OTTplay Logo
settings icon
profile icon

Jawan & The Necessary Pleasure Of Watching Shah Rukh Khan In Action

This is #CriticalMargin, where Ishita Sengupta gets contemplative over new Hindi films and shows. Today: Atlee and SRK's Jawan.

Jawan & The Necessary Pleasure Of Watching Shah Rukh Khan In Action
Still from Jawan

Last Updated: 04.16 PM, Sep 07, 2023


This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on September 7, 2023. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)


Jawan, Atlee’s seventh feature film, does not move. It runs. Every scene zooms past like the next is waiting at the door. Every moment climaxes before any foreplay. A lot happens too soon. Two characters meet for the first time and before you know it, they are married. Hundreds of people are taken hostage and before you know it, the crisis is resolved. A superstar stands in the frame and before you know it, there are two. Jawan is always in a hurry. It has reasons to be. The film, after all, is telling a story about a country, whose name stands endangered, and an actor, whose surname stands threatened.

Shah Rukh Khan is India. He is the country in the way one belongs to a place and the way one inhabits it. Standing in 2023, he remains a souvenir of a Hindu-majority nation that willingly clamoured for a Muslim superstar without pinning him to his religion; he feels like a totem of the time when Hindi films did not confuse nationalism with a colour. Shah Rukh Khan is India in the way he reminds you of what India used to be like.

The country and the actor are so intricately linked that an attack on one feels like a commentary on the other. And a response from one feels like a retaliation from the other. Atlee’s Jawan is that. It is a wide-ranging, stylised, broad but potent critique of power and politicians, crime and corruption. It is a film about patriotism that remains alert to facile labels like ‘anti-nationals’. It is about an aging superstar who is still jumping from helicopters and getting attacked to provide entertainment but also wearing bandages on an unhurt face as if to remind us of the bruises he accrued when the camera was not on him. More crucially, Jawan captures the joy of watching mainstream films in a crowd, reiterating across its runtime that the key prerequisite of this sweeping genre has always been one thing: a secular core.


Khan plays Vikram Rathod, a vigilante in Mumbai; a common man gone rogue. Backed by an army of six women (Priyamani, Sanya Malhotra, Sanjeeta Bhattacharya, Girija Oak, Lehar Khan and Aaliyah Qureishi) he undertakes a crooked path to solve social problems. Out to get him is police inspector Narmada (a luminous Nayanthara making her debut in Hindi films). And standing as his nemesis is a charmingly deceitful arms dealer Kaali Gaikwad (Vijay Sethupathi).

It all feels too easy. The film opens to Vikram and his team taking control of a moving metro. They call the cops and lay out the demand: the Minister of Agriculture has to cough up ₹40,000 crore as ransom. When they easily manage that (among the hostages is Kaali’s daughter which accelerates things), the money is anonymously distributed among farmers to ease them off their loans. When a health minister extols the efficiency of government hospitals, he is attacked to draw attention to how underequipped these institutions really are. Many problems, one solution.

This is not to say that Jawan falters in providing the easy and necessary pleasure of witnessing a superstar in action. If anything, it triumphs. Atlee (who appears briefly in a song) is unabashed in his appreciation of Khan. The camera frequently lingers on the actor’s mouth, eyes. A strand of hair falls on his forehead and remains there with such expressed purpose like hours were spent deliberating that. When Khan enters a scene smoking a cigar, the air in a room visually shifts. Every arrival of his is scored to an immensely catchy whistle tune (Anirudh Ravichander is the composer) and crafted like a high-voltage entry scene. But there is a specific one that would make even Hrithik Roshan’s introduction scene in War (Siddharth Anand’s 2019 film) pale in comparison.

Detail from the poster for Jawan
Detail from the poster for Jawan

Written by S Ramanagirivasan and Atlee, Jawan unfolds as a terrific star vehicle that never assumes the monstrosity of a vanity project. The reason being the director does not exalt Khan as much as revamps the way we are conditioned to look at him. He succeeds in milking what Shah Rukh Khan has come to be, a larger-than-life mythology, while also carving out the roadmap of who he can be: a Daddy. Watching a man cutting wood on screen has never felt this hot.

There are also other things to like: the sweet nod to Raj and DK’s The Family Man (Sethupathi, Priyamani and Ashlesha Thakur feature in the film), Deepika Padukone’s cameo, and a crackling Sethupathi. The actor is terrific in a way most unhinged villains tend to be. Think of Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s portrayal of the antagonist in Kick (2014). But there is also something distinctly his own that he brings to the role. The shoulder-slouching nonchalance, the relaxed hand movements, the easy smile are all his. There is a hilarious instance of him sitting back and doling out adjectives (“well done”, “good”) to Khan’s character as the latter goes about giving a demo of defective guns. The scene stands out for how convincingly it could also pass off as one of Sethupathi’s private moments where he sits and judges lesser actors than him.

Still from Jawan
Still from Jawan

Even then, it is Khan alone who lends a torrid urgency to Jawan. Earlier this year with Pathaan, the actor had given an inkling of speaking through his films. That was January. By September, he decides to hold nothing back. This is his most brazenly political work. It is all there: a government hospital suffering from lack of oxygen cylinders and an honest doctor being arrested on drug charges. A son being persecuted for his father’s legacy and the father returning with one line of advice: “Bete ko haath lagane se pehle Baap se baat kar” (“Talk to the father before raising hands on the son”).

But everything is only making space for one singular moment. Rathod needs the attention of the head of the state (depicted in the most unembellished way in recent times) and he steals voting machines for it. He hides them in jail, inviting a convenient metaphor of democracy being behind bars. But Khan is not interested in allegories. He then looks straight and schools the audience to be better, do better. It is a transformative scene, visceral in the emotions it evokes. 

By then it ceases to matter that this is a fictional film and Khan is an actor playing his part in it. It ceases to matter that he has famously stayed away from giving interviews in recent years and uttered no word on the many communal hate-crimes rampant in the country today. Suddenly, the many meanings of the film’s title open up and his monologue is revealed as a 57-year-old man reminding the youth to not settle for less. For he has seen a better India. For, he is that India.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of OTTplay. The author is solely responsible for any claims arising out of the content of this column.)

Get the latest updates in your inbox