“Jawan” is directed by Arun ‘Atlee’ Kumar (“Mersal;” Eng.: “Zapped,” 2017) in his fifth feature film—and his first in the Hindi language. The action potboiler stars Shah Rukh Khan (“Pathaan,” 2023) as Azad, a jailer for a women’s prison who’s just begun to romantically court Narmada Rai (Nayanthara; “Iru Mugan;” Eng.: “Two-Faced Man,” 2016), a counterterrorism exec who’s assigned the case of notorious vigilante “Vikram Rathore,” whose radical acts have been targeting systemic corruption throughout the country. There’s one problem: the man Narmada’s about to marry and the vigilante she’s hunting are the same person.
There’s a lot more in its narrative—backstories, resurrections, you name it—and it’s all as larger-than-life and batshit crazy as you’d expect from your Friendly Neighborhood Bollywood Blockbuster. The tale itself is as old as time and—on paper—shouldn’t work. However, it’s not the story itself but how it’s told that makes all the difference, and “Jawan” boasts a dazzling amount of conviction, a whole truckload of gonzo bombast, and oodles of style. Khan’s last Bollywood tentpole, “Pathaan,” was Bollywood’s answer to Bayhem. Atlee’s newest action-thriller, however, mixes the modern pop action film aesthetic with some sound ol’ good versus evil throwback from Hindi films of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
A David versus Goliath story needs a compelling, convincing Goliath. Enter Vijay Sethupathi (“Vikram,” 2022), who digs into his role with glee, and it shows. As the ridiculously wealthy—and unabashedly evil—arms dealer Kaalee Gaikwad, the actor commands every bit of your attention. It’s rare for antagonists in Hindi cinema to elicit raw fear from its viewers. Sethupathi’s performance comes damn close, next only to actor Prashant Narayanan’s bone-chilling turn in “Murder 2” (2011), an unofficial Indian remake of South Korean director Na Hong-jin’s “Chugyeokja” (Eng.: “The Chaser,” 2008).
As the face of Atlee’s film, Khan is charming, versatile, and a scene-stealer through and through—which is no surprise. Playing the larger-than-life action movie star archetype for the second time this year since “Pathaan,” his turn in “Jawan” simultaneously goes back to basics and brings the singular stamp of his on-screen magnetism and emotional gravitas to what’s essentially a done-to-death cross-genre musical potboiler; the kind you’d find in heaps in the filmographies of Bollywood directors Manmohan Desai (“Amar Akbar Anthony,” 1977) and Nasir Hussain (“Yaadon Ki Baaraat;” Eng.: “A Procession of Memories,” 1973).
For a subgenre of Indian cinema where women have famously been damsels in distress, “Jawan” upends that tradition by making its core conceit impossible without women pitching in with enough brain and firepower. Nayanthara is effortless as the lead protagonist and commands excellent on-screen presence as both the actor and the character she plays. Among the film’s primary supporting characters, Riddhi Dogra (“Lakadbaggha;” Eng.: “Hyena,” 2023), Sanya Malhotra (“Dangal;” Eng.: “Wrestling Competition,” 2016), and Priyamani (“Raavan,” 2010) shine—with the caveat of Dogra playing Shah Rukh Khan’s foster mom feeling a tad immersion breaking at times.
“Jawan” is a film that should technically not work, but it does mainly due to the incredible hold Atlee and his regular co-writing collaborator S. Ramanagirivasan (“Theri;” Eng.: “Spark,” 2016) have over the screenplay. At almost 170 minutes, the film is long, and the fact that the director can have our full attention for every second of it says a lot. G. K. Vishnu’s (“Cinema Veeran;” Eng.: “Cinema’s Bravehearts,” 2017) cinematography boasts gorgeous vistas, qualitative visual consistency, and a fluid versatility between the framing and rhythm across set pieces, musical interludes, and dramatic moments.
Film editor Ruben (“Trigger,” 2022) successfully finesses the film’s flow with measured cuts that balance urgency and understatement where required. Anirudh Ravichander’s (“3,” 2012) music ranges between easy listening to bombastic bangers, and while not all of them work as their own thing, they’re lovely in the context of the film. Your appreciation, of course, will depend solely on where you stand on big Bollywood movies divvied up by elaborate music videos. The heavy-handed action set pieces pack an absolute punch, thanks to the involvement of stunt directors the likes of Craig Macrae (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” 2015), Spiro Razatos (“F9: The Fast Saga,” 2021), and Yannick Ben (“Dunkirk,” 2017).
Atlee’s newest is what you’d call the complete package. “Jawan” mixes up many popular genres, forming a heady potpourri of unapologetic entertainment that balances its potent—albeit admittedly preachy—sociopolitical message with a twist-per-minute action thriller that doesn’t let go. It’s an absolute blast on the big screen and worth every cent of the price of your ticket.