Shah Rukh Khan in a still from Jawan. After many Indian viewers made it a point to watch Pathaan, Khan’s last release, as a political statement in Modi’s India, Jawan is disappointingly meek. / Courtesy Red Chillies Entertainment
Shah Rukh Khan in a still from Jawan. After many Indian viewers made it a point to watch Pathaan, Khan’s last release, as a political statement in Modi’s India, Jawan is disappointingly meek. / Courtesy Red Chillies Entertainment

‘Jawan’ treads with caution in an India on edge

Shah Rukh Khan and the director Atlee’s tedious blockbuster has a veneer of being political even as it bends to prevailing winds – and its gender bias does not help

Anna M M Vetticad is an award-winning Indian journalist and the author of 'The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic'. She specialises in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other socio-political concerns. You can reach her on Twitter as @annavetticad, on Instagram as @annammvetticad and on Facebook as AnnaMMVetticadOfficial.

Days before the release of Jawan, the new Hindi blockbuster starring Shah Rukh Khan, a trailer for the film was shared on social media. As the video showed the name of one of the film's producers, Gauri Khan, a voiceover by Shah Rukh, her superstar husband, drawled, "Bete ko haath lagaane se pehle baap se baat kar" (Before you touch the son, deal with his father). Simultaneously, the trailer cut to visuals of Shah Rukh himself.
This was as meta as cinema can get. Aryan Khan, Gauri and Shah Rukh's son, was arrested in Mumbai in 2021 on drug-related charges that the authorities ultimately failed to prove. That did not stop a media circus around the case, with Shah Rukh's name often at the centre of it. Critics of India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government expressed the belief that the arrest was meant as punishment for Shah Rukh, whose religious identity as a Muslim combined with his public image as a liberal have long riled BJP supporters. For viewers convinced of this reasoning, the trailer was Shah Rukh's message to those who had struck at his family. 
This suggested that Jawan would be politically bold – a suggestion reinforced by the reputation of the film's director, Atlee, for taking strong stands on potentially controversial issues in his work in the Tamil film industry. A politically audacious film headlined by one of the biggest stars in the history of Hindi film could have been a game-changer for the industry at a time when most of his colleagues have ignored the ongoing rise in atrocities and discrimination against minorities and dissenters in India, while some have also simultaneously produced a spate of pro-government films pushing majoritarian and nationalist propaganda. But Jawan, it turns out, is a whimper rather than a shout when measured by these expectations. It is also a far cry from the small but steady stream of Hindi films that have risked making political statements under the BJP regime – even if these efforts have been upstaged in public perception by the industry's worst sycophants. 
Mellow drama
Atlee, in what is his Hindi directorial debut, has toned down his politics but held on to his proclivity for hyperbole. Jawan's story is credited to him, and he co-wrote the script with S Ramanagirivasan, while the dialogues are by Sumit Arora. The film tells the saga of a Robin Hood-esque vigilante squad that aims to right social wrongs and highlight government failings. The group comprises six women, and is led by Azad Rathore, played by Shah Rukh. Jawan's script lends an illusion of importance to the women, but their characters are poorly developed and remain strictly on the margins. In effect, this makes Jawan a slightly updated variation of a long-time favourite genre of Indian cinema: the tale of a lone male crusader battling an anti-people establishment. Over nearly three hours, the film addresses a laundry list of ongoing national concerns – loan waivers to billionaire industrialists while debt-ridden farmers are driven to take their own lives, the deplorable state of government hospitals, corruption in defence deals, irresponsible voting choices, polluting industries – but the narrative never ceases to be about the leading man, poring over his personal life, his tragic background and his motivations while blurring the boundaries between the character and the actor playing him. 

'Jawan' takes up contentious issues on the face of it, but for the most part the writing is non-specific and therefore safe. The social and political ills raised, barring two, could be associated with many Indian governments since Independence.

