White Guy Watches Bollywood

A random white guy engages with contemporary Indian cinema... one movie at a time

Hindi Movie Review: Shah Rukh Khan’s Jawan lives up to the massive hype

Shah Rukh Kahn stars in the Hindi movie "Jawan," directed by Atlee, here reviewed by White Guy Watches Bollywood.

This past January, Shah Rukh Khan returned to his first leading role following a four-year hiatus in Pathaan, which quickly became the highest-grossing Hindi film of all-time in India (not to mention a long list of international markets where the bar was lower). Less than nine months later, it looks like he’ll set that same record all over again with Jawan, which as of this writing has already claimed the title for top Hindi film opening day. Of course, these things can change quickly based on audience word-of-mouth, but I wouldn’t expect a slowdown any time soon for Jawan, as it delivers basically everything one could want from a mass appeal blockbuster. Like Pathaan, the movie boasts magnetic performances from both Khan and his costars, solid action set-pieces backed by well-earned stakes and suspense, surprising twists, and substantive but not patronizing social commentary. In other words, it’s the whole package.

Jawan’s very contemporary riff on a classic Robin Hood story makes it perhaps the biggest international blockbuster to date to tackle the global push towards social and economic populism. Khan plays the jailer Azad, who runs a women’s prison acclaimed for its rehabilitation programs. But that’s just his public-facing day job. Behind the walls of the prison – and beyond them – he also leads a covert team of six of the inmates imposing vigilante political justice in India. Early in the film, they hijack a Mumbai Metro train to extort the cash needed to pay down a slew of predatory government loans that were forced on farmers and other working-class people. In a subsequent mission, they shoot a corrupt Health Minister and rush him in for treatment at one of the government hospitals that his department deprives of proper resources. When the facility predictably doesn’t have the right surgeon or equipment, Azad demands that all government hospitals be supplied the proper inventory within five hours, before the patient can be saved.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say his character has true depth, Khan knows exactly how to leverage his charisma and star persona in this role, making Azad a highly watchable protagonist. Yes, he’s “playing the hits” with his performance choices to some degree, but he’s doing this in a way that mass audiences will definitely connect with. Azad’s enigmatic nature only makes him even more engrossing; of course there are secrets about his past just waiting to be revealed. His interplay with his squad is also engaging. Both of the initial missions have a personal connection to one of the inmates on the team – one is the daughter of a financially-ruined farmer who committed suicide, another a doctor who was framed for negligence that was actually the result of lacking resources – which helps the audience get invested in them on a personal level.

Another compelling wrinkle in the story is that Narmada (played by Nayanthara), the NSG officer tasked with busting this unidentified team of vigilantes fronted by a disguised Azad, happens to be engaged to marry Azad, totally oblivious to his second life. Only a Bollywood movie could still credibly pull off such a preposterous dynamic, and Jawan absolutely does. It helps a lot that Khan and Nayanthara play off of each other incredibly well; we want to suspend our disbelief in order to maximally relish her reaction to the inevitable reveal.

In the first sequence of the film, we see Khan in what appears to be a somewhat earlier time in history, rescued from near-death after he is found shot, floating in a river in a remote border village somewhere in Northern India. Given the nature of this tease, audience members will logically expect it to tie into the plot twists that arise near the intermission point. Despite this clear expectation, the revelations that come into play are satisfyingly surprising, fun, and effective. What could have come across as a “backstory dump” near the mid-point in the hands of lesser filmmakers works to deepen the story – and the audience’s engagement – in Jawan. Without giving away too much: yes, Khan does get to play two different roles, and the results are as fun as you’d expect.

For as action-packed and entertaining as Jawan is, it’s also a blockbuster with ideas on its mind. That often spells trouble, as sermons and lectures rarely mix as well with popcorn as Buncha Crunch and Raisinets do. But unlike countless heavy-handed filmmakers before him, co-writer/director Atlee (helming his fifth and by far biggest movie to date) hits the right notes with the social commentary. It’s enough to make Jawan feel like a full meal, rather than a late-summer trifle. As Azad and his team come closer and closer to a showdown with the main villain of the picture, the arms dealer Kaalie (played by a campy-good Vijay Sethupathi), the themes on government corruption and citizens’ complacency come to the fore. The film ultimately coheres, with the help of a well-delivered Khan monologue, as an impassioned plea for citizens to keep asking questions of their government whenever they suspect negligence or foul play. Thankfully, this is never too dense for a blockbuster.

While my hunch is that most viewers will leave Jawan feeling very satisfied, it isn’t perfect, even for a popcorn movie. I have three main qualms. First, beyond the two inmate team-members who are given backstories, these characters are not particularly distinctive. While each is introduced with a noun (displayed in an onscreen chyron) to describe what role they serve on the squad, I forgot ‘who was who’ within minutes. Second, the musical numbers are not particularly striking, especially given the size of the production. Khan’s singing and dancing straddle a fine line between “effortless” and “phoning it in,” and the only number with memorable choreography and cinematography is the first one (“Zinda Banda,” which finds Khan dancing alongside a full prison’s worth of female inmates). Anirudh Ravichander and Raja Kumari’s main theme is much catchier than the songs. Lastly, there is a big cameo at the end of the movie that introduces a character who will likely play a role in a potential sequel. This development does not make a lot of logical sense, and it results the film ending on more of a “Huh?” note than on a triumphant one.

Still, what Khan, Atlee, and the rest of the team accomplish with Jawan is nothing short of a marvel. Like Pathaan before it, this is star-driven, big-budget action filmmaking that delivers the goods. It’s almost three hours long, but it feels like less than two. When the anticipation factor is as high as it was for Jawan, that’s all you can ask for.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

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