All art is political, but when a country is plunged into unsubtle bigotry and discrimination, the political messaging needs to be explicit. It has to be so explicit that it is the only thing that you can hear despite the cacophony that is distracting you from critical thinking. Shah Rukh Khan has done these politically explicit movies in the past with Oh Darling Yeh Hai India, Hey Ram, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, Main Hoon Na, Veer Zaara, Swades, Chak De India, and to a certain extent, My Name Is Khan. But the thing is, that was a different time. People, politicians, and producers were more open to accepting the truth that our great nation was staring at and then doing whatever they wanted to do. Now, the name of the game is towing the line, and everyone who says otherwise is punished severely. So, regardless of its flaws, it’s wild that a movie like Jawan exists, which features not one but two Shah Rukh Khans who are talking about everything that is keeping us from being truly free.
Vikram Rathore (a reference to S.S. Rajamouli’s Vikramarkudu) is the first Shah Rukh Khan character that we meet. Therefore, let’s talk about him first. In the recent past, Indian soldiers or those who are in some kind of special forces have been portrayed as these people who will do anything for the nation. But the only thing that they do is wage war without questioning who or why they are fighting. If I get into the subtext of the countries where these characters are sent to, and the kind of dog whistling that goes on, we’ll be here all day. Jawan seems to be doing something similar by sending Rathore to the “border,” fighting “terrorists,” and telling them what India is actually made of. It comes dangerously close to jingoism and chest-thumping nationalism. However, when Rathore and his team are in the thick of it, the focus shifts to the malfunctioning weapons that they’re using, which puts the whole platoon on the backfoot. Since these guns had already erased a previous platoon, Rathore takes the Indian Army and the guy who sold them these guns, Kalee, to task.
Now, what is this particular subplot alluding to? Without courting any kind of controversy, let me just say that if you go through the news about the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and every sub-sector in this defense industry, you’ll notice a huge disparity in terms of what is prioritized. Individuals who go to the borders to protect them, their living conditions, the compensation that their families should receive after their death, the kind of money and respect they should get after retirement, health insurance, etc.—it’s all messed up. In comparison to that, the international and private deals that are made to “improve” the aforementioned sectors involve so much money that learning about them is going to spin your head endlessly. Some of the biggest scams in the past few years have happened between businessmen and the defense sectors of various countries, and they’ve led to the deaths of numerous soldiers. Has anyone been held accountable? No. When a soldier has voiced their concerns or asked for an internal inquiry, their voice has been suppressed with such swiftness that it’s alarming.
Yes, Jawan imagines a world where a member of the Special Forces can voice their concerns, ask why businessmen like Kalee are getting a pass despite putting their lives at risk, and get answers. But Rathore’s fate brings things back to reality. No, I am not saying that a soldier critical of the working conditions is going to be drugged, kidnapped, shot several times, and then thrown off a helicopter while his reputation is tarnished and he is branded as a traitor. It’s an over-the-top political action thriller. Something close to that is probably going to happen in real life. Anyway, Rathore does survive all that, but he forgets all about his past. As he grows older in the village that has saved him, I think he even stops caring about remembering who he is. Even when he gets to reunite with his special forces team and meet his one and only son, he doesn’t feel anything emotionally. Everything he does is reactionary in nature. He sees a target, and he eliminates it. There’s no critical thinking going on behind his blank eyes. And that serves as the perfect metaphor for the Boomer generation.
I’m sure that the older members of our society have seen a lot more of life than we have. They usually spout that they’ve more experience than the youngsters. But when they have to take lessons from the history they have lived through and apply them to the present that they are living in, they seemingly forget about it all. Despite not suffering from dementia, they seemingly forget about context and think that they can just take a backseat and let things go down the drain. However, since Jawan is a fictional film, it imagines a scenario where the younger generation is so proactive when it comes to partaking in revolutionary activities that it brings them out of their slumber, and they start fighting for what is right. They become triggered enough to remember their past and take down the villains who are poisoning the entire nation. In Vikram’s case, it is the clicking of a malfunctioning gun that is pressed against his head. I hope that things don’t need to be that dangerous for oldies in real life to realize that they need to emotionally invest in the fight that everyone’s fighting.
