If Shah Rukh Khan weren’t the face of Jawan (or Soldier)—that too, twice over—it likely wouldn’t be worth watching. Then again, while it may be a scattered, over-the-top, politically dubious action thriller, it’s also produced by Khan, and features ideas and melodramatic monologues that seem to come straight from his heart. All this arrives wrapped in his signature combination of intensity and hammy charm, delivered through the kind of enormous and energetic filmmaking Bollywood action tends to lack.
Much like Khan’s spy vehicle Pathaan from earlier this year—his highly anticipated first leading role in more than four years, which went on to become the second-highest grossing Hindi-language movie ever—Jawaan is a gonzo experience laced with patriotic sentiment, in which the entire fabric of the film is warped around the superstar’s white-hot charisma. However, the key difference between the two is the aesthetic language of the “superstar” itself. Pathaan was directed by Siddharth Anand, who cut his teeth in Bollywood in the mid-2000s, and who shoots Khan with a sense of poise. The director of Jawan, meanwhile, came of age in the Tamil-language industry, Kollywood. Like many major South Indian artists, he goes by a mononym, Atlee, and he applies several of the industry’s action hallmarks to Jawan, including a colossal sense of scale in each and every frame. Anand shoots Khan as he is; he reveres the 57-year-old Hindi mainstay for all his achievements. Atlee, on the other hand, captures Khan as he ought to be, elevating him to a godlike figure in human form, turning each aspect of his performance (action, comedy, melodrama, and sheer physical presence) right up to its limit, as far as visual language will allow without breaking the entire film.
One of Jawan’s biggest draws is that Khan plays a “double role”—i.e. he plays two different parts—a concept that recurs frequently throughout Indian cinema, but which Khan has only participated in a handful of times. To explain the exact relationship between his two characters (which is also teased in the movie’s trailer) would be to give away huge chunks of its winding and often nonsensical plot, though it may not be all that hard to figure out. The film opens in the 1980s, with a tribe along India’s eastern border finding a gravely injured soldier and bandaging his wounds from head to toe. When the tribe is attacked by a militia, this mysterious, anonymous fighter leaps into heroic action while still mummy wrapped, leading to the reveal of Khan’s face one feature at a time as the bandages burn away, like he’s a gift being slowly unwrapped. Armed with only a spear, his character deftly dispenses with each attacker. He does not, however, remember his name or identity.
This dim, fire-lit opening scene is frenetic and frenzied, almost to the point of confusion. Despite Atlee’s gratuitous use of speed-ramping—quick transitions between slow-motion and high-speed within the same motion, popularized by Zack Snyder’s 300—no individual shot seems to last more than a second. It’s an issue that pervades the entire film, but it also imbues Khan with a superhuman physical quality at first, like he’s too elusive and powerful for the frame to fully capture.
Thirty years later, and without much explanation, an older, bald-headed Khan is re-introduced in a cosmopolitan setting aboard a metro train, which he sabotages and holds hostage alongside an elite squad of six high-tech, highly armed young women, each with their own unique spy talents. He goes by the name Vikram Rathore, and his team addresses him with diligent calls of “Good to go, chief!” With a grizzled rasp in his voice (akin to that of Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan), he makes a list of terrorist demands with noble outcomes, like the redistribution of wealth, and the disentanglement of politics from the influence of private industry. It becomes an instant TV spectacle. Meanwhile, police negotiator Narmada (Nayanthara) uses her skills and connections to get Rathore what he wants while also planning his capture, but he outsmarts her in audacious fashion, luring all of his hostages onto his side with sob stories about his six partners-in-crime and their reasons for assisting in his Robin Hood mission.
He explains, cartoonishly and at length, the inequities wrought upon common Indians, like farmers and students, by their government’s predatory practices. And while the film isn’t exactly about these structural mechanics, they’re folded explicitly into its purview so that the extras in each scene can help build its flimsy moral foundation. Jawan is a film in which each reaction shot is of someone shedding tears over plot exposition, though it’s seldom moving in and of itself (it rarely needs to be; not when its politics take the form of a Saw trap at one point). However, on occasion, these explanations of motive veer into lengthy flashbacks meant to further support the notion that Rathore’s ethical terrorism is rooted in severe injustice, and that he and his Charlie’s Angels are out to give the system a quick fix by holding it ransom. It’s a saccharine, righteous fantasy played on fast forward.
