by Abirbhab Maitra
The movie “Jawan” has been showing in theaters for three weeks and is setting new records every day. With action scenes that appeal to a wide audience, emotional character development, and the captivating performance of Shah Rukh Khan, Atlee has created a film that is truly impressive and not to be missed. This marks Shah Rukh Khan’s return as a beloved heartthrob after a five-year break from Bollywood. While some critics may argue that “Jawan” is too unrealistic and lacks significant substance (although I do not entirely agree), it is a culmination of Atlee’s entire body of work, incorporating elements from various sources both nationally and internationally. However, it is important to note that this film is not meant to be grounded in reality, as its main purpose is to entertain the masses and celebrate the protagonist’s persona. In this regard, director Atlee has successfully achieved his goal with great conviction.
Despite all the hype surrounding the movie and the debate over its strengths and weaknesses, there is a noticeable absence of female characters and their societal and political implications in the media’s coverage. The focus is solely on Shah Rukh Khan reclaiming his title as the ‘Badshah of Bollywood,’ pushing everything else to the sidelines. This is primarily due to the film’s presentation of SRK in a completely new and unexpected light, creating a mythical persona that is celebrated throughout the entire movie by director Atlee. One scene in particular, his introduction, highlights this myth by showing him dressed in a mysterious outfit with his body wrapped in bandages that flutter in the wind as he comes to the aid of others.
While it can be enjoyable to witness these moments in a packed theater with lively reactions, my main focus is on the most intriguing aspect of the film that seems to be receiving less attention – the portrayal of women and its impact on society and politics.
Restructuring Gender Norms in Mainstream Film Industry
The most noticeable aspect of “Jawan” is the changing gender dynamics portrayed in mainstream cinema. In the scene where a metro is hijacked, Azad’s team consists entirely of women – Halena (Sanjeeta Banerjee), Laxmi (Priyamani), and Dr. Eeram (Sanya Malhotra), along with Azad himself. This is a departure from the norm in Indian films, where women are often depicted as serving men in traditional patriarchal roles, regardless of whether they are right or wrong. While some recent films by emerging directors like Anurag Kashyap (such as “Gangs of Wasseypur” or “Manmarziyaan”) and Dibakar Banerjee (such as “Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar”) have attempted to challenge traditional gender roles, they tend to appeal to a niche audience in urban areas with more progressive mindsets. However, “Jawan”, which falls under the category of commercial mass entertainers aimed at tier 2 and tier 3 cities and primarily single-screen audiences, breaks away from this trend and gives its female characters agency and independence in their actions and decisions.
Halena, the hacker responsible for technical support for their mission, exudes a modern vibe with her sleeveless t-shirt and sunglasses. Another character named Kalki is a village girl. In a flashback, we learn that her father was subjected to physical violence and humiliation when he was unable to repay a loan to government officials, ultimately leading to his suicide. Even after his death, government officials continued to harass Kalki and her mother. In a fit of anger, she ends up killing one of the officials. This is a significant departure from the typical narrative, where a savior (who may or may not be an outsider and is usually unaffected) is portrayed as a macho male who saves the oppressed. In “Jawan”, Director Atlee breaks away from this common narrative and gives independence to his character, who directly stands up against oppression, and she happens to be a woman.
Not only does this apply to the female team led by Azad, but it also extends to other female characters. A notable example of this “freedom of choice” is Nayanthara’s character Narmada Rao, a hostage negotiator in the film. It is uncommon to see such a role in popular narratives. Despite being cast opposite one of the biggest superstars in the country, she does not succumb to the glamour and fame that often accompanies such roles. In two key scenes, Nayanthara takes control and dominates the scene, while SRK’s character must play a supporting role.
During their first encounter, Narmada catches Azad and her daughter in the act of deceiving the school principal. Azad is visibly awkward and nervous, while Narmada openly shares her past experience of being abandoned by her previous partner when she refused to terminate her pregnancy. This highlights her ability to make her own choices and challenges traditional gender roles. In popular Indian cinema, the male protagonist is often portrayed as confident and assertive in pursuing the female character, while the female character is portrayed as hesitant and easily persuaded by the male’s love or family pressure. However, in this scenario, Narmada takes on a more assertive role while Azad appears nervous. On their wedding night, Narmada makes a sarcastic comment about wanting something romantic from Azad, who is known as the “king of romance.” This statement further solidifies Narmada’s empowered role and shifts traditional gender dynamics.
