Khan’s movie-star charisma is doomed by Atlee’s didactic writing and direction.
Jawan—the new Shah Rukh Khan movie—is angry about a lot of things. Across its elongated 170-minute runtime, the film packs in a bunch of ripped-from-the-headlines subplots: farmer suicides, cash-for-votes, corporate loan waivers, chemical disasters, factories causing pollution, Indian Army finding its weapons jammed, and children dying due to a lack of oxygen and the Muslim doctor-in-charge being made a scapegoat. But it doesn’t know how to tackle any of it that doesn’t involve shouting off the rooftops, being overly sentimental, or gratuitous violence. (A suicide scene is particularly gratuitous and should possibly carry a trigger warning.) Look, don’t get me wrong, Jawan is angry at all the right things. But its presentation is lacking so badly—writer-director Atlee exclusively talking down to you, like “Look, this is happening around you and you are ignoring it”—that it makes you groan.
Shah Rukh Khan can only take you so far
Essentially, Jawan is a series of public service announcements (PSAs) disguised as a movie. A series of PSAs that are increasingly in your face, to the point that the last one is literally delivered to your face, with Khan breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience. If Jawan was led by any other actor, say an Akshay Kumar or Salman Khan, it would be immediately discarded. The film coasts on the movie-star charm of and the audience’s affection for Khan, but that can only take you so far. Thrust into an action thriller package—it’s more of an action comedy, to be honest—the world of Jawan operates with zero cohesion or internal logic. Things happen merely because the film wants them to, not because they organically proceed from the events in motion.
This extends to Jawan’s action sequences too. The film opens with one guy, recovering from multiple gunshot wounds, defeating a fully-equipped army unit with a pole. Later, a special ops squad—outgunned and caught with their pants down—takes out terrorists in the most comical fashion. A highway chase set piece, seemingly inspired by The Matrix Reloaded, has no vehicles on both sides of the highway other than those being driven by the good and bad guys. And in the climax, the villain presents himself to be beaten up, making choices that allow the narrative to come full circle. Meanwhile, his henchmen conveniently disappear for a few minutes, so the heroes can do as they please. Jawan operates with the belief that the viewer is ignorant, forgetful, or unquestioning.
The plot of Jawan
Jawan mostly follows 30-year-old Azad Rathore (Khan), a jail warden by day and vigilante by night who pursues social justice and attempts to right wrongs with a team of six female convicts: Lakshmi (Priyamani), Eeram (Sanya Malhotra), Helena (Sanjeeta Bhattacharya), Ishkra (Girija Oak), Kalki (Lehar Khan), and Jahnvi (Aaliyah Qureishi). They are each given a moniker at the beginning that defines their roles, but given how little it matters, I’ve forgotten most. Their opening night act is to hijack the Mumbai Metro and demand a tête-à-tête with the country’s agricultural minister. (This is where the PSAs begin.) Jawan is arguably at its best in this sequence—a well-balanced mix of comedy and thrills—but it devolves from there, eventually being all over the place tonally and structurally.
Not happy with letting him be an average jail warden that would serve as a perfect cover, Jawan turns Azad into a jail warden who gets an award from the United Nations the first time we see him. (Sorry, what?) And if that wasn’t enough, Jawan pulls Azad into a marriage with single mother Narmada Rai (Nayanthara), who’s looking not for a husband but a father for her precocious young daughter Suji (Seeza Saroj Mehta). Oh, did I mention that Narmada is an expert hostage negotiator and the very officer who’s after Azad and his gang? Azad goes through with it anyway, all because he’s begun to care for Suji. (“Aw, he’s such a sweet guy,” is what the movie wants to evoke.) Why would you willingly bring this kind of heat on yourself? It’s positively nonsensical.