Few scenes or exchanges last long enough to allow for any thematic impact or meaning to take hold, so the words themselves often have to suffice. However, when your verbose, function-first dialogue is delivered by Khan, who knows exactly how to fine tune it for mass appeal, connective tissue and visual comprehensibility can safely take a backseat without things completely falling apart. Jawan often feels on the verge of collapse under the immense weight of its imagery, but the cast keeps it together, led by Khan’s expert comedic and dramatic timing, often in the same moment. A “special appearance” by his Pathaan co-star Deepika Padukone leads to some of the film’s only emotionally effective moments, and completing the equation is the quiet menace of Vijay Sethupathi as the aged, villainous business magnate Kaalie Gaikwad. His subtle, modulated, and at times terrifying performance makes for an alluring contrast with Khan’s bombast.
When the second character Khan plays finally comes into play...he enters with thunderous force, imposing body language, an exciting aura, and the kind of slick stylizations usually reserved for Tamil legend Rajinikanth...whom Khan joins atop the Indian cinematic pedestal as the epitome of effortless cool.
The further the film gets into its 167 minutes, the more labyrinthine and overly convenient its story becomes. However, Jawan is also the kind of movie where a doctor can tell if a woman is pregnant just by taking her pulse, if it means rushing the plot along to its next action set piece. It exists in a reality where time has no meaning in the present, but the past has a hold over every character in strange and profound ways, with stories of vengeance that run three decades deep, and with Khan’s character making references and callbacks to past events that he wasn’t even around to witness, but which introduce a sense of poetic irony nonetheless. This allows him to become the center of each and every payoff, even if it doesn’t make sense for him to be there. And when the second character Khan plays finally comes into play—no spoilers for who, when, or why—he enters with thunderous force, imposing body language, an exciting aura, and the kind of slick stylizations usually reserved for Tamil legend Rajinikanth—an actor whose image is often bathed in milk and worshiped akin to Hindu gods—whom Khan joins atop the Indian cinematic pedestal as the epitome of effortless cool.
The music by Anirudh features blaring, celebratory horns laced with frequent, pseudo-religious repetitions of the phrase “King Khan.” Like the camera, the soundscape works similarly to deify Khan, especially in the energetic, large-scale, downright addictive dance number “Zinda Banda,” which takes place inside a women’s prison and makes it seem like the most lively party imaginable. This location recurs frequently throughout the plot and takes on a meaning of its own for the characters, but it’s also part of the movie’s strangest instance of moral equivocation, turning prison labor into a virtuous example of Indian greatness and reform, rife with more teary-eyed scenes, in which unjustly incarcerated women salute the Indian flag. Then again, that this prison eventually becomes a stronghold for an over-the-top armed standoff positions it within its own bizarre reality too—it’s the Paddington 2 of Bollywood action—so the politics surrounding it are hard to be offended by, no matter how ugly they may seem.
The film pays constant lip service to political ideas, most of which fail to extend beyond mere gestures, or frameworks for the movie’s ludicrous action scenes. Then again, that Khan—a Muslim in the public eye—is at the center of a film even vaguely critical of India’s right wing Hindutva government is an act of bravery in itself, given the way his own family has been made a target of authoritarian overreach. It becomes hard not to read some of his lines directed at Gaikwad—whose white hair, long beard, and icy stillness evoke India’s fascistic Prime Minister Narendra Modi—as direct rebukes for this persecution, albeit subtly. What is not subtle, however, is Khan’s propensity to monologue directly into the camera as he addresses the Indian public (both watching TV in the film, and watching Jawan in cinemas) while he delivers platitudes about the extremist divisions tearing India apart, and the need to question those in power.
Whether or not Jawan may have benefitted from a more rigorous political inquiry (and whether or not its creators may have intended this), it’s unlikely that anything more nuanced or specific would have gotten past the Indian government’s censorious watch. So, this is unfortunately as far as most mainstream crowd pleasers are willing to go. Then again, the “crowd-pleasing” part of the equation is usually on-point in Jawan, from its litany of colorful side characters and their carnival-esque, comic book-inspired disguises, to its frantically edited yet fluidly filmed action that riffs on the John Wick movies. Of course, at the center of it all is Khan’s incandescent, irreplaceable, irreplicable charm, as the once romantic heartthrob enters his elder statesman and action hero eras all at once. Long live the King.
Published on September 14, 2023