Whipped out of the theatre screening Jawan, first day, first show, ears ringing, eyes bleary, heart sated, suffocated, and suspicious, a few thoughts were fighting for my attention—when did we become so okay with our films looking this ugly? Is heroism, that is, a spectator’s devotion to the hero, the end of cinema as an art form? Or what new, fragmented, pungent artifact is this that is now being secreted?
Jawan is sculpted out of Shah Rukh Khan inhabiting the spirit of a Robin Hood vigilante—robbing money from cruel industrialists and corrupt weapons manufacturers who pollute rivers, to disperse it, as digital cash drops, to farmers, factory workers, and rotting public hospitals. Like director Atlee’s previous film, Bigil, the hero is surrounded by an army of women. The women supply the trauma; the hero whips it into catharsis even as he comes to terms with his past. A dish best served cold.
You walk out of the film with a heavy feeling of having watched five films clobbered into one, your tendons and tissues so delicate as to not even exist. Scenes do not transition so much as jerk into another dimension, another sub-plot, another social issue, another piece of trauma alchemised as hero fodder. The flashbacks, the frequently used weapon in the film’s desperate toolkit, come one after the other, the past as montage, boom, boom, boom.
The heroism is roaring. Khan’s entry—well, one of many entries split among one of the two Khans—is a celebration of his presence. While the action is chopped into infinitesimal quarks of punch and pull and the setting drips in ugly, acidic shades of green, oversaturated reds, and yellows that have forgotten what the joy of being yellow is, the scenes exist to remind you what it means to be in the secure presence of charm, the joy of the filmic hero, defined and depicted. But the thing that propels that heroism, like the rickety scaffolds of the story between these moments of muscle, not so much. To move through Jawan then is to bump about, the smoothness of the road cut by the frequency of car-sick speed humps. There is now a word for this. It has become a genre — “mass cinema”.
Mass cinema is a crude distillation of “masala cinema”, a genre at the heart of Indian cinema. Critic Baradwaj Rangan, who has theorised this distinction, notes, “Masala movies had these big highlights that would be built up. Now the highlights have become the movie”—the “mass movie”. Indifferent to narrative continuity, character progression, the plot jumps from one whistled scene to the next as if on a trampoline. The mass movie is entirely in service of the fan’s devotion, stripped of any pretence of being a film.
Can the “mass movie” be considered a genre? This is a complicated question, because genre thinks of the formal mood of a film, its texture, its tropes. While these have been developed over time, through sublimating an artist’s interiority or interests in the demands of the audience, like “The Western” genre, the “mass film” seems to be built entirely on the edifice of fandom. It is so audience facing, it is almost sitting amongst it, popcorn and confetti in hand, forgetting that it is supposed to be the very thing being looked at. Even its semantics do not describe anything about the film but only its audience—the mass. Would you call “IAS aspirant textbooks” a literary genre?
It is why Rangan calls it “post-modern”, that is to render every assumption moot, to eviscerate the certainty we held about what a “film” even is. It takes the formal idea of cinema and pummels it to the point where you cannot recognize it. I refuse to call Jawan a film because it does not feel like one. I did not realise, however, that Jawan perhaps does not even consider itself a film. It had a broader, more audacious idea—to obliterate the very idea of cinema, constructing itself as a “mass movie”, a movie that is really not a movie.
- Like director Atlee’s previous film, Bigil, the hero is surrounded by an army of women. The women supply the trauma; the hero whips it into catharsis even as he comes to terms with his past.
- Jawan had a broader, more audacious idea—to obliterate the very idea of cinema, constructing itself as a “mass movie”, a movie that is really not a movie.
- Indifferent to narrative continuity, character progression, the plot jumps from one whistled scene to the next as if on a trampoline.
While labels are often useful in thinking through the world neatly, there is an anxiety brimming under this distinction, that of hypostatisation. In the words of the critic Hal Foster, “an awkward term for a common move in criticism, the inflating of a characteristic into a criterion... adjectives become nouns and the attributes become values.” According to Foster, this anxiety came, in the art circles of late-modernist critics, out of the feeling of seeing trends “[threaten] to push art into an arbitrary realm beyond aesthetic judgment”.
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That is a classic move in criticism. To see something that threatens the very nature of “art”—in this case, the highlight-reel switcheroo of the “mass film” — and to turn that threat into a genre, fold it into cinema, because while you can criticize a film, you cannot criticise a genre. Especially if the genre is derived from psychologising the demands, the aspirations, and the desires of the “common man”, the “mass” in the “mass film”. In order to short-circuit the criticism of a film, your inability as an audience to like it is now postured as your inability to enjoy a very specific genre. The onus has been pushed from the maker to the spectator. The question now is, can you handle the mass film? And who in their right mind would dare to say no.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.