This is even more glaring given the sparkling cast assembled around Shah Rukh. Nayanthara, a superstar of Tamil and Telugu cinema, also makes her Hindi debut here. She plays Narmada, a single mother and an officer in a counter-terrorism unit. Vijay Sethupathi, a hugely respected artiste with a Tamil-dominated filmography, plays the main antagonist. The Hindi A-lister Deepika Padukone has an extended cameo. 
In keeping with the traditions of mainstream Indian cinema of all languages, Jawan's grimness is punctuated by romance, comedy and song-and-dance sequences. Atlee is a seasoned exponent of this formula, and over the past decade has adapted it to forge a template that is entirely his own. He honed his framework in his three blockbusters with the Tamil superstar Vijay – Theri, Mersal and Bigil – which delivered permutations of the following motifs: a hero with several avatars in possession of superhuman strength who embraces violence for the greater good, meaningless trademark gestures assigned to him, multiple grand entries for the male lead in numerous get-ups and time strands, at least one schmaltzy flashback to demystify him, a pretty woman to serve as a motivational guide, extensive romantic interludes, precocious children as comedic devices, slapstick humour, a raucous background score, and a plot centred on a core socio-political cause. In true Atlee style, Jawan gives us many versions of Shah Rukh – bandaged, bewigged, bald, masked, unmasked, young, old, pretending to be old, in uniform and out of it – each introduced with amplified music and overplayed camerawork to aggrandise him. 
Atlee's storytelling has evolved over time: the loudness marginally scaled down, the melodrama more polished, his political stances developed with greater clarity. Theri explored political interference in policing. Mersal dwelt on corruption in the medical profession. Bigil was about politics, patriarchy and misogyny in sports and society at large. Each of these films has been an improvement on the previous one – and, for the record, far removed from Atlee's debut release, the misogynistic and tepid Raja Rani. Bigil, despite its clichéd, tacky and questionable elements, was enjoyable and brave. Jawan is a step backwards both politically and cinematically – a recycling of the template sans the spark, without Mersal's lucidity and guts or Bigil's unyielding focus.

A politically audacious film headlined by one of Hindi cinema's biggest stars could have been a game-changer when most of his colleagues have ignored India's rise in atrocities and discrimination. But Jawan is a whimper rather than a shout.

Jawan takes up contentious issues on the face of it, but for the most part the writing is non-specific and therefore safe. The social and political ills raised – barring two, as we will see below – could be associated with many Indian governments since Independence. A situation involving electronic voting machines, for instance, culminates in a sermon on citizens' duty to look beyond sectarian considerations while voting, without ever broaching the allegations of vote manipulation raised against the BJP in recent years. The only actual event referenced in Jawan without being fictionalised – the deadly 1984 gas leak from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, in Madhya Pradesh – occurred when the BJP was not in power. Said to be the world's worst industrial disaster, it took place at a time when both the government of India and the government of the state of Madhya Pradesh, were headed by the Indian National Congress, which is now in the opposition. Compare this to the approach in Mersal, which risked deriding the policies of the government of the day, including the Goods and Services Tax rolled out in 2017. Atlee and Vijay both came under attack from an enraged BJP, and Vijay was especially targeted as a member of India's Christian minority. 
Real heroes
It should be no excuse, but of course there is a marked difference in the environments in which Tamil and Hindi filmmakers operate, despite the perils facing all creative persons in today's India. With Mersal, even as the film's producers were prepared to cut the offending portions to pacify the BJP, they changed their minds when they saw their cinema industry and the public in Tamil Nadu backing them. (It helped that Tamil Nadu is one of the diminishing number of places in India where the BJP has never been able to gain state-level power.) Prominent figures in Tamil cinema, and also in some other non-Hindi cinema industries, have continued to raise their voices against India's national BJP government and prime minister, Narendra Modi, in different ways, despite the escalating pressures that dissenting artists, activists and intellectuals have faced since Modi came to power in 2014. Contrast this with Hindi filmdom's reaction to Aryan Khan's arrest. Even while much of the Indian citizenry stood whole-heartedly behind the Khan family, only a handful of Mumbai film personalities spoke up for them. 

The director Atlee's storytelling has evolved over time: the loudness marginally scaled down, the melodrama more polished, his political stances developed with greater clarity. But 'Jawan' is a step backwards both politically and cinematically.

