight out of Lokesh Kanagaraj’s venture.
Red Chillies did a commendable job with the VFX. To Atlee’s credit, he fills each frame with visual noise, adding to the grandeur of the money shots. Cinematographer G.K. Vishnu is Atlee’s frequent collaborator and understands the treatment Atlee wants to provide to his set pieces. He uses very few static shots in the action scenes and entry scenes. The use of visual noises will remind you of John Woo and Michael Bay. Despite a mediocre soundtrack, Anirudh contributes hugely to this aspect with a cracking BGM score.
The score and the title track, sung by Raja Kumari, elevate the rousing action sequences. It is intriguing how the musical motifs flow from scene to scene, and thematically, the soundscape transcends beyond the movie and evokes your memory of experiencing such scenes in other movies. This might be Anirudh’s biggest genius- manipulating the audience’s mind and making them wonder whether the musical motifs actually allude to a cinematic universe in the making (fan theory- Atlee joining LCU) or is it just a coincidence.
Much to the effect of Karan Johar trimming song sequences to hit the sweet spot under 170 minutes, Atlee evidently did away with some scenes and trimmed the songs, thus making the song sequences feel dorky and jolted. Fewer songs could have contributed to a more nuanced screenplay, but who’s gonna complain if you present SRK to his massiest avatar to date?
Shah Rukh runs the show, effortlessly showing off his charisma and acting skills in his most physically challenging role and surely a career-defining one. His presence helps the film not merely become a social melodrama that treats real-life concerns as mere motives. He puts empathy forward rather than machismo-like he already did in his career.
His character is well-spoken, “woke” for lack of a better word- and hammers refined, moral lessons to his fans and unites them in positive ideology like no other star in the country ever can. Shah Rukh’s entry sequence is one for the ages- it is a whistle generator – mythologizing every celebration into a choreographed color burst and hammering every tragedy into a statement against the bigoted. Bodies pile up as fast as fingers get raised.
“Jawan,” despite its discordant, cliched plot and sometimes downright despicable writing, serves a giant masala movie extravaganza with unbridled enthusiasm- most importantly, serves it hot at the right time in history. It is hard to say whether anything beyond the choppy action scenes is the beneficiary of SRK’s vigilante cohort, but Atlee’s restraint and subtlety while dealing with nationalism in a film named “Jawan” in today’s climate is laudable. The intention compensates for the ham-fisted first half, where the film falters due to pacing issues. Sign up for “Jawan” if you want to watch a cookie-cutter drama about a renegade/rouge with a distinct visual flair where your favorite star takes on every possible enemy of the corrupt system- for you.