Hundreds of films are made, therefore many become heroes. A lot of them become popular but only a handful scale the height needed to carry the entire industry on his shoulders. Still less become so big as to influence not just the industry but the society he breathes in, the country he lives in. Even then hardly anybody uses that influence to do what should be done for the country at a given point in time. Shah Rukh Khan is that rare artist. He has used every drop of his aura in Jawan to give the message that had to be given in this dark age of Indian history. Since he has shown so much courage, let me show some as well and declare: this is not a one-time watch. This will find its place among the iconic films of Bollywood. If India does survive the current onslaught, the name of this film by Atlee will be uttered in the same breath as Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, long after I am gone and everyone reading this article is gone.
No, this is not what a film buff would call a masterpiece. Jawan has no intention to go down that road. There is not a single shot that stays with you once you leave the cinema hall. Like every other song-dance-action formula film, cars fly and the hero beats up twenty people on his own. If you detest all this and can’t manage to believe it for just three hours (which is called ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ in literary criticism), then this film is not for you. It belongs to the genre where all of it is believable. All that producer Gauri Khan-Shah Rukh and director Atlee want to do here is put their message across. To do that, they have used the film language that they know best and common people of India have known for generations. Then what is so special about this film that prompts me to say it belongs alongside the iconic films of Bollywood? I will come to that now. I could see at least four levels of message within Jawan, and I will discuss those one by one. However, a more discerning mind could well find more levels.
Level 1: Manifesto
Not much needs to be written about this level. A clip went viral on the day of the release where SRK is seen laying out the basics of a democracy, which many thought worked against the current dispensation in New Delhi. But that is not all. Jawan is a political film to its core. We have forgotten that politics does not begin and end with political parties. Director Atlee and SRK have forced the audience to think about all kinds of politics ruling our everyday existence. From gender politics to environmental politics – everything is a subject in this film.
It is no mean feat that in the age of neo-liberalism, when crony capitalism is enjoying its best years in post-independence India, a film boasting of the most popular hero of the world’s most popular film industry has shown an industrialist as a villain. Kali Gaikwad (Vijay Sethupathi) flouts all environmental laws to set up his factories and does not shy away from murder if somebody does not give desired approval. Atlee goes on to show 50-odd factories being shut down by the government as they were found harming the people of the respective localities. This is a wish fulfilment for many in different parts of India. Jawan could be termed historic just for this reason.
Many have pointed out that all this exposes BJP but there is something nobody is saying: this film does not spare Congress. The Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984 is discussed quite clearly and shady defence deals are very much part of the plot. It is for the moviegoer to decide if Bofors is being suggested or Rafale.
I will discuss the finer politics in the next levels. For now, it would suffice to say that probably an SRK film could not have become so political had he not chosen a Tamil director. Courtesy OTT platforms and worldwide release with Hindi dubbing, nowadays we know that it is natural for Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam films to deal with politics either as a motif or as the central theme. Be it a Rajinikanth routine or more serious films like Jai Bhim (2021) and Kantara (2022). Jawan is dipped in this virtue of South India’s popular cinema.
Level 2: Unity in diversity
People from the northeast do not look like ‘us’, therefore ‘they’ are not Indians. This idea is deep-rooted in many of us. That is why they have to hear the word ‘chinky’ even in the country’s capital. People are more polite in Kolkata. Therefore, they don’t say it before people from the northeast, but keep it for close gatherings. Besides, the central government has normalised the otherization Manipur. One NRI BJP leader on record said that Manipur is to India what Scotland is to the United Kingdom.
Under these circumstances, Jawan begins in Arunachal Pradesh, close to the Chinese border. The hero was all but dead when he was spotted and carried home by a small boy and his mother. Light years away from the modern health system, he survives because of ancient tribal treatment. In a country where people of every faith are being forced to chant “Jai Shree Ram” and being killed for not doing so, here the hero rises from the dead almost as a blessing of Buddhist god Mahakal, who many Indians don’t even know. He rises to save the villagers from the marauding Chinese army. Perhaps it is the last bit that pacified the nationalist censor board. So much so that they did not mind whatever they would have objected to in other films. But what is important here is the film’s intent to bring a marginalized community to the centre of the story.
