A young South Indian director with a 100 per cent success rate – every one of his four previous films has been a humongous hit – and a Bollywood superstar with an enduring fan following like nobody else’s combine to unleash a Hindi mass movie that is as good as any we have seen in recent times.
Jawan, which also has Tamil and Telugu versions released nationwide, brings together the best of two worlds in a manner that borders on the delightfully frenzied and consistently captivating. Shah Rukh Khan, coming off the box-office record-smashing Pathaan, makes the most of a screenplay that has things to say and the wherewithal to making its pertinent points without losing its focus on the primary purpose of providing unalloyed entertainment.
Packed with all the ingredients that you would expect in a high-octane action film, Jawan is a strikingly meta vehicle in which a star communicates directly with his fan base and holds forth on themes that are crying out to be addressed. To that extent, it is somewhat like the 2017 Vijay starrer, Mersal, Atlee’s third directorial venture.
In his first Hindi film, Atlee, who has written Jawan with his Theri and Mersal collaborator S. Ramana Girivasan, taps the magnetism of Shahrukh Khan and the spirit of the hot-button themes of the times in a superbly crafted potboiler that mixes big explosive action sequences with intimate emotional scenes.
Jawan tells the affecting story of a soldier without resorting to jingoistic bluster. If anything, the film does the exact opposite. It speaks up on behalf of the masses and touches upon issues that matter to people at the mercy of the politically and economically powerful.
Without naming names or specifying real-life parallels, Jawan weighs in on crony capitalism, bad loans, farmer suicides, neglected government hospitals, malfunctioning military weapons, election fraud and the plight of a citizenry stripped of access to resources that are rightfully theirs.
Jawan turns the spotlight on apathetic ministers, falsehood-peddling politicians and incompetent and compromised bureaucrats, none of whom are willing to be held accountable for a rotting system. The film delivers its message with great flair but without succumbing to gratuitous grandstanding.
Who is better equipped to do all this than SRK, who, even when he plays a larger-than-life action hero on a mission to take down a powerful industrialist who has wronged him and his nation in more ways than one, can stay rooted in the real world and animate the canvas with humanity even as he projects an invincible, superhero-like persona?
Jawan, produced by Gauri Khan under the Red Chillies Entertainment banner, erases the line that separates the actor playing a fictional figure and the star engaged in a conversation with his audience. The latter is inevitably one-way but as one watches the film in a packed hall its resonance with significant swathes of the audience is palpable.
SRK carries off the onerous task with such phenomenal panache that one barely notices when one entity gives way to the other. The narrative is never in danger of losing its balance even as the performer and the character shorten the distance between them.
On one level, Jawan is a fan service masala film. On another, it is a tale of revenge that is also a political statement, and a loud and clear one at that. Jawan ends with the hero looking straight into the camera – it is positioned in a way that represents the eye of the audience – and tangentially echoing what SRK’s character had said more than once in the action-comedy from a decade ago, Chennai Express (“Don’t underestimate the power of a common man”).
Ask questions, seek answers and use the power of your vote wisely, he exhorts the audience with all the solemnity that he can muster following an act of daring that compels the head of state to accept his demand to intervene.
Jawan opens in a hilly village on India’s border – the exact location isn’t specified – where a badly wounded soldier is nursed back to physical health. A few months later, he springs to the defence of the hamlet when it is attacked by a band of murderous infiltrators. He repels the aggressors but the brave warrior does not remember who is. A little boy who he saves from certain death promises to find out when he is old enough.
The film cuts to three decades later. A Mumbai Metro train with more than 300 passengers is hijacked by a group of six women (played, among others by Priyamani, Sanya Malhotra and Sanjeeta Bhattacharya) and an ageing man (Shahrukh Khan) in the guise of an Army Captain. He demands that he will negotiate only with one particular police officer, Narmada Rai (Nayanthara, who hits all the right notes).
The parleys over the next few minutes brings an unlettered agriculture minister and a wealthy businessman, Kali Gaekwad (Vijay Sethupathi), into the picture. At one end of the spectrum, we hear the story of a farmer (Omkar Das Manikpuri) forced to kill himself because he has defaulted on a Rs 40,000 loan for a tractor. At the other end is the case of a bank waiving off an industrialist’s Rs 40,000 crore loan.
The captain’s first encounter with the law gives way to scenes in a woman’s prison where he reappears as a jail warden, Azad, a man who has revolutionised life for the inmates with boldly progressive initiatives. The jailer, with the help of six women who have suffered at the hands of those who wield power, is determined to change how the prison – and the nation – functions.
The first half of the 170-minute film is fast-paced and replete with stylishly executed fight sequences and a track that witnesses Azad and Narmada, a single mother, entering into wedlock. Post-intermission, Jawan recounts the story of Azad’s birth, the fate of his mother (Deepika Padukone in a memorable special appearance) and his relationship with the former women’s prison jailer Kaveri (Riddhi Dogra).
The flashbacks out of the way, the film returns to the thick of the action around the villainous tycoon whose misdeeds extend to trying to influence the electoral process with money power. The hero and his supporters fan out to stop the baddie and his accomplices in their tracks.
In the chase sequences in the run-up to a rousing climax, director Atlee and his team pull out the stops and come up eye-popping action passages. In the final act, SRK and Vijay Sethupathi (who is as brilliant as ever) square off in a scene that caps a magnificent crowd-pleaser that blends some sharp writing (the Hindi dialogues by Sumit Arora are almost always on the ball) and a high level of technical finesse.
Jawan hits the bull’s eye both as a movie that is out to entertain and a vehicle that demonstrates the power of a superstar endowed with a voice that is anything but ordinary. It manifests itself as much on the screen as it does outside its fictive confines.
Shah Rukh Khan, Nayanthara, Vijay Sethupathi, Deepika Padukone