The single episode in Jawan that can be linked precisely to an event in Modi's India also forms its most striking and courageous passage, and shows up the superficiality of the rest of the work. (Warning: Spoilers in this paragraph.) A conscientious doctor with a name that could be Muslim, played by Sanya Malhotra, takes the initiative to arrange for fresh oxygen cylinders at a mismanaged government hospital running out of oxygen supply. When children still die due to the shortage, she is made a scapegoat. This is an unmistakable nod to Dr Kafeel Khan, who was arrested and fought a prolonged legal battle to clear his name after the deaths of dozens of children in a government hospital in Gorakhpur, in the BJP-ruled state of Uttar Pradesh, when it ran out of oxygen in 2017. 
The doctor's back story, unfortunately, is overwhelmed by the rest of the material in this crowded, disjointed, lengthy film. The lack of novelty in the writing is mirrored in its numerous, long-drawn-out musical set pieces, each one abruptly thrust into the narrative and featuring ordinary songs composed by Anirudh Ravichander. Jawan's editing, by Ruben, is almost lackadaisical. 
Atlee's Tamil films have been marked by diversity in their representation of the good guys: his protagonists have belonged to a cross-section of social groups. For the notoriously non-diverse Hindi cinema world, he gives his upstanding male leads – Azad Rathore and Vikram Rathore – a pointedly dominant-caste surname from the country's Hindu majority. There is also a curious inversion in the characterisation of the villain as Atlee shifts from south-Indian to north-Indian cinema: Bigil's vengeful sports administrator appeared to be North Indian, and was played by the Hindi film star Jackie Shroff, whereas Jawan's immoral arms dealer is a South Indian, played by a star of the Tamil industry in Sethupathi (at one point, Sethupathi's character, Kalee Gaikwad, says that he studied in a village school near Srikakulam, which is in Andhra Pradesh). 
While Jawan's makers tread cautiously with an eye on the repressive ruling regime, others in Hindi filmdom have stuck their necks out in these very circumstances. Since 2014, while liberal viewers and analysts have justifiably directed their ire at Hindi films kowtowing to the BJP government, they have somehow let such cinema define the industry in the national discourse instead of paying equal attention to those works that have critiqued the BJP or rebelled against its supremacist ideology. Even a short, non-comprehensive list of examples makes for instructive reading.  

The problem with 'Jawan' is that it is unable to commit to any of its facets: the comedy is not consistent, the action is not novel or fantastical, the politics is guarded.

The director Kabir Khan's Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) batted for India-Pakistan and Hindu-Muslim amity with the saga of a Pakistani Muslim child who gets lost in India and a devout Hindu Indian who vows to get her home across the border. Anubhav Sinha's Mulk (2018) confronted Islamophobia, and the director alluded to real-life events to foreground caste atrocities in Article 15 (2019). Sinha clashed with the Central Board of Film Certification over his 2023 release Bheed, which dealt with Modi's declaration of a nationwide lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic with no warning to the public or sufficient preparation by the government, forcing poor migrant workers to walk hundreds of kilometres on foot from the cities back to their villages. Bheed finally came to theatres in censored form. Meghna Gulzar's Raazi (2018) also went against the tide of anti-Muslim sentiment, drawing on the true story of a Kashmiri Muslim woman who put her life on the line by moving to Pakistan as a spy for India. Defying a long-running trend in Hindi film, Raazi also did not demonise Pakistanis. At a time when even passing criticism of the defence services is projected as being "anti-national", Sharan Sharma's Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020) dealt with patriarchy in the Air Force. Sudhir Mishra's Afwaah (2023) revolved around fake news, orchestrated communal violence and the vilification of a Muslim man by a politician who steers an online mob against him.
Little women
While fear may have governed Jawan's handling of political issues, there is not even that excuse for the gender prejudice in its scripting and casting. "What do you want?" Narmada, as a negotiator in a hostage crisis, asks Azad in an early piece of dialogue. "Chahiye toh Alia Bhatt" (What I want is Alia Bhatt), he replies. "But she's a bit too young, don't you think?" The sexist line is designed to be a meta joke. In the past decade, Shah Rukh's characters have made it a habit to romance on screen women who are his juniors by twenty years. Even seeming progressives among the Hindi cinema audience have been conditioned to perceive this as age-appropriate casting. Tamil audiences, meanwhile, have been happy to accept gaps of three to four decades between the now 72-year-old superstar Rajinikanth and his leading ladies as he has grown older. Many Hindi viewers seem unwilling to go that far, as evidenced by online conversations and the laboured explanations for age gaps of two decades that are being written into contemporary scripts. Shah Rukh is, therefore, likely to be criticised if, at 57, he were to romance the baby-faced 30-year-old Bhatt in a film. As if that layer in the joke is not distasteful enough, Azad's remark also makes the demeaning, ageist insinuation that since Shah Rukh cannot get Bhatt he is settling for Nayanthara and Padukone – who, for the record, are 38 and 37 respectively, according to online sources. This is not to say there is anything morally wrong with consenting relationships between older men and younger women in real life, but to point out the bias in Indian film industries that refuse to cast women in their fifties, sixties and seventies as the lovers, wives and sisters of male superstars in similar age brackets. 
Narmada later guesstimates that Azad – to repeat: played by 57-year-old Shah Rukh – could be anywhere between his twenties and forties. The obvious justification for the suspension of disbelief required of the audience is that Shah Rukh plays both a young man and an old man in Jawan. Note, however, that women vastly junior to the actor play his partner in both avatars. Azad's biological mother and foster mother too are played by women who, as per online information, are in their late thirties.
Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan in a still from Jawan. With both of Khan's avatars in the film, his partners are played by vastly younger women – a repeated pattern across the superstar's films in the last decade. / Courtesy Red Chillies Entertainment
Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan in a still from Jawan. With both of Khan's avatars in the film, his partners are played by vastly younger women – a repeated pattern across the superstar's films in the last decade. / Courtesy Red Chillies Entertainment
Shah Rukh's persistence in starring alongside much younger women is disheartening especially because he positions himself as feminist. His reluctance to embrace his age on screen, a common feature of his films in the past decade, is also becoming sadly embarrassing. The self-referential humour in Jawan and in his recent Pathaan about the irreplaceability of his generation of male Bollywood stars fails to acknowledge the tragic truth that older women actors are denied the opportunities that could offer them the longevity so many men enjoy. 

