The industry prefers a winning formula to creative exploration, particularly in big-budget films populated by rocking stars with fancy fees. Will that change from hereon with the success of ‘Jawan’? We have on offer a new path for Bollywood, a path that can use its huge and unrivalled soft power to drive home some significant messages of the kind and in a way it has rarely attempted in a big-budget extravaganza.
Shah Rukh Khan, also known as King Khan or SRK, is raking it in at the box office with ‘Jawan’. The movie opened last week and reportedly netted over Rs.350 crore by the weekend, said to be the biggest opening ever on record for a Bollywood movie. A career that some thought was in decline is back with a big bang. The SRK magic works this time with co-star Nayanthara, noted for her work across the southern Indian states, and Tamil cinema stars like Vijay Sethupati and the director Atlee Kumar, combining talent across the North and South into a package that appears to have been lapped up by the national audience. The producer company, Red Chillies Entertainment, describes the 2¾-hour-long movie in these words: “A high-octane action thriller which outlines the emotional journey of a man who is set to rectify the wrongs in society.”
Needless to say, a lot of it is typical Bollywood hyperbole. But the “wrongs in society” it highlights are very real, making ‘Jawan’ a bold venture with distinct political overtones that many would see as high risk in this particular political atmosphere, further heated by the upcoming elections. That the movie highlights the death of patients due to a lack of oxygen cylinders in a public hospital, the farmer suicides, bad deals for substandard equipment that fail our soldiers, the factories that pollute our water and air, or protection of select businessmen wheeler-dealers, is as real or as specific as it can get today.
In that, the movie goes beyond the general tirade against the ills of society, pictured usually in stereotypes of the rogue middleman, the corrupt politician, or the woes of everyday people as they struggle to get their due. ‘Jawan’ still has a lot of common nouns, of course, but proper nouns are in the air. In that sense, SRK and team have unhesitatingly opened real issues meshed within unreal drama, using escapist masala to serve burning political questions that many can see, many more can sense but few from Bollywood will dare ask in today's political climate.
Puts people on notice
It used to be the theory long ago that Bollywood works because vacuous song-and-dance was the one release from the misery of everyday living for millions. This changed over the decades, from the early romance stories and the rich-poor commentary to the angry-young-man, bolder romances, and then post-liberalisation with the arrival of low-cost productions that experimented with new themes. The changing times brought more modern-day issues to the big screen, like live-in relationships, LGBTQ+ rights and alliances, caste conflicts, “encounter” killings, the rural-urban divide, autism, loneliness, mental health. Many of the films over the years have had political messages and, in that sense, Bollywood was always political but in an indirect sort of way. It played mostly in safe territory – not many looked the establishment in the eye and spoke up with gusto.
This is a place known after all for song and dance, where the watchwords are entertainment and glamour. The industry prefers a winning formula to creative exploration, particularly in big-budget films populated by rocking stars with fancy fees. Will that change from hereon with the success of ‘Jawan’? We have on offer a new path for Bollywood, a path that can use its huge and unrivalled soft power to drive home some significant messages of the kind and in a way it has rarely attempted in a big-budget extravaganza. In that sense, the movie puts everyone on notice and opens new imaginations and possibilities of what Bollywood can do when it wades into hot political spaces.
Clear political messaging
One highlight of the movie is a speech that shows SRK asking citizens to pick who they will vote for after raising the right question: What will you, dear candidate, do for us, in the next five years? If someone in the family takes ill, what will you do for their treatment? What will you do to get me a job?
The message is to demand performance and delivery of service in areas of health, education, jobs, and not fall for distraction in the name of religion, race or caste. But these are exactly the questions and issues that are not in focus in the India of today, and posing them in a successful masala format gets them further to the masses than any medium possibly can. The delivery comes against a backdrop of electronic voting machines, framing the messages in the very live context of the 2024 elections.
None of this is a sophisticated delivery, or a critical examination of the complex political issues of our times. It is a baseline delivery but its significance is that it was delivered, and its success is in its wide reach, its slick package and its big questions. In that, it quite ironically matches the unsophisticated approach of those who have twisted the national agenda, changed the political discourse and now those who have come out with desperate calls to boycott the movie by drawing all kinds of connections – from the current controversy over remarks on Sanatana Dharma to Shah Rukh Khan’s recent visit to the Tirupati temple.
Expanded the space
The Hindi film industry is one place where the key currency is the quality of work and acceptance by the audience, never mind all that has been said in the name of the late Sushant Singh Rajput. Hindus, Muslims and all other faiths work here hard, and hand-in-hand, to take audiences into a dream world. It’s an efficient business machine that challenges you to prove yourself every day, however well you are connected.
The trick to making money and enjoying the ride is to challenge yourself, not challenge the political establishment. SRK’s ‘Jawan’ has just expanded that space to speak up. The effort deserves to be protected and nurtured and allowed to grow. The success of the movie is therefore good news, but it remains to be seen what will follow and how Bollywood can or will embrace this new road.
(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR, Mumbai. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press)