This is something that continues to happen right through the film. A resident of that Arunachal village plays a very important part. Everyone close to SRK in this film is from some minority or marginalised community: Muslims, Sikhs, someone from a poor farmer’s family, somebody from the northeast etc. Before Babri Masjid was razed, it was almost a norm in Bollywood films that if the hero is a Hindu, the best friend or one of the close friends would be a Muslim. That changed after December 6, 1992. Since then, Muslims in Hindi cinema have either been terrorists or overly patriotic army/police personnel. Jawan has brought that common Muslim back. Muslims are on both sides of the divide here.
Obviously, women are among the most endangered communities in today’s India. Not only has rape, molestation become the new normal in many parts of country, but the basic social rights of women acquired over centuries are being denounced. If A objects to them wearing jeans, B says eating chow mein is a sign of characterlessness. Any woman saying remotely disagreeable things on social media is trolled as badly as possible in an organized way. There have even been cases of imaginary online auction of Muslim women. In this regressive atmosphere, where toxic masculinity is celebrated every day, SRK does his superhuman act with the help of a gang of girls. Aishwarya (Deepika Padukone), one of his two heroines, beats him in a wrestling bout. Narmada (Nayanthara), the other heroine, is a single mother who became pregnant before marriage. She walked out of the relationship because having a child was more important to her than having a father for it. In a country where shouting ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ is proof of patriotism, the film has intelligently used the idea of mother to counter Islamophobia. I’ll not say how because that would be a spoiler.
Bollywood has long forgotten this kind of ‘mile sur mera tumhara’ movie and chances are high that it would never happen again. SRK, the star who can unify Kashmir to Kanyakumari even at the age of 57, has at least done it for one last time.
Level 3: Tribute to the best of Bollywood
Jawan has used the latest technology, prosthetic make up and shining sets but the soul of the film is that of Nehru era Hindi films. Films that not only entertained but also gave a broad political message on the need to make a nation that is democratic and provides equal opportunity for all.
It is important to note that the era of Hindi films was ruled on screen by Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand who were close to Jawaharlal Nehru. Besides there were people like Balraj Sahni, Prithvi Raj Kapoor, Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Salil Chowdhury in the industry who had links with the Communist Party of India (CPI). An exhaustive list of artists of that era who were either party members or members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and/or Progressive Writers’ Movement would read like a who’s who of the Mumbai film industry. In effect, the industry was run by Nehruvian socialists and communists. The situation started to change once CPI tore itself apart in 1964. Indian leftists, for some reason best known to themselves, became prisoners of an unscientific idea: whatever is popular is necessarily bad. Since Hindi films are the most popular, they are the worst of course. Therefore, leftists never understood the importance of Bollywood as an influencer of common Indian minds. However, the overall agenda of Indian politics was still left or left of centre. A few people with leftist leanings were there in Bollywood. That is why one could see Amitabh Bachchan holding the hammer and the sickle on the poster of Coolie even in 1983.
By the time SRK burst onto the scene, those influences were gone. Indian politics had also taken a right turn. Nehru’s own party dumped his socialism in 1991 and ushered in a market economy. SRK’s debut film Deewana was released in June next year. Babri Masjid was demolished six months later. Middle class and poor heroes gradually vanished from Bollywood. Their place was taken by super rich heroes who live in mansions, drive expensive cars, even own helicopters. Some of them are NRIs but all of them are obedient followers of ancient Indian culture. They don’t marry a girl without the consent of her father; can’t fall in love with a girl who wears trousers but can fall head over heels once she becomes more ‘feminine’. That kind of hero does not lose respect for a father, who drives him out of home for wanting to marry a girl from a lower class. SRK played all those roles in his prime. Today, after spending more than three decades in the industry, he has earned the right to act in the kind of film he likes. And what does he come up with? A film of Nehruvian essence. The hero here is a marginalised individual at birth and soon loses his mother to become an orphan. It is no surprise that this film utilizes two songs from that era – ‘beqarar kar ke humein yun na jaiye’ from Bees Saal Baad (1962) and ‘ramaiya vastavaiya’ from Shree 420 (1955).
