Jawan: Is Shah Rukh Khan endorsing vigilante action?

While visually striking and action-packed, the film raises uncomfortable questions about its messaging.

Published : Sep 11, 2023 17:10 IST - 6 MINS READ

Fans of actor Shah Rukh Khan at a cinema hall in Kolkata on September 7.

Fans of actor Shah Rukh Khan at a cinema hall in Kolkata on September 7. | Photo Credit: PTI

Bollywood movies, and most movies in India, are often known as “masala movies”. This, in itself, is not wrong, as the film industry is primarily about mass entertainment. But do masala movies have a message? Contrary to intellectual assumptions, masala movies do tend to convey powerful messages. It is just that the registers are different, and the messages often end up being retrograde if not highly convoluted.

So, it is no surprise that the new Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) starrer Jawan (directed by Atlee), right from the first frame, is an out-and-out masala movie. The curse of social media, however, is that it often sends wrong signals—signals that people on social media want to articulate for themselves rather than what approximates reality. Due to the controversy over Pathaan and also because SRK was in the news on account of charges against him and for the incarceration of his son, the persona of Shah Rukh Khan has suddenly acquired a political tinge in these polarised times. A lot has been said about the “baap-beta” dialogue by SRK in his older avatar, but honestly, while the linkage is extraneous, the dialogue in no way compares to Amitabh Bachchan’s once-famous “rishtey me to hum tumhare baap lagte hain…” dialogue from Shahenshah. One got the impression, in fact, that SRK delivered the dialogue rather unwillingly!

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We have seen a lot of adulatory commentary about Jawan in the last few days. But having spent 165 minutes of life on it (I lost patience and skipped the last four minutes of a hazy scene between SRK and Sanjay Dutt), one did not get either the satisfaction of a good entertainer or a powerful “masala pack” containing troubling questions. While some blame could indeed go to the writer-director (Atlee), since the movie is co-produced by Gauri Khan and SRK plays a double role, the SRK imprint is unmistakably there—and he should take the blame for giving us a non-entertainer with a dangerous message.

Visually stunning but unsatisfying action thriller

First, about the film as an “entertainer”. Two SRKs in one is enough of a lure for entertainment for the SRK fandom (not this writer). But what are they both doing except staring and growling? The young SRK has nothing to do except use an imaginary and inexplicably compiled digitised weaponry of destruction—that is action for you.

Worse, in the initial scene in the metro train and, occasionally, later as well, he suddenly acquires shades of a villain with some psychotic condition. His facial makeup accentuates that. Nowhere do we get a sense that this is a passionately social individual bent on doing something dramatically good—except when he is transformed into a school student giving moral speeches about how bank loans of the poor are not waived but those of the rich are written off—I am not sure even school kids these days take such a naive moral stance and give monotonous speeches.

“I suppose most entertainers are like this these days—some weak social positioning, no acting, no nuance, and a lot of grotesque and automated violence.”

The other SRK, supposed to be senior, is shown only sparingly—at the beginning and towards the end. But he too refuses to display any acting prowess, unless staring blankly is a major form of acting. This character is saved from acting by the fact that he is supposed to have lost his memory. Once an ace feature, the double SRK is thus frittered away, and what remains is merely jarring background music and confusing acts of destructive weapons, mostly producing smoke, so that the entertainment is literally behind a smokescreen. The only interesting feature of the film is its enthusiastic investment in showing the female roles as having a strong will to resist and fight. But that lead is left without being pursued.

But I suppose most entertainers are like this these days—some weak social positioning, no acting, no nuance, and a lot of grotesque and automated violence. So, let us leave the entertainment part alone—better-accomplished film critics and real movie-goers may talk about that with more authority.

Cashing in on popular anxieties

The real trouble with Jawan is in its supposed messaging. Three messages stand out: One, that everything boils down to corruption; be it bad hospitals, farmer suicides, or substandard arms for the jawans. Two, that the “system” cheats on us, the public. And three, an honourable way to combat this is “direct action” by dedicated bands led by SRKs.

The first message is at least 12 years old. Circa 2011, the entire media and talking public were waxing unstoppably about corruption being the root cause of all trouble. It is curious that now questions about Rafale or Adani do not agitate these groups—but the point is that Jawan delivers a stale message.

Shah Rukh Khan in Jawan.

Shah Rukh Khan in Jawan. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Besides, the message now, as then, deflects attention from critical social-economic fault lines. It leads to a misunderstanding of or incomprehension about the network of causes. Worse, despite the school-kid oratory of SRK, pray, what is the “system”? The viewer is left to imagine for herself this idea of an abstract system conveniently distracting attention from human greed, failings, conspiracies, and the collective sins of different sections of society. The film never talks about caste or class or any other factor as being responsible for anything that is “bad”.

Also Read | How ‘Pathaan’ gives secular credentials of Bollywood a new boost of life

Worst and most dangerously, Jawan unerringly falls into the tradition of glorifying vigilante action. At a time when lynching and other mass vigilante actions are—or at least should be—bothering us, this film unabashedly exploits popular sentiments and gives a message to support underground vigilantes. This is not the first film to do so; it is just another run-of-the-mill film cashing in on popular anxieties and eulogising vigilante action. The only difference is that once upon a time the stories of such vigilante Robin Hoods were mostly only imaginary, today we actually have hordes of such groups that take the law into their hands to set the “system” right. Jawan helps in creating the popular justification for that.

Society and politics today are marked by a belief in the innate ability of one messiah to deliver the goods. A film showing how ek akela (one solitary man) can fight back only sustains that narrative. In a sense, there is not much to complain about the director-producers of the film. They are either part of the “vigilante system” in their own minds or they are only riding the commercial wave of authoritarian sentiments which can be turned into millions at the box office. Most films would do that.

Also Read | Bollywood legacy of utopian equality under siege

The criticism, therefore, is more about the readings of the film: Just because SRK has had some trouble with the system and also with the new vigilante system itself, should we read Jawan as his commentary on it? On the contrary, having been at the receiving end of the system, he should have been more careful before upholding the idea of vigilante action. There is no remorse, no reprisal, no alternative shown in the film—except that we should vote without considering caste or creed, a simplistic message that the Election Commission might lift for its voter education program.

In times of trouble, filmmaking is burdened with a lot of responsibility. One might want to run away from those responsibilities, but one should at least not use the medium to strengthen the causes of trouble. Similarly, in troubled times, an overreading of some simplistic moralising dialogues does not constitute cultural politics. That, in sum, is the message from Jawan, because the film is less about Jawan, the soldier, and more about Azad, the unhinged vigilante.

Suhas Palshikar, based in Pune, used to teach political science.

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