Shah Rukh Khan stars as a masked vigilante with six female sidekicks who robs the rich to both give to the poor and raise awareness of their plight. While the police might crow that they want to see the women in prison, the joke is that they already are. We learn that their crimes were justified by social injustice and that Shah Rukh Khan is actually their prison warden, Azad. And while they rail against systemic injustice in all its forms, it becomes clear that Azad's real nemesis is a weapons dealer called Kaalee Gaikwad (Vijay Sethypathi). Meanwhile, in a real life totally unnecessary sub-plot, Azad is being set up for an arranged marriage with - natch - Narmada (Nayanthara), a police hostage negotiator, and her cute little girl Suji.
The plot is genuinely complicated and full of twists that really surprised and satisfied me. The slow reveals of multi-generational injustice are very well done, and even the trailer to this film was a superb misdirect. So kudos to all of the writing team. The action set pieces are also absolutely fantastic. The choreography and shooting style, whether in the hand to hand combat or big vehicle chase scenes, are superlative. There are some great stylistic twists on classic set-ups, like when someone drops their gun and it ends up wedged in a lorry's windscreen, alerting the bad guys to the good guys' presence. I also really loved the Indian Expendables using decidedly old-school tricks to foil a plot and would gladly see a spin off of these old rogues careering around on motorbikes dispensing justice A-team style. I also loved the occasional flashes of humour, particularly in that Expendables aspect. There are some fantastic one-liners here.
I also really loved the fact that the film is progressive in its politics. It's quite radical that Narmada is a single mum and that this isn't held against her by Azad. In Modi's India it's probably quite radical to show a band of special forces fighters that are as racially and religiously diverse as India. It's also quite radical to see Atlee show so clearly the social injustices of contemporary India - the heavy financial burden and consequent suicides of Indian farmers - the shocking health divide between public and private hospitals - the ongoing toxic pollution from factories, nearly four decades after Bhopal - businessmen buying off politicians and directly buying votes - dodgy public procurement resulting in shoddy goods and the loss of life.
Most of all, the final speech that Azad gives to the Indian nation is deeply radical, and not least because Shah Rukh Khan - a Muslim married to a Hindu - is giving it. He tells them to use their finger to vote wisely (in a nation where you press the screen on an electronic voting machine) - to question what politicians will do for them rather than just voting along religious or caste lines. It strikes me that this is a powerful and simple message rather at odds with Modi's message of religious and caste separatism and exclusion. I applaud Khan for being able to make such speeches in the heightened politicised atmosphere in a Bollywood where "cancel culture" doesn't even begin to cover it. And where his own position as an example of a successful diverse family is not welcomed by large sections of society. That said, how does he square the antagonist being an arms dealer with his lauding Sanjay Dutt in a cameo role, given his real life implications in weapons dealing? Or is the line that Dutt was himself the victim of corrupt politics? Either way, it's good to see Sanju back on screen after his fight with lung cancer. It's a great cameo.
On the negative side of the scale, there's still a rather regretful social conservatism that pervades the film, in contrast to the more thorough going radicalism of ROCKY AUR RANI. There's something rather retrograde about the Charlie's Angels concept - a bunch of super smart talented women waiting to take orders from their Chief. And let's not forget that the central beef is really one between men - Azad vs Kaalee Gaikwad. The woman are kind of incidental to this. We even see this played out in the song lyrics that have Shah Rukh Khan singing about "being a man among men" in a scene set in a women's prison. Laughable.
The other two things that really let the film down are the music and the romantic relationships. Anirudh Ravichander's score is obvious, unimaginative and the big song and dance set pieces are really lame. There's not a memorable tune among them, the choreography is super-basic, and the costumes are also cheap. It takes a lot to make someone as beautiful as Deepika Padukone look ordinary but somehow this film manages it. What makes it worse is the way the songs are spread (or not spread) through the film. For instance, in the first half we open with two absolute banger action scenes, and then bring the momentum to a halt with two lame songs. Even worse, the only tune that's remotely memorable is stuck over the end credits where in the cinema I was in the lights were already on and people leaving. D'oh.
Finally, while the female lead actress Nayanthara is beautiful she has zero charisma on screen, and certainly zero chemistry with her much older male counterpart Shah Rukh Khan. I wonder if part of the reason is that she's used to acting in a different language? The problem with Nayanthara is only made more obvious in contrast with the chemistry between Khan and Padukone and the latter's obvious ease on screen. It's because of her character Aishwarya that we feel the film has a heart, and her central scene is the only one that actually moved me to tears, despite almost every character having that one glycerine teardrop down their right cheek at one time or another.
Still, for all its flaws, JAWAN remains compelling. You're unlikely to see better action set pieces in Indian cinema this year, and maybe - bar MI7 - in cinema full stop.
JAWAN has a running time of 169 minutes and is rated 15. It went on global release on September 7th.