But the tribute goes farther. If your memory serves you right, you will discover some iconic Bollywood films in Jawan. You will find SRK’s predecessors in his character. It should not be difficult to find Raj Kapoor of Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960), Rajesh Khanna of Aradhana (1969), Shashi Kapoor of Deewar (1975), Amitabh of Shahenshah (1988). Those who have already watched the film must have noticed the obvious traces of Sholay (1975), too. Needless to say, SRK has reminded the audience of his own romantic era with those inimitable expressions. However, more telling is the era left out: this millennium.
The last middle class idealist police officer hero of a Bollywood film was Manoj Bajpayee in Shool (1999). This millennium has only given us trigger-happy police officers. Those are the characters that normalised encounter killings (thereby the rule of the bulldozer). Nana Patekar of Ab Tak Chappan (2004); Sanjay Dutt, Suniel Shetty and Arbaaz Khan of Shootout at Lokhandwala (2007) do not care about the law or the courts. Then there is Salman Khan of Dabangg series and Ajay Devgn of Singham series. But the police officer in Jawan has nothing in common with them. He is more like the on-screen policemen of the last century. Incidentally, the rights of Shool are with Red Chillies Entertainment. Of course, there is one Vikram Rathore in this film who does not think twice about killing somebody, but he is not a police officer like his namesake in Akshay Kumar-starrer Rowdy Rathore (2012). Is that a signal from old man SRK, armed with the skills of a young director, about the kind of films he does not approve of?
As I have already said, leftists failed to understand the importance of Bollywood but right-wingers did not. They have been at their game since the 1990s and are now ready for a complete takeover of the industry. The Vaccine War is following in the footsteps of The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story. If BJP comes back to power in 2024, Bollywood will definitely become unrecognizable. The importance of Jawan will increase manifold if that happens because then it will become a singular film that documents what Bollywood used to be as a unifier of this vast and diverse country. This is where one must mention the only possible failure of Jawan: its songs. Unforgettable songs are an essential element of a Bollywood film but all the songs in this film are forgettable. Music director Anirudh Ravichander fails big time on that count.
Level 4: The man behind the mask
Thus far I have not mentioned SRK by the names of the characters played by him in Jawan. One reason behind that is of course avoiding spoilers but that is not the only reason. Much bigger reason is the film itself. Shah Rukh Khan, the individual, has excited the characters a number of times. Everyone already knows from the viral clip that he almost directly addresses the audience in a speech towards the end of the film. But well before that, a song is played in the background more than once when the camera catches him up close. The song has too much music for the lyrics to be fully audible but you can clearly hear “King Khan”. Khan, mind you, is not the last name of the character played by SRK.
Since he has brought the man behind the mask to the fore like this, it is impossible not to think his personal life has been used as the ink to write the script of Jawan. Many people know and those who do not can watch his interview below to know that SRK’s father Mir Jan Muhammad Khan was a freedom fighter and General Shah Nawaz of Azad Hind Fauj was a relation.
Let me now say what I have held back so far with some struggle. One of the characters played by SRK in Jawan is called Azad and he forms a woman-only militia. The aim of this is to do good things for the country. In a way, you can call it Azad Hind Fauj. Interestingly, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was the first in this country to form a woman-only brigade in an armed force (Rani Laxmibai Brigade) even though they were not used in combat roles. I will not spell out the other obvious resemblance to Azad Hind Fauj because that would be a great spoiler.
Fans have been telling everyone that the dialogue “Bete ko haath lagane se pehle baap se baat kar” is SRK’s retort to the system, which arrested and kept his son Aryan in custody for charges it could not prove later. That could well be the reason behind writing that dialogue. However, if you listen to the above interview taken by Farida Jalal, it seems more likely that Jawan is SRK’s tribute to his father. In the last 3-4 minutes of the interview, he details what his father used to tell him about India and freedom. There you can find the makings of Jawan. At a later stage in the film, The Lion King (1994 & 2019) is referred to. It is done as a joke but those who know SRK lost his father at an impressionable age would feel that the joke has been used to hide a few drops of tears. As if SRK has fulfilled his wish of fighting wrongs with his freedom fighter father, courtesy the skills of the scriptwriters. In these dark times, he has poured out everything he learnt from his father for the audience.
Only an artist can do so. What else can an artist do?