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Jawan: How Shah Rukh Khan and a Tamil director are leading Bollywood out of its prodigal bunker

Before beginning, let me mention a few things. Is Jawan the biggest mass actioner India has ever seen? No. Is Jawan the best Shah Rukh Khan film ever? No. Does it showcase SRK at his charismatic best? Kinda. Is it Atlee Kumar’s best directorial to date? No. Does Jawan have a novel narrative? No. But, did I enjoy the film? HELL YEAH!

While attending the screening of Atlee Kumar’s Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Jawan in Kochi on its release day, I noticed my eyes welling up at a certain point. Initially, I couldn’t comprehend what was happening, especially since it was not an emotional moment being portrayed on screen. But soon I realised that these were tears of joy as I witnessed SRK dancing exuberantly to the tune of “Zinda Banda”.

Even though I never considered myself a Shah Rukh Khan fan for the longest time and only came to realise how remarkable of an actor and an even greater emotional force he is just a few years ago, seeing him there, at his favourite place, “in front of the camera”, brought me immense happiness.

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I had rooted for the success of Pathaan too, and yes, that was influenced by political factors. Though Pathaan was no cinematic masterpiece and just a decent action entertainer, its performance demonstrated how love can conquer hate. Pathaan was, at best, mediocre. But the affection that SRK’s fans have for him and vice versa ultimately prevailed over the hate campaigns, boycott calls, and witch-hunts he endured. Jawan, however, was something totally different. I watched Jawan as a proper fanboy.

Pathaan bas shuruaat tha

Many credited Pathaan’s success to his return as the lead after a five-year hiatus. Additionally, they pointed to the inclusion of high-energy Hollywood-style action sequences, Salman Khan’s cameo appearance, and its connection to the YRF Spy Universe as contributing factors to Pathaan’s massive success. Let’s momentarily assume these arguments hold true. How can we explain Jawan’s success then? Despite its narrative being a blend of various films, Jawan is poised to become one of Bollywood’s biggest hits ever, and the sole driving force behind it is Shah Rukh Khan!

In all honesty, Pathaan merely scratched the surface of SRK’s potential to ace mass roles. To paraphrase Jawan’s words, “Woh toh bas shuruaat tha“.

jawan, jawan movie, shah rukh khan, shah rukh khan jawan, shah rukh khan new movie, srk, srk jawan, srk movies, jawan review, shah rukh khan jawan movie, shah rukh khan jawan movie review, atlee, atlee kumar, atlee director movies, atlee jawan, nayanthara, vijay sethupathi, deepika padukone, anirudh ravichander Fans of Shah Rukh Khan wear his masks from the newly-released movie Jawan at a cinema hall, in Kolkata, Sept. 7, 2023. (PTI)

Jawan is essentially Shah Rukh Khan’s “Naan veezhven endru ninaithayo?” (You believed I would fall?) moment. It stands as a response to those who unfairly targeted him, urged him to leave the country simply because he didn’t conform to divisive politics, questioned his status as an Indian citizen due to his religion, and foolishly declared the end of his career. With Jawan, he has once again underscored why he is rightfully called the Baadshah.

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A wake-up call for Bollywood

Simultaneously, the film also offers a solution to Bollywood’s struggles with box-office failures, demonstrating how to do it right, and urging India’s largest film industry to step out of its opulent bunkers and create movies that transcend extravagant sets.

Jawan effectively emphasises the responsible handling of mass movies, highlighting the need to shift the focus away from solely glorifying male protagonists with superhuman abilities hurling massy dialogues at every juncture.

It’s also imperative for the film industry, particularly Bollywood, to recognise that patriotism goes beyond portraying Pakistan and other nations as the sole threats to India. The relentless bombardment of films centred on inter-country tensions, featuring excessive patriotic dialogues, has, to some extent, allowed those in authority to evade scrutiny and accountability for their shortcomings. Despite its significant influence on the public, popular cinema, especially Bollywood, has largely refrained from engaging in discussions on internal affairs.

In contrast, Jawan is a breath of fresh air as it addresses a topic of equal importance to border tensions and security threats: the daily struggles of ordinary citizens who are consistently denied the opportunity to live, let alone with dignity. Jawan fearlessly explores a range of subjects, including farmer suicides, deficiencies in government-run hospitals, and the overwhelming influence of the super-wealthy within the system, which mainstream Bollywood has evidently avoided in recent years.