SRK is everything. She’s just there
As you can tell, there’s a very obvious male saviour problem running through Jawan. Azad is the ideal father—Suji loves him instantly. Azad is the ideal warden—under his watch, the prisoners are contributing to the betterment of society. The ones who leave never commit crime again. And Azad is the ideal group leader—each of the six women look up to him, for he’s helping them when they are at their lowest. (It’s unclear when and how he trained them to the level of elite Mission: Impossible agents.) Meanwhile, for all of the film’s female empowerment message, women are relegated to being mothers (Deepika Padukone as Azad’s mother), caretakers (Riddhi Dogra as Azad’s adopted mother), or accessories (the six—half of them get elaborate sob stories, the other half get nothing).
Nayanthara isn’t an exception, mind you—I’m merely avoiding spoilers. If anything, her Narmada gets the worst treatment of the lot. Billed as the female lead and introduced as a take-no-prisoners badass, Jawan quickly reduces her to the romantic lead, then a clueless and hapless victim, and pushes her to the fringes in the second half. This kick starts with an entirely unnecessary song in the first half—Narmada says she only wants a father for Suji, but the film betrays her and suddenly, she’s in love—that arrives just a few minutes after another one. (The pair of them derail the narrative momentum Jawan had built for itself to that point.) Speaking of frivolous songs, Padukone is thrust into a love ballad 20 seconds after she arrives on screen. In fact, her runtime is divided across two songs more or less.
What does Jawan actually believe in?
When it’s not busy serving its commercial interests and destroying its own themes, Jawan is falling apart narratively. Vijay Sethupathi hangs around with no purpose in the first half, more so because the film is hiding things from the audience. His presence only begins to make sense after we get a giant exposition dump in the second half. This exposition is delivered by the six women, who choose to stay in prison even after they are found out by Narmada. Elsewhere, no one thinks to scout ahead or question the foolish plan of a new senior officer, who blindly sends in a troop of commandos. A fellow Mumbai cop, who’s caught up in a hostage situation, somehow evades duty for weeks and gets access to sensitive military information.
More annoyingly, Jawan’s worldview is alarmingly inconsistent. When it’s burning with zeal, it believes people are conniving and capable of untold evil. In these cases, the film explicitly chooses violence as the solution: whack that guy, stab that cop, and hang that dude. At the same time, Jawan is overly optimistic about how things are resolved. In these cases, it becomes earnest and self-righteous. The characters, and as a result the plot, serve whatever is required of them. Polluting factories are shut down, struggling hospitals are renovated, and ministers openly admit to their mistakes. Given what it tackles, Jawan is acutely aware of the India it lives in, but it’s also wearing blinkers. It’s almost as if the film can’t bring itself to face the grim reality.
If there is a common thread to what Jawan is about, the film looks at the lack of accountability in India and how people don’t demand better. Especially from their legislators. This is essentially what Shah Rukh Khan communicates in his fourth-wall-breaking moment. (Let’s be honest, no movie—not even a 300-crore-rupee star vehicle for the most beloved of them all—is not going to set things right in a country that has dissolved to a point that an ultra-right-wing neo-Nazi party has been in power for almost a decade and its egregious behaviour is routinely excused if not celebrated.) But not only is it all-caps didactic, Jawan ultimately folds in, crashes, and burns. By the end, you can’t make head from tail. There were multiple moments in the obnoxious second half where I rolled my eyes out of abandon.
Sure, Khan is his usual charismatic self—he inhabits Azad’s mean streak quite well, humanising him but also coming across as threatening when required. He’s adept at being funny and not taking himself seriously, and he’s great when he needs to be sincere and make you furious. He exudes belief and swagger as the grizzled old self, though the whole forgetful lost father thing is much less convincing. But when he’s not busy addressing the viewer, Jawan tends to reduce Khan’s presence to a collection of cool-looking shots. It’s more akin to a music video at times. (Anirudh Ravichander’s near-omnipresent ear-splitting background score and G. K. Vishnu’s over-the-top cinematography contribute to that. Thanks to its punishing runtime, it’s an audio-visual onslaught in places.)
For his boisterous fans, it’s clearly A-OK, as you can tell from the loud cheers that greet every frame he’s in. But any culture that worships individuals and excuses their faults—be it an actor or a politician—is asking for trouble.
Jawan released on September 7 in cinemas worldwide.