As a gift to its ardent fans, Netflix released a surprise Jawan on November 2 – Shah Rukh Khan’s birthday. Had this film been available for Pakistani consumption on its global release date (September 7), the lens through which it would have been viewed would have been significantly different.
However, given that Jawanfor Netflix viewers, it was taken at a time when a global change was underway – a change that came from the sustained, dedicated and malicious destruction of a population – its importance became far greater than box office numbers or praise from critics.
The politics of Jawan
Jawan she does not shy away from her politics. In fact, South director Arun Kumar (Atlee) deftly uses Shah Rukh as a tool for brilliant storytelling in a way the star has not been used before. Shah Rukh takes on the role of Azad, a man who tries to clear his father, Vikram Rathore’s name, while also offering the system a clean slate of corruption through coercive action. Azad was born, ironically, in a women’s prison to a mother who hanged herself on his fifth birthday because he was branded a traitor.
In a brilliant move that subtly advocates for prison reform while touching on dubious charges of incarceration, Azad creates his own family within the walls of this prison. A callback to Swades sees the protagonist growing up Kaveri Amma, who is closely associated with this very prison. Carrying the weight of his name heavy on his shoulders, Azad is a character that follows eccentric South Indian cinematic tropes, made more eccentric when SRK tries out the unstoppable Vikram Rathore. However, the superstar owns these antics, offering a different, welcome side to himself as an actor.
Atlee navigates Shah Rukh in a way where an epic story is made for the common man, taking on bold issues of a political utopia that may feel alien to many Shah Rukh fans (and those whose exposure to Indian cinema is limited to North Indian Bollywood). After all, the star excels and finds solace in the utopia of romance (which exists in the film but is a subdued, subplot.)
The director’s vision does not shy away from dealing with the manufactured crisis of farmer suicides, nor does it falter when dealing with issues related to India’s corrupt healthcare system. The narrative is vitally rooted in grassroots issues by a director who, one might say, has seen the world from the periphery, making Jawan as realistic, penetrating and hard-hitting as a mainstream watch paisa vasool movie could be brave.
A break from reality?
For its nearly three hours of extended running time, the film offers no oblivion to the world around you or balm for any wounds that may need tending. It gives you an over-dramatized version of the same world – a version so rooted in reality that it makes you shudder and gasp at the sheer nerve of the group. Jawan it throws you into the deep end, without a life preserver.
Offering unabashed commentary that brazenly points fingers at those in power, the film ends up being undeniably one for the people – not just for Indians or any socio-politically dominant faction in India – but for the people, as a collective. He creates a hero, the desi Robin Hood, but presents him as the political figure he should be – one who mobilizes the working class and dares to hold a mirror up to the corrupt elite.
In Jawan, poverty, disease and death are not played by nature, but by man’s design. Money talks, walks, kills and drowns. All other lives are competing for places on the lower rungs of a dangerously broken ladder – places where they can matter, fighting each other because of the seeds of conflict sown by those who have secured places at the top. The film is not spoon fed either. He also tells you that you’re part of the problem in a well-placed, vital monologue that, by any other actor, would have come off as a preachy ramble. Shah Rukh, as Azad, sits face-to-face with his audience – often breaking the fourth wall so his conversation is still well-immersed – and tells them to wake up before it’s too late.
The message is clear: we must question everything. Our leaders. The men with seats at waxed tables of lyricism and politeness, only to exhibit their hands tied behind their backs and with bills covering their mouths. We must interrogate the very concept of the power they hold, the power they exercise, and those against whom they exercise it. All the times this power is a vain, decorative crown that translates into nothing more than a holographic display between the givers of the gift. We must wake up from the slumber concocted by a web of lies into which we have been led through promising lullabies.
Jawan it’s a welcome transition from its frivolity and frivolity Nayak heroism (which has plagued Indian cinema for quite some time) to a more topical, edgy and introspective ‘messiah’ who focuses more on highlighting systemic failures. The it offers no distractions, but devises a scenic window seat to what could be: an admittedly far-fetched, mundane path that runs parallel to where we are, where everything is tied with a ribbon—where the rich fall and the wronged are vindicated. And then he asks, “What’s stopping you from making it happen?” It lays the groundwork for a solution, almost daring the common man to do something about it.
The bittersweet aftertaste
When his trance Jawan breaks down, and the headlines roll, reality sets in: there is no Azad, no Vikram Rathore to come to save the world as it burns endlessly. The embers of the fire lit by those in power continue to destroy the shrouded reality we live in, and we must all be Azad and Vikram Rathore.
Jawan it doubles down on faith in human potential and the collective desire to work for a better world. It leaves one with questions, but does not provide definitive answers. The remarkable offering comes with work for each of us, in the form of reflection, self-improvement, and cultivation of a vital lens that creates a desire to take on all forces of power. Once the movie ends, one can’t help but take a deep breath, fully understanding how Jawan it is a beautiful, necessary lie that must be told over and over until it becomes reality.
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