Jawan Review: Shah Rukh Khan's bloated spectacle is a box office darling

Ayaan Paul
Ayaan PaulSep 07, 2023 | 17:39

Jawan Review: Shah Rukh Khan's bloated spectacle is a box office darling

Good 'ol Bollywood, where the line between grandiosity and genuine substance often blurs, is where the supposedly pan-Indian Jawan emerges as a perplexing amalgamation of dazzling excess and narrative confusion. Directed by Atlee, in his first foray into Hindi cinema, and starring 'King Khan' in a dual role, the film comes off as a disjointed and preachy mess that struggles to live up to its grand potential.


At the narrative helm is Khan's Azad Rathore, the Jailer at a women's correctional facility with a dual mission: to clear his father's tarnished legacy and become a vigilante for the downtrodden. Azad's eclectic gang of women work tirelessly to mete out justice to the oppressed. 

This noble pursuit brings them into confrontations with Nayanthara's Narmada Rai - a high-ranking police officer and Azad's love interest, as well as Vijay Sethupati's Kaali Gaekwad - a global arms dealer and the film’s main antagonist.

Atlee's penchant for the over-the-top is evident from the get-go and the film presents itself as an unapologetic mass entertainer, complete with adrenaline-pumping action sequences, moments of emotional respite, and an overgenerous pinch of populist messaging.

Yet, as the plot unfolds, Jawan stumbles over its own ambitions. It attempts to address a plethora of contemporary social issues, from farmer suicides to income inequality and healthcare crises. While its heart is in the right place, the execution falls flat, primarily due to a reliance on clunky exposition that feels more like a sermon than storytelling.

This relentless exposition is perhaps the film's most glaring Achilles' heel. Rather than seamlessly weaving social commentary into its narrative, Jawan adopts a sledgehammer approach, leaving little room for subtlety or viewer interpretation. The result? A film that often comes across as preachy, missing the opportunity to engage with the nuanced dynamics of corruption and power imbalances.


The film's plot follows the well-trodden path of vigilante justice raining down on a caricaturishly corrupt system. But to keep things fresh, Jawan introduces a group of young women as Azad's collaborators where Priyamani, Sanya Malhotra, and others bring ‘girl power’ to the forefront, harking back to the nostalgia of Chak De India.

The attempt at empowerment however, falls unsurprisingly short, as these characters frequently fade into the background, eclipsed by the male superstar’s spotlight. The film's portrayal of these women is inconsistent, and they often get lost in the storytelling shuffle, sidelining their narrative potential and undercutting the film's intended message of empowerment. Still, at the very least they're trying. It’s the thought that counts?

Though a surprisingly underplayed narrative choice in the same vein involves Nayanthara's Special Ops Commander Narmada, where her steadfastness over the prospects of a new marriage feel a lot more organic than one would expect from mainstream Bollywood. As a single mother that chose to sever ties over an abortion, Narmada's agency doesn't come off as stilted, and I'd argue that it's Nayanthara's delivery to thank.

It's rather unfortunate that I find it a real task to find anything redeeming for her Tamilian counter-part in the film. Vijay Sethupati's attempt at a menacing arms dealer comes off as a comic mess owing to his terrible dialogues. If only the veteran actor had the opportunity to retain his brilliance in his mother tongue.


The narrative quality takes a nosedive in its latter half. Predictability sets in, and the film's cheesy dialogue writing becomes a glaring weakness. Heartfelt sequences come across as forced and contrived, leaving us feeling more coerced than genuinely moved.

While the film's songs may not secure a place in the annals of Bollywood's greatest hits, Anirudh Ravichander’s original score and title track manage to make a lasting impression that had me whistling long after I’d left the theatres. Chaleya deserves a special mention, and the music charts will second that. Nevertheless, these musical interludes are but fleeting moments of respite in a sea of narrative missteps.

At its most basic, Jawan is a vehicle for Khan's action hero persona. It affords him the opportunity to draw inspiration from his extensive filmography. While SRK's charisma is undeniable, it isn't sufficient to salvage a film plagued by narrative pitfalls.

Khan himself falls surprisingly short of the skyrocketing expectations, leaving much to be desired. His attempt to play the father-son dual roles lack the depth and authenticity needed to make these characters more believable.

His performance is continuously hampered by the film's heavy-handed political messaging. Repeated expository dialogue to convey inspired messaging make his character come across as sanctimonious, rather than as a genuine crusader for justice.

Even his chemistry with his co-stars, Nayanthara and Deepika Padukone, fails to ignite the screen. Their love stories feel underdeveloped and unengaging. Though Padukone's cameo does add a breath of fresh air, even if it is disappointingly brief.

While Khan has the potential to shine in more emotionally demanding roles that put his versatility to a genuine test, Jawan misses the mark in utilising his talents effectively. 

In its quest to epitomise the quintessential Bollywood masala film, Jawan loses sight of its potential to offer thoughtful and impactful cinema. The film's overindulgence in spectacle, melodrama, and exposition obstructs its ability to deliver a nuanced message.

Yet amid the brouhaha, Jawan finds itself in the thick of a brave new movement for SRK’s prodigal return to the big screen. In an age where nationalist iconography in mainstream Indian cinema is the name of the game and even the most pitiful attempts at systematic critique are conveniently vilified as ‘anti-national’ (take even Shah Rukh's last movie, Pathaan, and the boycott calls, for example) Jawan’s socio-political messaging is intertwined with Khan venturing out of his comfort zone.

With the likes of certain hand pump-wielding icons of Bollywood bordering on jingoism, Jawan plays it smart with a softer model of social commentary that acknowledges the ineptitude of a corrupt state while simultaneously pandering to nationalist sentiments in a best of both worlds.

In Jawan, Shah Rukh is the quintessential jawan; the patriot who is willing to put his life at stake a thousand times for the country, but not be collateral damage when his faulty gun stalls because of a shady deal. What Shah Rukh does here (and we're going out on a limb here and saying it's Shah Rukh and not Atlee doing this) is separate the nauseatingly intertwined idea of patriotism from chest-thumping, government-worshipping nationalism. 

And for that alone, Jawan receives brownie points for welcoming a brighter age for commercial cinema - one that paves the way for more progressive, more critical storytelling.  

Despite moments of promise and a commendable endeavour to address pressing societal concerns, Jawan falls short of its lofty ambitions. With a tighter script, sharper dialogue writing, and a more balanced approach to its characters, it might have ascended to the ranks of something truly special. It’s a real pity that it remains a gleaming but hollow cinematic experience - a testament to the perils of prioritising style over substance.

We're going with 3 out of 5 stars for Jawan.

Last updated: September 07, 2023 | 17:39
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