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“Jawan” Film Review: Shah Rukh Khan’s Astonishing Performance in Atlee’s Thought-Provoking Thriller

Jawan movie review
Shah Rukh Khan in ‘JAWAN’

In this expansive yet compelling action spectacle directed by Atlee, Shah Rukh Khan inaugurates his own “Clean India Campaign.”

The movie commences with an extraordinary opening sequence. Somewhere along the northern frontiers of India, a battered soldier convalesces. The peaceful and picturesque village he is recuperating in falls under attack; inhabitants are subjected to gunfire, stabbings, and drowning in a creek. This soldier emerges like a savior, descending with a lance against a tumultuous sky. While his face remains concealed beneath bandages, his eyes reveal the story. The staging is nothing short of spectacular, imbued with mythic elements and a shroud of darkness. Additionally, a blazing stallion gallops across the screen. It’s no surprise that Japanese video game designer Hideo Kojima expressed his unbridled excitement on social media. Odd as it may seem, “Jawan” is, in many ways, the most Metal Gear-inspired film starring Shah Rukh Khan.

The Tamil director Atlee has been tantalizing audiences with a collaboration with Khan since 2019. This isn’t the first instance of a renowned southern director partnering with a major Bollywood star to craft an action film infused with potent sociopolitical themes (Atlee’s mentor, Shankar, likely paved the way). Nevertheless, this collaboration may possess more layers than initially apparent. Atlee’s characters often assume multiple personas and aliases. These multifaceted identities may coexist within a single individual (as seen with Vijay in “Theri”) or span across several characters (as exemplified by Vijay in “Mersal” and “Bigil”). The last two films, notably, were intricate, plot-twisting narratives centered around father-son dynamics. All of this seems tailor-made for Khan, who rivaled only by Amitabh Bachchan and Akshay Kumar, stands as Hindi cinema’s foremost icon for roles that demand versatility.

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“Jawan” (Hindi)

  • Director: Atlee
  • Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Nayanthara, Vijay Sethupathi, Deepika Padukone, Sanya Malhotra, Priyamani, Sunil Grover
  • Duration: 169 minutes
  • Plot: A vigilante and his team take on corrupt institutions entwined with a lethal arms dealer as the past and present collide in thrilling fashion.

Three decades after the explosive prologue, we encounter Khan anew, now portraying a whimsical, wisecracking vigilante sporting a bald pate. He orchestrates the hijacking of a Mumbai metro train, aided by a contingent of female warriors, each with her own name and a select few possessing intricate backstories. Among the passengers is Alia, the daughter of the stone-faced arms dealer Kaali (Vijay Sethupathi, adorned with a menacing beard). It’s subsequently unveiled, spoilers ahead, that Khan in the present timeline assumes the persona of Azad Rathore, the warden of a high-security women’s penitentiary, who moonlights as an ethical insurgent. To add to the intrigue, Azad is poised to wed Narmada (Nayanthara), the fearless mediator to whom he made song requests while leading the audacious hijacking.

I shall refrain from disclosing the precise number of Shah Rukh Khans featured in “Jawan,” but rest assured, there are enough to justify the price of admission. At 57, Khan is a born entertainer, yet it is his glimpses of malevolence and menace that have distinguished his finest performances over the years. Unable to fully embrace the role of an outright antagonist—a consequence of being a triumphant superstar—Khan delves into his quasi-antihero persona with evident relish. He jests, “When I assume the role of a villain, the heroes don’t stand a chance,” a statement made more in self-appreciation than as a genuine threat. “Jawan” may not be as morally convoluted as films like “Fan” or “Baazigar,” but it unquestionably pushes the boundaries of its superstar’s acting repertoire. Khan adeptly embodies both the benign, upright citizen and the weathered, cigar-puffing figure reminiscent of Wolverine.

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The action sequences in “Jawan” match the expectations one would have for a high-budget Atlee production. Drones, helicopters, Gatling guns—the director plunders the entire arsenal of Hollywood-style action extravaganzas. What truly elevates these set pieces, aside from Khan’s fluid acrobatics, is the injection of Indian elements into the grand tableau. I found it delightful to witness one of the hijackers making a getaway in an autorickshaw. Another memorable scene involves Deepika Padukone (in a pivotal cameo) mud-wrestling Khan. As in his previous works, Atlee anchors his action sequences in a fervent drive for social justice. Khan spearheads his own “Clean India Campaign,” challenging one flawed institution after another, spanning agriculture, healthcare, and, more subtly and respectfully, defense. The film repeatedly underscores the insidiousness of such allegations by labeling three distinct characters as ‘deshdrohi’ (traitors).

“Jawan” is also a movie enamored with cinematic references. Enthusiasts of both Bollywood and Hollywood will revel in identifying nods to iconic films. Prior to the revelation of his ultimate plan, Khan’s vigilante character exhibits shades of The Joker, Darkman, and even a hint of Dennis Hopper from “Speed.” Kaali, the antagonist, quite literally dispenses red and blue pills, a clever notion given his mission to corrupt the system. A Russian mob boss donning a Bane mask makes an appearance. Yet, akin to “Pathaan,” the most poignant references hark back to Khan’s own filmography. Azad’s adoptive mother (Riddhi Dogra) bears the name Kaveri Amma, the same as Khan’s adoptive mother in “Swades” (2004). Similar nods are made to “Main Hoon Na,” “Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi,” and, fittingly, “Duplicate.”

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Not every facet of the film excels. The latter half succumbs to Atlee’s signature melodrama. Despite Anirudh Ravichander’s commendable efforts, the songs feel somewhat generic. Arijit Singh’s ‘Chaleya’ is especially forgettable, although a superior Arabic version can be found on YouTube. Nevertheless, Vijay Sethupathi fully unleashes his eccentricity in the latter scenes, providing an entertaining highlight. Nayanthara, in her portrayal of the female lead, maintains a poised and understated demeanor, eschewing overt infatuation with Khan, much to the film’s chagrin. Yet, the audience remains thoroughly captivated.

Towards the film’s conclusion, Khan delivers an impassioned speech on democracy and the profound impact of a single vote. Even in this polarized era, his words resonate with a stunned and unanimous agreement. One nation, one sentiment, one Shah Rukh Khan.

“Jawan” is currently screening in theaters.

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