Regrettably, the impact of this is lessened when the protagonist’s background is uncovered in the latter part, and the reason for his actions is solidified with the addition of a storyline involving seeking vengeance against a formidable enemy. The latter half glorifies masculine pride and confidence, while minimizing the importance of female characters to simply needing to be saved or becoming insignificant. Despite this, Atlee, the writer and director, should be commended for his efforts to challenge traditional gender roles in mainstream films.
The portrayal of women as a representation of national unity in the story “Jawan”
The film “Jawan” by director Atlee challenges traditional gender roles and also symbolizes women as a representation of national unity and emotion. In one scene, Azad, the protagonist, shoots a woman in a burqa during a train hijacking to show his disapproval of any foolishness. While this may initially seem discriminatory towards Islam, the movie later reveals that Azad is using a tactic to convey his message and satirize the notion of Islamophobia.
In terms of national unity, Atlee consistently portrays marginalized individuals based on their ethnicity or religion. The movie begins in a North Eastern village where the conflict between mercenaries and locals is emphasized. The mercenaries wear uniforms, representing the ongoing struggle between local authorities and various tribes in the region. It is noteworthy that Vikram Rathore, a veteran soldier, saves the villagers as outsiders, demonstrating that North Eastern people are included in the idea of ‘unity in diversity.’ However, when considering the connection between women and national identity, it is important to note certain aspects of this scene. A woman and her son save Vikram Rathore, and the film depicts women being killed by the mercenaries, ultimately waking up Rathore with their screams.
In the movie, an older man turns to a goddess for protection when faced with danger. As the villagers are rescued, women play a vital part in the unfolding events. Though it may seem unlikely, these women can be seen as symbols of national unity, adding a subtle political message to the film.
Also, make sure to read this interview.
The portrayal of women as the representation of national sentiment in “Jawan”
One could argue that in “Jawan,” women not only represent national integrity, but also embody national sentiment.
Without using specialized language, “Jawan” is a movie that delves into the common theme of detachment and reconciliation within a family. This theme has been present in many popular Hindi films over the years, and “Jawan” puts a unique spin on it. In the film, Azad’s parents are wrongly accused of betraying their country by Vikram Rathore, who exposes Kalee, an arms dealer, for supplying defective weapons to the military. It becomes clear that Kalee personally kidnaps Vikram Rathore, tortures him, and leaves him for dead. However, Kalee allows Azad’s mother, Aishwariya, to face punishment from the government and potentially be hanged for the accusation.
Vikram Rathore embodies the spirit of bravery, courage, and national pride as a member of the army. He embodies these patriotic feelings and for Kalee to gain control over them (as we later discover, he seeks to have authority over all aspects of the nation, including healthcare, banking, and government), he must first destroy them. Thus, he directly confronts and kidnaps Rathore, subjecting him to torture and ultimately leaving him for dead. On the other hand, Aishwariya, a female character, represents compassion, acceptance, and tenderness as part of the larger spectrum of national sentiment. Her fate is left in the hands of the justice system, highlighting a potential tolerance for injustice where personal issues intersect with national ones. Aishwariya also gives birth to Azad while in prison and teaches him to respect and care for women. On the day of her execution, she asks Azad to promise her that he will seek justice for all those who are oppressed, mistreated, and falsely accused like herself. As previously mentioned, Aishwariya (and women in general) symbolize the national values of compassion, tenderness, and acceptance in this film. Therefore, her final words to her son serve as a plea for him to seek justice for the nation by punishing those who undermine these national sentiments.
The word “Jawan” is often used to describe someone who is entertaining. The movie, with its thrilling scenes and Shah Rukh Khan’s charm, is designed to excite and be a huge success. Yet, amidst the adoration for the stars and intense action, director Atlee cleverly includes political and social undertones. While enjoying the entertainment, it’s important to also consider these deeper messages and recognize the director’s skill in evoking a range of emotions.