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‘Jawan’ review: So much Shah Rukh, so little that works

There's as much Shah Rukh Khan as can fit in Atlee's ‘Jawan’, but the film is a chaotic mess

Shah Rukh Khan in 'Jawan'
Shah Rukh Khan in 'Jawan'

Jawan works best as validation of the Hindi film-watching public’s immaculate Pavlovian response. You see a man wrapped in bandages lying unconscious, you cheer. That man reveals himself to be Shah Rukh Khan, you cheer. You see bald Shah Rukh with a beard, you cheer. You see clean-shaven Shah Rukh with shiny hair, you cheer. As a palate cleanser, you cheer for Deepika Padukone. You see Shah Rukh on a motorcycle, suspended in midair, cigar in his mouth, you let out a primal scream, hand your child to the stranger in the next seat, pull out your phone and start recording. 

When all the shouts have been shouted and all the whistles whistled, what are we left with? Probably a very successful film—and a frustratingly basic one. It’s the second Khan-as-pure-action-hero film this year after Pathaan; this one also begins with him practically returning from the dead. But even though the two films are heightened action fantasies—Jawan even borrows the services of Pathaan screenwriter Shridhar Raghavan as consultant—only one has a sense of when to rein in the crazy. The unending clutter and chaos of Atlee’s film, co-written with S. Ramanagirivasan, made me long for the clean narrative lines and superior action of Pathaan

Also read: Pathaan review: Shah Rukh Khan goes large, makes it home

On the Mumbai metro, a bald prankster, aided by an all-female hit squad, takes the compartment hostage. Wire me 40 thousand crore rupees, he tells supercop Narmada (Nayanthara), or I’ll start killing hostages. The money is arranged—one of the passengers is the daughter of wealthy arms dealer Kaalie (Vijay Sethupathi adding to his despicable villain gallery). The hijackers escape and, almost immediately, the ransom money reaches the accounts of destitute farmers. One such farmer is about to hang himself when someone stops him with the good news—a moment so ludicrously on-the-nose it got a few laughs. 

Though he identifies himself as Vikram Rathore, we see Khan transform into Azad, the clean-cut warden of a women’s jail (six of its inmates make up the hit squad). To complicate matters further, Azad is set up with Narmada—who's still on Vikram's case—and they get married without him revealing who he is. Vikram continues his elaborate missions, all aimed at exposing corrupt politicians, governments officials and businesspersons, especially Kaalie. One of his plans goes south and he’s captured. At this point, Atlee plays his trump card. 

(spoilers ahead)

What happens next should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen Atlee’s Bigil, in which Vijay plays both father and son, and Mersal, in which Vijay plays two brothers and their dad. Or, indeed, anyone who heard “Bete ko haath lagane se pehle baap se baat kar” in the trailer and wondered who the son was. Turns out the bandaged Shah Rukh who single-handedly defends a village at the beginning of the film isn’t the same one who’s cleaning out the system 30 years later. The real Vikram Rathore—grey hair, cigar, memory loss—is actually Azad’s father. I was reminded of Shankar’s Indian, where Kamal Haasan plays a young man and his aged, corruption-fighting father. Kamal buried himself under makeup for that role. Khan simply puts on a rakish grey wig.

There is, of course, another reason for the double role. What was implicit in the public response to Pathaan—a nation rallying to support its favourite son after the hounding of his own son by the government—is text in Jawan: Shah Rukh Khan embarrassing evil politicians and cops and saving his boy. “Before you lay a hand on my son, deal with his father” is a line that’ll bring down cinema houses everywhere. I liked the provocation, but nothing in this film has the same electricity as Khan growling “Zinda hai” (alive!) in Pathaan

Jawan might be in Hindi, but it’s a Tamil film at heart—the manic cutting, the souped-up, slowed-down action, and more politically aware than the average Hindi film (among the issues raised are farmer debt, medical malpractice and weapons scams). Atlee, a massively successful director, hasn’t changed his approach; it’s Khan who’s had to adjust his. Their meeting underlines yet again the awkwardness inherent in ‘pan-India’ films that simply throw together talent from different regions. At 57, Khan still more action-star cool than almost anyone, but he needs more protection in the human moments than Atlee can offer; the scene where Vikram and Azad talk for the first time teeters on the edge of parody. Not that Atlee is unduly worried about such things. Sanjay Dutt shows up on a scooter, looking like his character from Vaastav, singing “Khal nayak hoon main”. A birthday in prison is celebrated not with cake but a loaf of bread with a candle on it—a more pathetic sight than the hanging that follows immediately after. 

I must admit a fondness for the moment during a high-speed chase when one of Vikram’s army buddies does a nifty swerve on his bike and throws eggs at the windshield of a pursuing truck, which topples over in a slow-motion explosion of sheepskin. It’s the sort of memorable silliness Jawan might have made more of had it not been so focused on bleeding-heart gestures and fan service. “I can’t understand what’s going on,” I heard a young boy complain to his father during intermission. Scary words. I don’t think I can handle cinema more simplified than this.  

Also read: A personal Shah Rukh Khan top 10

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