Jawan: A pastiche no-brainer Bollywood has ever seen?

Indian commercial cinema, especially with superstars and multi-starrers, often ends up as a no-brainer, almost to the point where it can even be considered an exclusive genre. Jawan directed by Atlee, is one of the many films that used this same no-brainer formula. But, unlike many other superstar films with too many unbelievable sequences and negative stereotypes, Jawan didn’t distress the audience in any way. The film had no unwanted glamour songs objectifying women, no caste-based punch-down humor, and no unnecessary forced punchlines attacking any faith, in short, nothing politically incorrect that added to existing stereotypes about marginalized communities.

Despite having the title Jawan (contextually referring to an Indian soldier) and centering one of many subplots around unrest and terrorism on the Indian geographic border, the film didn’t endorse any Islamophobic stereotypes or vilify Muslims. Symbolisms were limited to superficial elements without involving any xenophobic markers. The storyline and screenplay remained focused on the main plot of a son keeping his promise to his mother, avenging his father’s death, and helping his partners avenge their families, all for a larger cause or to expose systemic crime and corruption, holding those in power accountable for their actions. The film didn’t deviate from its anti-establishment plotline, representing the anger of the working class, which maintained the Tension (in an Allen Tate way) throughout the duration.

Atlee’s success lies in reminding the masses that a film with a social message needn’t be grim or very serious like Article 15, but can also include enough masala, entertaining elements, 4-5 songs catering to all audiences, while still delivering the intended message. It shows how Atlee has honed his skills by understanding the sentiments of Tamil audiences and delivering a meticulously crafted yet potent political commentary through Jawan.

Atlee – The pastiche expert:

Jawan’s plot follows the pre-existing template of all the father-son-based films ever made in Indian cinema. Yet, the staging of the film makes it appealing to all kinds of audiences. It’s a pastiche or bricolage of all the high points or elevation scenes from both Atlee’s films and those of other pioneers in Tamil cinema. Even if it doesn’t work for Tamil audiences, who can anticipate every scene and plot twist due to their exposure to director Atlee’s primary reference material, it might work better for Bollywood audiences. It’s a relatively rare plot structure in Bollywood films, one that carries dense advice about elections, almost as if the protagonist is breaking the fourth wall and directly lecturing people to be responsible while voting.

Bridging Bollywood and Kollywood:

Director Atlee’s quirky humour and witty counters during serious scenes are more effective in Tamil than in Hindi. The language barrier was evident when comparing the film in Hindi and Tamil. Despite that, the director managed to incorporate some good references to widely popular songs and punchlines from Bollywood. The star cast is visibly diverse throughout the film, providing Bollywood with some of the best artists from Tamil cinema, even if not otherwise.

Although the idea of a “Corporate” villain is a banality in commercial Tamil cinema, where the protagonist fights against the capitalist and political structure, it is received and celebrated as a refreshing concept by the Bollywood audience. Commercial films like Kaththi, Mersal, Velaikkaran, and Thunivu have already elaborately discussed how crony capitalists and politicians exploit the people. The filmmaker carried the trope to Bollywood and started a conversation amongst many on how even commercial films can initiate social discussions. 

Women in Jawan

Director Atlee has redeemed himself by making Bigil, where the central protagonist goes on a saving spree with all the female characters, even adding a dialogue roughly translated to, “There definitely has to be a man (husband) behind the success of a woman.” From there, making a film with strong and properly represented female characters with their autonomy, character arcs, and dynamics is a true redemption for Director Atlee. Even in romantic scenes, the female characters weren’t sexualized or inappropriately approached by the male characters. There was no unwanted love-interest subplot amidst mentor-mentees. Atlee refined his craft in the least problematic ways in terms of gender sensitivity.

Unlike many “female-centric” films with top-tier male superstar casts, where male characters are glorified beyond necessity, maybe due to the star prioritizing what the script demands rather than his image, Jawan came off with dignified and brave portrayals of female characters. None of the women were equated with goddesses or characters from any holy books or even queens of India just because they were brave and fighting as equals to men. Women in Jawan weren’t used as plot-moving tools, existing only to be killed or violated by the antagonists (depicted in the most horrific manner with all graphics), which would give the “purpose” to the “hero” and carry the film forward. There wasn’t even a single weak female character in the film, making one wonder how such a bare minimum act looks so exceptional, given the repeated insensitive or voiceless portrayals of female characters in “mass/commercial” films.

Prison reform and alternative justice:

Alternative justice encompasses the ideas of transformative and restorative justice, in contrary to the punishment-centric retributive justice model. The pre-existing retributive justice model focuses more on punishing the guilty, rather than helping them transform their lives. Atlee in Jawan gave us a glimpse of how prisons can be in a healthy State, without being overcrowded or mentally distressing. Although it is an Utopian vision of the filmmaker, made for the aesthetics of the film, there are certain Socio-political and intersectional aspects the audience need to understand and study about prison structure. The panopticon structure is a microcosm of the larger nation in every way.

