Jawan: SRK opens a new frontier
SRK and team have picked real issues and mashed them into the unreal drama, using masala to serve burning political questions that few from Bollywood will dare ask in today's political climate
Shah Rukh Khan, SRK to millions of Indians, is raking it in at the box office with Jawan. The film opened last week and had reportedly netted over Rs 350 crore by the weekend, said to be the biggest opening ever on record for a Bollywood production. A career that some thought was in decline is back with a big bang.
The SRK magic works this time with co-star Nayanthara, noted for her work across the southern states, and Tamil superstars such as Vijay Sethupati and director Atlee Kumar, combining talent across the north and south into a package that appears to have been lapped up by the national audience. Producing company Red Chillies Entertainment describes the 2 hour 45 minute film thus: "A high-octane action thriller which outlines the emotional journey of a man who is set to rectify the wrongs in society."
Needless to say, a lot of it is typical Bollywood hyperbole. But the ‘wrongs in society’ it highlights are very real, making Jawan a bold venture with distinct political overtones that many would see as high-risk in this particular political atmosphere, further heated by the upcoming elections.
That the film highlights the death of children from lack of oxygen in a government hospital, farmer suicides, bad deals for substandard equipment that fail our soldiers, factories that pollute our water and air, and the protection afforded to unscrupulous businessmen is as real or as specific as it can get today.
In that, the film goes beyond a general tirade against the ills of society, usually taking the form of stereotypes of the rogue middleman, the corrupt politician, or the woes of everyday people as they struggle to get their due. Jawan still has a lot of common nouns, of course, but the related proper nouns are there in the air.
In that sense, SRK and team have unhesitatingly picked real issues and mashed them into the unreal drama, using escapist masala to serve burning political questions that many can see, many more can sense, but few from Bollywood will dare ask in today's political climate.
It used to be a theory long ago that Bollywood works because vacuous song-and-dance was the one release from the misery of everyday living for millions. This has changed over the decades, from the early romance stories and the rich–poor commentary to the ‘angry young man’, bolder romances, and then post-liberalisation, the arrival of low-cost productions that experimented with new themes.
The changing times have brought more modern-day issues to the big screen, such as live-in relationships, LGBTQI+ rights and alliances, caste conflicts, ‘encounter’ killings, the rural-urban divide, autism, loneliness, mental health, et al. Many films over the years have borne political messages and, in that sense, Bollywood was always political — but in an indirect sort of way. It played mostly in safe territory — not many looked the establishment in the eye and spoke up with gusto.
This is a space known after all for song and dance, where the watchwords are entertainment and glamour. The industry prefers a winning formula to creative exploration, particularly in big-budget films populated by rock stars with massive fees.
With Jawan, we have a new mainstream path for Bollywood, a path that uses its huge and unrivalled soft power to drive home some significant messages of the kind rarely put across in a big-budget extravaganza — and it does so without the high-pitched jingoism and nationalist fervour that is typically known to sell at the box-office.
In that sense, the film puts everyone on notice and opens up new imaginations and possibilities of what Big Bollywood can do when it wades into hot political spaces, usually more the preserve of niche, ‘highbrow’ cinema.
One highlight of the film is the speech that shows SRK's character asking citizens to pick who they will vote for, after raising all the right questions: what will you, dear candidate, do for us in the next five years? If someone in my family is taken ill, what will you do for their treatment? What will you do to get me a job?
The message is to demand performance, to require delivery of services in the areas of health, education, jobs, and not resort to distractions in the name of religion, race or caste. But these are exactly the questions and issues that are not in focus in our India of today, and posing them within the popular masala format gets them to the masses more effectively than any medium possibly can. The delivery comes against a backdrop of electronic voting machines, framing the messages in the very live context of the 2024 elections.
None of this is sophisticated delivery, nor a critical examination of the complex political issues of our times. It is a baseline delivery, at best. But its significance is that it was delivered, and its success is in its wide reach, its slick package and its big questions.
In that, it quite ironically matches the unsophisticated approach of those who have twisted the national agenda, changed the political discourse and now those who have come out with desperate calls to boycott the film by drawing all kinds of connections — from the current controversy over remarks on sanatan dharma to Shah Rukh Khan’s recent visit to the Tirupati temple.
The Hindi film industry is one place where the real currency is in quality of work and acceptance by the audience, never mind all that has been said in the name of the late Sushant Singh Rajput. Hindus, Muslims and all other faiths here work hard, and hand-in-hand, to take audiences into a dream world.
It’s an efficient business and a well-oiled machine — but it challenges its cogs, from kingpin to the humblest ore, to stay in step with the pulse of the populace even more than some of our shrewdest Chanakyas. However well-connected you may be, your success ultimately — as with the average politician — rides on the popular vote.
The trick to making money while at it and enjoying the ride is to challenge one’s own artistic limits and perhaps one’s scruples, and not challenge the political establishment. SRK’s Jawan has just expanded that space to speak up against the grain while staying popular.
That’s an effort to be lauded, amplified, protected and nurtured so it can grow and multiply, hopefully, in times when hope is sorely needed by many who, outside the dark anonymity of a movie theatre, are in the line of fire themselves in real life (and no, we don’t mean our soldiers at the front alone).
The success of the movie is therefore good news — and not just for Bollywood but for the political battleground it is staged in.
(Jagdish Rattanani is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR. Courtesy: The Billion Press)