In the same year, Shah Rukh Khan has given us a masala movie with Pathaan and a "mass" movie with Jawan. Everything tied together in Pathaan. Everything – the Dimple Kapadia character, the reason the villain became a villain – was tied to the nation. In other words, we had a screenplay that entertained us by telling us an organic story, whose every emotional beat rose from a central idea. Atlee's Jawan could have been a similar masala movie – but then, with the exception of Bigil, Atlee does not do coherent masala movies. He makes "mass" movies that showcase the hero, and few hero-showcasing scenes have topped the one in Jawan, where an ailing, bandaged Shah Rukh Khan is roused by the sound of bullets at the beginning of the film. Just like an amnesiac gets his memory back (at the end) through the sound of a gun, this mummified Shah Rukh is revived by these bullet sounds. We get a sensational silhouette – bandages flying, the sky streaked with lightning. And the hero is back in action.
The action hero really seems to be back in Hindi cinema, after Pathaan and Gadar 2 and now Jawan. But (again), where Pathaan and Gadar 2 (except for the comical last half-hour) were proper films, Jawan is what I call "a cartoon for undemanding adults". The "mass" movie is the grown-up equivalent of the colourful, hyper-cut animated shorts you'd play for your kid in the car to keep them occupied. And that is not a diss. Not everyone goes to the theatre to make sense of narrative arcs and character arcs and marvel at set pieces and performances. Sometimes, you just want something to keep playing on screen while munching on popcorn and looking at your phone. And sometimes, you want to treat the theatre like a temple and step inside simply to worship your star. In that opening scene with the mummified Shah Rukh, his shadow is projected on the statue of a local god. The devotees in my theatre were in throes of ecstasy.
Shah Rukh is in fine form, playing to the gallery as a mysterious bald man who hijacks a train, with his army of six women. He is even better in his second role, as a spaced-out older man who kicks serious ass but just doesn't want to be kissed. What drains the joy from the film is the very southern trait of wanting to message-ify everything. Atlee has often been accused of repackaging older films. Here he repackages the entire oeuvre, the entire sensibility of his guru Shankar. The man dispensing vigilante justice, the man with the half-mask, the man fighting for farmers, the man fighting the broken healthcare system, the man fighting the broken electoral/political system, the man fighting a corrupt arms dealer (an ill-at-ease Vijay Sethupathi) who is responsible for the deaths of Indian soldiers and who wants to make India the base for factories that pollute the environment – it's all in here. And along with the one big, patented Shankar flashback, we get several mini-flashbacks, too.
Because it tries to pack in so much (instead of following a single thread of villainy), Jawan lacks the focus and the emotional impact of the odd-numbered Shankar films (Gentleman, Indian, Muthalvan…). But then again, I am making an unfair comparison. Shankar believed in organic screenplays. He believed in the masala movie. Atlee is servicing a new generation, and maybe the way to look at his work is to see Shankar's films as reshaped for the attention-deficit Tiktok generation (as one of my blog readers put it). Several scenes are so hyper-edited that you think the filmmakers are saving OTT viewers the trouble of fast-forwarding through them. Even the emotions with the super-glamorous Nayanthara and her daughter are barely allowed to linger. She plays the negotiator out to get the vigilante. It's a nice twist to have this character played by a woman, a single mother. But her "strength" soon falls away, and she gets in line with the plan.
The things happening on screen – that is, the reasons for all this sound and fury – sound very emotional, but they are all showcased in quick bursts of quick-cut scenes and the tragedies barely register. And as a result, none of the women in Shah Rukh's gang (Sanya Malhotra, Priyamani, etc.) come alive as characters. They are all interchangeable. Apart from the hero, the one actor who makes an impression is the radiant Deepika Padukone. In this "screw the old farts who want the movie to breathe, just move to the next highlight" approach, it was a relief for at least this old fart to get to the main flashback with Deepika's old-world character. I loved the way she is written. On the surface, she is playing what Nithya Menen played in Mersal – but this woman has a lot more agency and dignity.
For a brief while in this Deepika Padukone portion, we are back in the realm of solid masala cinema again. We learn about a boy raised in a women's prison, who is told that they are all mothers. And we realise that Shah Rukh's all-woman gang is no gimmick. He is a man raised by women. The situation (and Irshad Kamil's lyrics) for the beautiful song Aararaari Raaro took me back to 'Chanda hai tu' from Aaradhana, and it's a wonderful device to have snare drums in the interludes to hint at the missing father who was/is in the army – a man so mythical that his face-reveal happens through fire. The film's scale is big, and the on-screen grandeur helps us really savour the larger-than-life flavour of these moments. And Anirudh's electrifying background score helps. It makes us feel things are more exciting than they really are.
At some parts, we get a chant that sounds like "massy massy massy oh" – and it's as though we are being reminded that we are inside a "mass" movie and should not be analysing anything. If you are that person, good for you! Otherwise… The portion where a sketch artist draws a suspect's face while a wedding is in progress had such potential for suspense. But why bother? This is a "mass" movie? The portion with Shah Rukh and Nayanthara and her daughter had such potential for romance and drama. But why bother? This is a "mass" movie? (For a good masala version of how such a track can play out, see Yennai Arindhaal.) Jawan definitely has its moments, like a car and bike chase that's staged grandly (at least by our standards) or the whistle-worthy baap/beta line that works superbly even if you've already seen it in the trailer. But as always with these "mass" films, some of us will come away with this feeling: all those crores, and they couldn't buy themselves a decent script. (PS: "mass movies" need good writing, too.)