Atlee by reverting the gaze about prisoners and highlightly the grey areas in Justice gives the audience a glimpse at how prisons can facilitate the prisoners to process guilt and strive towards redemption. Atlee discussed how prisons can facilitate community help and support circles, where people can process their emotions. Superficially, the film also highlighted false imprisonments, police misconduct and political trials; how the media manipulates narratives for political motives. These are certain important aspects in alternative justice models which the filmmaker effortlessly introduced and discussed in Jawan.

Old Men and Cigars:

Maybe in 10-15 years, one can write an academic thesis on young directors’ obsession with redeeming a superstar’s career or humanizing them on screen without de-aging them, making the audience see them with all the vulnerabilities that come with age. Starting from Vikram (directed by Lokesh Kanagaraj), where Kamal Hassan started the trend of playing the role of a Secret-Op Leader who returns from retirement with his own team to avenge his son, to Jailer (directed by Nelson Dilipkumar), Rajinikanth, an ex-jailer, returns from retirement, forming alliances with ex-inmates of prison, to avenge his son and protect his family, the past 2 years have been filled with celebrations of “comebacks,” almost as if reminding who the giants of the industry are.

Jawan does almost the same, although SRK isn’t very close to retirement. All the traumas he was subjected to and the negative image created by the right-wing media against SRK made his fans look forward to a befitting comeback. Jawan, for sure, gives SRK that break. The older characters’ “Son! Let me show you how it’s done!” energy elevates the film when it’s most needed. The no-brainer trope gives the filmmaker poetic license to depict certain impossibilities, like lighting a cigar from an unexplainable source. Still, since the audience was conditioned and convinced that it’s a larger-than-life character, it is excusable. Only if one expects scientifically accurate sequences in a masala movie will they be disappointed or cringe hard.

Aesthetics like a Commercial:

The visuals in the film were more like they were shot for advertisements starring Shah Rukh, especially the songs. From set work to choreography, everything was well-planned, and the crew ensured that everyone looked great on screen in every frame. Somewhere, the “style above substance” was also used to deceive the audience into believing that something significant was happening in the film. However, it also had a downside – the songs were weakly placed throughout the film, at times with a very abrupt Jump-cut. 

The action sequences have some of the best-choreographed fights in Indian cinema, especially when Nayantara goes into hand-to-hand combat with Vikram Rathore (SRK). Every frame can be screenshot and be used as wallpaper, although they all would resemble frames from different movies across the globe. 

Taking the audience for granted?

Despite its great packaging, the film lacked an honest, strong, and original screenplay. Collectively the film was appealing, but there is nothing much exclusively to ponder about in it. When such template-based pastiche films become box office successes, they set a negative example of the audience’s taste. With no room for improvement, the producers and filmmakers will continue to blame the audience for the lack of growth in cinema while relying on the “screen presence” of superstars. The writing was weak and clumsy in terms of addressing social problems. It played it safe, remaining superficial and generic. It felt like a compilation of the best movie scenes from Tamil cinema, which worked well in other states.

Atlee is a master manipulator when it comes to making the audience invest in the film through themes of sadness and social injustice happening in India, from farmers’ suicides to corruption in army guns (which was the primary conflict in “Aarambam,” a Tamil movie). Whenever the film gets too preachy, Atlee introduces either a montage of victims – borderline trauma porn – or a gripping, edge-of-the-seat action sequence that makes the audience forget the film’s problems and loopholes. When a viewer finally develops an interest in the film, duets enter the scene like a speed-breaker. Although the film started off as an anti-establishment narrative speaking against corruption, it ended as an old-school revenge drama.


The film is a huge success in Bollywood since non-South-Indian audiences aren’t accustomed to a mass hero in a commercial flick discussing socio-political issues. It takes serious guts for an actor who is already being targeted by the ruling party to work in a film that draws references from the Gorakhpur hospital deaths in 2017 to the idea of selling votes for money. However, none of these positive aspects can completely absolve Atlee’s weakly written Hindi debut. It may be a commercial success and could have satisfied the fans, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for not acknowledging how it could have been better. With elections around the corner and media hyping the 2-minute monologue in the film, we never know what awaits the King Khan!

Arunesh X is a Research Scholar and Anti-Caste Activist from Puducherry. He is currently working on Alternative Justice, Cancel culture, Masculinities studies and Media studies. He is a translator, theatre artist, musician, filmmaker, and runs a non-profit forum for writers.