This brings us to Azad, Vikram’s son. Azad isn’t a jailer or a revolutionary by choice. Much like all of us, he was born into a life of high-level conspiracies, corruption, and crony capitalism. His perspective was shaped by the women in the jail where he grew up. Somewhere down the line, he realized that prisons can be institutes of reformation. But I guess when he saw that innocent people were being imprisoned for crimes that they hadn’t committed, he began to realize that reformation alone wouldn’t solve anything. So, he started to craft a team of vigilantes who had been wronged by the system. Even though it’s not very clear how he managed to convince a high-profile officer like Madhavan Naik to join his cause, Azad was helped by Naik to get all the details of businesses and government offices that were linked to the women in his jail and to Kalee as well. After that, he took a pretty simple approach to delivering justice. If he wanted farmers to get the money that they needed, he threatened the agriculture minister and Kalee until they caved. If he wanted the health infrastructure to improve, he threatened the health minister and Kalee until they caved. If he wanted to clear his father’s name, he threatened the defense minister and Kalee until they caved.
If you scoff at Jawan’s take on vigilante justice, let me tell you that you are not as smart as you think you are. The movie knows that it’s preposterous as hell and not practically possible. The kind of planning that you’ll need to pull off what Azad and his team pull off is impossible. Azad’s theatricality with his different looks is a little silly and a little goofy. The movie imagines a scenario where government officials will realize that they are the real terrorists for not prioritizing what the general populace needs and for supporting crony capitalists like Kalee. In real life, the exact opposite will happen. To be honest, the exact opposite is happening in real life. And guess what? Atlee and his writers know that. This is why, during Azad’s 2-3 minute long speech, they underscore the power of voting. Through Azad, they are telling the people of this nation to not put a price tag on the finger that votes. He says that we shouldn’t vote for religious extremism, caste-based discrimination, or those who have built their identity around such activities. We should vote for those who want real progress, not one that only benefits businessmen.
Of course, politicians are the biggest liars in the world. So they’ll say what we want to hear in order to get the most votes. What should we do once our elected leaders begin doing the things that they said they wouldn’t? Should we stay silent and wait for the next election cycle? No, not at all. According to Azad, giving our vote doesn’t mean that we should stop questioning them at every step of the way. Those who are elected stay in power for five whole years unless there’s a conspiracy, ministers are bought, and the party in power is thrown out. In those five years, we must keep urging them to do what they said they would do. We must voice our concerns, and if our voices are being suppressed, we must be louder. Those who form the majority community in a nation should be the loudest because they have every kind of privilege that minorities do not have. We should read, learn, and listen to everything that is happening around us and then judge it through a critical lens, not the lens that politicians and the mainstream media are trying to put on our eyes. And we’ve got to keep doing that until those in power are forced to bring about systemic change.
If I can digress a little from the plot, I’ll say Vikram and Azad represent the past and present of Shah Rukh Khan. Look, Khan is in his late 50s. He isn’t the man he once was, and he is reminded of that every time somebody says that his movies from the 2000s were the greatest. But he is not in the mood to give up and retire or try to de-age himself and recreate what worked for him in the 2000s. So, whenever Vikram sits on the sidelines while Azad does his thing and shows up at the last moment to exhibit that he can do everything that Azad does much better than him, it seems like Khan is conversing with his past. It’s as if he is aggressively reassuring himself that even though his younger self has done a lot of action and a lot of political drama, he can do it better as he approaches his 60s. However, he wants to do so by embracing the past instead of being emotionally distant about it. Or it’s just a regular double-role situation, and I’m looking too deeply into it. Whatever the case may be, Jawan is a great movie. Shah Rukh Khan is awesome in it, and you should watch it as soon as possible.