The opening sequence of “Jawan 2023” is truly remarkable. It unfolds along the northern borders of India, where a battle-worn soldier makes a dramatic recovery. However, the peaceful village he is trying to revive is suddenly attacked, and the inhabitants face violence and tragedy. This soldier emerges as a savior, wielding a spear against a tumultuous sky, although his face remains hidden beneath bandages. His intense eyes convey the story. The staging of this scene is nothing short of spectacular, with mythic undertones and a shroud of darkness. Notably, a fiery horse gallops across the screen, an element that left even Japanese video-game designer Hideo Kojima excited on social media. Surprisingly, “Jawan” bears an uncanny resemblance to the Metal Gear series, making it a unique Shah Rukh Khan film.
Tamil director Atlee had been hinting at a collaboration with Khan since 2019. This partnership between a renowned southern director and a major Bollywood star for an action-packed film with significant sociopolitical themes is not unprecedented (Shankar, Atlee’s mentor, likely paved the way). However, this collaboration may have more depth than meets the eye. Atlee’s characters often possess multiple identities and aliases, whether within a single body or across different characters. Notably, his previous two films focused on intricate, mass-oriented narratives centered on father-son relationships. This narrative style aligns perfectly with Khan’s expertise in multiple-role films, a realm where he stands alongside the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and Akshay Kumar in Hindi cinema.
Fast forward 30 years from that explosive opening scene, and we encounter Khan in a new avatar, playing a humorous and wisecracking vigilante sporting a bald head. He hijacks a metro train in Mumbai, aided by a team of female fighters, each with a name and, for some, a detailed backstory. Among the passengers is Alia, the daughter of a cold-blooded arms dealer named Kaali, portrayed by Vijay Sethupathi in a menacing beard. The story soon unveils that Khan’s character in the present, Azad Rathore, is, in reality, the warden of a high-security women’s prison who moonlights as an ethical terrorist. To add to the complexity, Azad is about to marry Narmada (Nayanthara), the fearless negotiator he was communicating with while leading the hijacking.
Without giving away the exact number of Shah Rukh Khans you’ll encounter in “Jawan,” rest assured it’s worth the price of admission. At 57, Khan remains a born entertainer, yet it’s his flashes of menace and malevolence that have defined his best performances over the years. While he may not fully embrace outright villainy, given his status as a successful megastar, his portrayal of a quasi-antihero in “Jawan” is imbued with a unique relish. He playfully boasts, “When I become a villain, the heroes don’t stand a chance,” with a hint of self-regard rather than an actual threat. “Jawan” may not delve into moral ambiguity like “Fan” or “Baazigar,” but it does push the boundaries of Khan’s acting repertoire, balancing his benign, upstanding persona with a grizzled, cigar-chomping character reminiscent of Wolverine.
The action sequences in “Jawan” are as slick and compelling as expected from a high-budget Atlee film. Drones, helicopters, and gatling guns are employed, borrowing from the arsenal of Hollywood-style action blockbusters. However, what truly distinguishes these sequences, apart from Khan’s fluid movements, are the subtle touches of Indianness that adorn the grand narrative. For instance, one of the hijackers makes a getaway in an auto-rickshaw, adding a local flavor to the crime scene. Additionally, a flashback featuring Deepika Padukone (in a crucial cameo) adds an authentic touch as she throws Khan into the mud. As in his previous works, Atlee infuses his action with a sense of urgent social justice. Khan launches his own “Clean India” campaign, confronting various flawed institutions, from agriculture to healthcare, and, more discreetly and respectfully, defense. The film consistently highlights the insidious nature of labeling individuals as “deshdrohi” (traitor), with at least three characters bearing this tag.
“Jawan” is a movie that passionately pays homage to other films. Both Bollywood and Hollywood enthusiasts will enjoy spotting references throughout the film. Before the final revelation, Khan’s vigilante character displays shades of The Joker, Darkman, and even a hint of Dennis Hopper from “Speed.” Kaali, the arms dealer, literally offers red and blue pills, a clever concept considering his mission to corrupt the system. A Russian mob boss sporting a Bane mask also makes an appearance. However, some of the most enjoyable references are to Khan’s own filmography. Azad’s adoptive mother shares the name “Kaveri Amma,” which is also the name of Khan’s adoptive mother in “Swades” (2004). Similar nods are made to “Main Hoon Na,” “Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi,” and, perhaps most fittingly, “Duplicate.”
While not everything in “Jawan” is flawless, there is a surge of Atlee-style melodrama in the second half. Despite the best efforts of music composer Anirudh Ravichander, the songs come off as generic, with Arijit Singh’s “Chaleya” being particularly forgettable (although there is a better Arabic version on YouTube). However, Vijay Sethupathi truly shines in the later scenes, delivering a standout performance. Nayanthara, in her typical heroine role, underplays her character’s affection for Khan, deviating slightly from the film’s intended narrative. Nevertheless, the audience is completely captivated by the film.
Towards the conclusion, Khan delivers an impassioned speech on democracy and the influence of a single vote. Even in these polarizing times, his words resonate with the audience, unifying them in agreement. “Jawan” encapsulates one nation, one emotion, and one Shah Rukh Khan.