When successful Tamil-film director Atlee decided to make his first Hindi movie, he went straight to the top of the Bollywood food chain and nabbed Shah Rukh Khan as his star. The resultant action-fest Jawan (“Soldier“) is a novel treat for fans of Hindi cinema.
Jawan‘s gorgeously shot introductory sequence sets the tone for the film. A man’s body floats down a river near a village along India’s border with China. He’s so severely injured that the local healer wraps him entirely in bandages, like a mummy. Months later, as the man lays comatose, Chinese troops stage a nighttime raid on the village, brutally slaughtering men, women, and children. As the healer prays to god to send them aid, the man (Shah Rukh Khan) awakens and kills all the Chinese troops.
From this sequence, we learn that this is intended to be a larger-than-life story not strictly grounded in realism. It’s also very bloody and violent. It introduces recurring themes like government indifference to the suffering of its citizens and a subsequent need for vigilante justice.
The story jumps thirty years into the future as a band of six women and another man whose head is wrapped in bandages (also Khan) hijack a Mumbai Metro train. One of the passengers is the daughter of crooked businessman Kalee Gaikwad (Vijay Sethupathi), and the hijackers demand a large ransom from him. They use that money to pay the debts of 700,000 impoverished farmers, earning the respect of both the hijacked passengers and the general public.
The hijackers escape and return to their hideout: a women’s prison where the now-unbandaged man, Azad, is the warden. Because of its zero recidivism rate and emphasis on social welfare projects, Azad and the inmates win an international award. Cue a prison dance number!
If all this seems wild, well, it is. A ton of stuff happens across multiple timelines featuring a huge cast of characters. And I haven’t even touched on Azad’s matchmaking subplot, the cop Narmada (Nayanthara) who’s out to nab the hijackers, and an extended flashback starring Deepika Padukone.
Yet because of the terms laid out in Jawan‘s opening, none of this seems “too much.” Or maybe it’s “too much” in a good way. All these plot points are punctuated by exciting fights and chase scenes and a number of entertaining dance numbers. Atlee puts the pedal to the floor at the beginning and never lets up. There isn’t a boring moment in Jawan.
[Side note: I watched the “Extended Cut” of Jawan on Netflix, which is only one minute longer than the version released in theaters, as far as I can tell. The story is so dense as is that it doesn’t feel like it needs anything else, except for perhaps more backstory for all of Azad’s accomplices.]
Khan is thoroughly enjoyable in his multiple avatars and looks like he’s having fun while treating the material sincerely. Nayanthara and the women in Azad’s crew — including Sanya Malhotra — give nice performances in their supporting roles.
Padukone’s extended cameo appearance is a delightful surprise. Hers is the film’s most emotional subplot, and it’s enhanced not just by her steady acting but by some terrific music as well.
If there’s a weak point in Jawan, it’s Sethupathi’s turn as the villain. Sethupathi seems distant from the material and doesn’t make Kalee Gaikwad as menacing an adversary as Azad and company deserve.
But Jawan is bigger than any individual performance. It’s understandable that regular lead performers like Malhotra and Sunil Grover (who plays Narmada’s assistant Irani) would be willing to take small supporting roles to participate in such an epic story. Atlee and Shah Rukh Khan swung for the fences and hit a home run with Jawan.