What’s particularly noteworthy is that it took Shah Rukh Khan himself, despite facing continuous scrutiny over his identity, to initiate the conversation. In spite of being well aware of the potential consequences of challenging the system, especially in an industry where most of the ultra-privileged have aligned themselves with those in authority, Jawan speaks volumes about SRK’s courage and commitment to sparking change.

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Jawan proves that relying solely on mass appeal is insufficient

Jawan also effectively demonstrates the synergy between its narrative and the mass appeal, serving as a reminder that relying solely on mass appeal is insufficient. This becomes evident when we examine the failures of recent mass, action films such as Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan, Bachchhan Paandey, Attack: Part 1, Dhaakad, Rashtra Kavach Om, Shamshera, Ram Setu, An Action Hero and Liger, contrasted with the success stories of films like Bholaa, Vikram Vedha, and now Jawan. Makers should recognise that mass appeal is not truly effective if films lack a genuine mass-appeal story.

This doesn’t mean Bollywood should revive the “angry young man” stereotype. I am simply underlining the importance of not relying exclusively on Sanjay Leela Bhansali-ish, Karan Johar-ish or Siddharth Anand-ish making style, which completely overlooks the realities of our current environment, particularly during challenging times. To do this constantly and expect audiences to accept every permutations and combinations that evolve, no questions asked, is unfair.

At a time when a significant portion of the audiences either favour OTT platforms over traditional cinemas or revisit films on streaming platforms after seeing them in theatres, it’s crucial for filmmakers to consider this shift as well. While the inclusion of massy, action-packed sequences may captivate audiences in cinema halls, the impact can diminish when watching alone or with a small group on a smaller screen. Failure to grasp this dynamic could result in dwindling love and appreciation for a movie once it premieres digitally, potentially inviting criticism for focusing solely on hypermasculine themes without offering more depth.

While Jawan’s story is anything but fresh and draws heavily from films like Atlee’s own Mersal and Bigil, as well as other movies such as Thaai Naadu, Kaththi, Sarkar, and Arrambam, with elements reminiscent of 7am Arivu, Ramanaa, Gentleman, Yennai Arindhaal, Sardar, Mankatha, and more, it’s important to acknowledge that Jawan addresses significant and enduring societal issues. It’s somewhat ironic that it took a Tamil director to make India’s largest film industry recognise the moral responsibility of cinema and artistes to society. While Jawan may not be a cinematic spectacle, it will always be remembered for awakening Bollywood to this important aspect, which South Indian film industries have consistently embraced, even in the production of mass films, but Hindi cinema lost sight of in its pursuit of box-office milestones.

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The effective utilisation of an actor/star in Jawan

Jawan also serves as a prime example of how to utilise an actor/star effectively. While this focus on the star’s role may have resulted in underdeveloped characters for Nayanthara, Vijay Sethupathi, Priyamani, and others, the film compensates for these shortcomings by portraying SRK in a slightly unconventional manner. Despite not featuring the typical SRK moments, such as overly emotional or romantic, the movie skillfully rehashes his traits, offering a somewhat fresh and comprehensive version of the actor and that too in the absence of memorable soundtracks except for the Jawan title track, as the film marks composer Anirudh Ravichander’s least impressive work so far.

In Jawan, SRK initially appears as a saviour and later transforms into an antagonist briefly. He then assumes roles as a responsible citizen, rightfully named Azad, a mentor to inmates, a dedicated cop, an affectionate and emotional man prepared for parenthood, a compassionate lover, a devoted son, a righteous Jawan, and a fearless patriot willing to go to great lengths for the people of his nation, among others. Atlee skillfully makes use of SRK’s ability to transition between alpha and beta male character archetypes, presenting a diverse spectrum of his personas in a single film, much to the delight of his fans like myself. This factor has been instrumental in garnering acclaim for Jawan, even in the face of generally underwhelming performances by the majority of the main cast, with the exception of Deepika Padukone, who excelled due to her skillfully crafted character.

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Simultaneously, the film’s warm reception in the South, despite its amalgamation of different movies and a narrative familiar to the audiences here, reinforces Shah Rukh Khan’s title as King Khan and demonstrates the influence a socially conscious film can wield; it’s questionable whether the movie would have fared as well in South India had it been any other star at its centre.

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