While fear may have governed the handling of political issues in 'Jawan', there is not even that excuse for the gender prejudice in its scripting and casting.

Jawan's troubling gender politics is not confined to the casting. The six women in Azad's troupe are given less space and heft by the writing than even the so-called "Bond girls" in the James Bond films. Nothing underlines the script's attitude to them better than the cringe-inducing line uttered by Shah Rukh's character while describing a prison takeover: "Yeh jail meri auraton ka hai" (This jail is in the hands of my women). 
Only two of the six get a back story that explains their vigilantism, and the rest don't get even that. Since none of them is a well-defined character, the actors playing them have no chance to showcase their abilities. The most unforgivably under-utilised of the group is the gifted and beautiful Priyamani, winner of numerous accolades, including a National Award, for films in four south-Indian languages. Even the women not entirely neglected by the writers are not allowed to grow beyond a point. Nayanthara's Narmada shows some promise, but is gradually relegated to the sidelines. Padukone's character, Aishwarya, is memorable only because of the star's screen presence. Both Narmada and Aishwarya have no identity or purpose in the script beyond their contribution to the male leads' trajectory. 
Fan following
For an action-thriller-comedy blend to work, it is necessary for the director, cast and characters to be fully invested in the mix's inherent silliness. But here, no character apart from Sethupathi's arms dealer is written with this understanding. Sethupathi dives into the ridiculousness of it all with evident glee, surrendering himself fully to a script that is unworthy of him. Shah Rukh was funny in the similarly silly Pathaan, released earlier this year, but in Jawan he appears strained. Even his enduring charisma cannot compensate for his hamming here.
The problem with Jawan is that it is unable to commit to any of its facets: the comedy is not consistent, the action is not novel or fantastical, the politics is guarded. The film begins with promise and is occasionally amusing, but for the most part it is tedious and has limited emotional connect. Its standout moment is already in the trailer: Shah Rukh's stirring rendition of the line "Bete ko haath lagaane se pehle baap se baat kar".

Shah Rukh's persistence in starring alongside much younger women is disheartening especially because he positions himself as feminist.

Public sympathy since Aryan's arrest and acquittal has turned Shah Rukh into a political entity as much as he is a cultural phenomenon. This is despite the fact that he has been critical of the BJP government only once in these nine years – in 2015, when he spoke in an interview of rising religious intolerance in the country – and he has since backed the government and Modi more than once. He even lauded one of Modi's most widely criticised economic measures, the sudden demonetisation in 2016 of most of the Indian currency in circulation. Just this weekend, Shah Rukh posted effusive praise of the prime minister on social media while congratulating him for India's "successful G20 presidency". The gushing tweet concluded: "Sir, under your leadership, we will prosper not in isolation but in Oneness. One Earth, One Family, One Future…" Nevertheless, his career-long espousal of syncretic values and the constant abuse he faces online as one of the most prominent Muslims in Modi's India have made Shah Rukh a symbol of resistance for Hindi film viewers desperate for real-life heroes among their screen idols. 
Pathaan, Shah Rukh's first film after Aryan's arrest, pulverised many existing box-office records. For weeks on end, social media was filled with viewers declaring that they were watching Pathaan as a show of support for the star. This makes it even more disappointing that Atlee has restrained his characteristic political forthrightness in Shah Rukh's follow-up production, at a time when the very act of watching a Shah Rukh film has become a political statement in an India where Muslims are more vulnerable than they have ever been before.
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