‘Jawan’ Isn’t Just Another Hit for Shah Rukh Khan — It Cements His Larger-Than-Life Legacy

After 30 years in the industry, 2023 might be the most important year of Shah Rukh Khan’s career.

For one thing, the beloved Indian actor — who won over audiences as a romantic lead in films from “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge,” to “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai,” to “Kal Ho Naa Ho” and so many more — finally has the action hero filmography he’s always craved. For another, he’s back on the big screen after five whole years with not one, not two, but three films in 2023, two of which are out now and can comfortably be declared hits. And those two movies — January’s “Pathaan” and this weekend’s “Jawan” (and probably December’s “Dunki”) — underscore how critical this man is, not only to Indian cinema, but to India itself.

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In 2021, narcotics agents arrested Khan’s son off the coast of Mumbai, imprisoning him for nearly a month, even though no drugs were found on his person. Many perceived this as an act of intimidation, a move meant to keep India’s top star in line when Muslims were being increasingly mistreated, including in the film industry. Khan kept silent, then and since, commenting as little as possible on social and political matters — but his 2023 filmography tells a different story.

“Pathaan” put him on screen with Deepika Padukone and John Abraham, a Hindu and a Christian, playing a Muslim fighting proudly for India. “Jawan” doesn’t touch religion, but as his second of likely three megahits this year, it solidifies Khan’s own might in the face of a ruthless regime. “Bete ko haath lagaane se pehle, baap se baat kar (Before you lay a hand on my son, talk to his father),” he growls in the trailer (as his wife and producer Gauri Khan’s name appears). Otherwise, prepare for the wrath of the King.

“Jawan” sees Khan teaming up with Tamil writer and director Atlee in a gloriously convoluted story of family, activism, and revenge. It’s violent, it’s insane, and it’s an absolute rollercoaster. It has love stories, high-speed chases, a hostage situation that unfolds on an underground train (and too many graphic depictions of hangings). It has South Indian megastars Vijay Sethupathi and Nayanthara, expertly weaving India’s North and South Indian film industries together in a thrilling moviegoing experience.

But above all, and more so than “Pathaan,” “Jawan” is very, very political. It makes some heavy-handed statements about civic duty, but it asks those in power to do better just as strongly as it urges viewers to channel their SRK enthusiasm into making real change. It does not point fingers at current figures, but suggests that if someone, somewhere, is mistreating their citizens, they should answer for it. At a time when India’s leaders sow discord under the guise of democracy, it’s a wake-up call and a warning that the beloved Khan — and the country, his audience — is watching.

It’s also a doozy to review without spoiling, as it’s a film that must be experienced on a massive screen with a massive crowd. This much I can say, while withholding some major reveals: Khan plays a man seeking vigilante justice, forcing the Indian government under pressure to implement changes that actually benefit its citizens (forgiving loans, updating hospital equipment, etc). Helping him in his mission are six women who turn out to be current prison inmates, serving sentences because they fought for these very issues or were government patsies.

Though there are multiple spectacular song-and-dance numbers, the introductory “Zinda Banda,” set in the women’s prison, is easily the most heart-pumping of all (and a welcome break from the now-commonplace practice of using white European women as background dancers in Indian films). Anirudh’s propulsive soundtrack entertains throughout, and the main “Jawan” theme (sometimes whistled like a Western) is catchiest of all.

In multiple tweets leading up to “Jawan,” Khan stressed that women’s empowerment was a key theme in the movie. He even called it “a film about women made for men,” implicitly admitting to the subterfuge that is using his stardom to elevate female careers and stories, in a country and industry still wrestling with how to do that. It’s a testament to the fact that any film can stage complex action sequences or massively energetic musical numbers entirely with women — but only if the filmmakers care to try. Some of these characters are underwritten, but that’s partly because there are nine of them in key roles, often sharing scenes — Nayanthara, Sanya Malhotra, Priyamani, Sanjeeta Bhattacharya, Riddhi Dogra, Lehar Khan, Girija Oak, Aaliya Qureshi, and Padukone in a special appearance — and the main story focuses on Khan’s character, past, and brewing faceoff with Kalee (Sethupathi).

There can be no question of Atlee’s command behind the camera, because a film on this scale requires immense confidence. Western audiences who flocked to “RRR” will find more of its DNA here than in other Hindi cinema, thanks to the shared sensibilities of Tamil and Telugu masala movies. It’s a jam-packed two hours and 45 minutes with multiple flashbacks (and even a flashback-within-a-flashback), dance numbers, and action sequences, but almost no momentum lost throughout (except arguably in “Chaleya,” a romantic number shoehorned into the first half to wordlessly accelerate the film’s less-compelling love story and intertwined conflict). Viewers who zone out during the action-heavy parts of action movies will be glued to the screen, mouths agape, as Khan and his crew stop trains, flip trucks, and, in one scene, make remarkable use of eggs.

But back to Khan himself. There was a time when I would explain the actor and his appeal as “India’s Tom Cruise,” but I stopped doing that years ago when I realized that Indian stardom is simply not comparable to anything else (admittedly, the parallels are closer now than ever, with both celebrities churning out action blockbusters in their fifties). My sold-out IMAX audience cheered for his every appearance, stunt, and song. I can’t remember the last time, if ever, that I experienced a packed theater applauding when the lights came up after the credits, chatting away happily in their seats until an AMC employee politely asked to clear the space for the next showing.

Khan changed the world when he first took the screen over three decades ago, and now he’s trying to do it by trusting his fans to learn and listen. He saw the risks of his place in Indian cinema and took responsibility anyway — like any true hero.

“Jawan” is now playing in select theaters.

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