Dir: Atlee. With: Shah Rukh Khan, Nayanthara, Vijay Sethupathi, Deepika Padukone. 169 mins. Cert: 15
Chasing January’s crowdpleasing comeback Pathaan, here’s further confirmation of Shah Rukh Khan’s status as reigning, benevolent King of Bollywood. Where the earlier film expounded on established formula, Khan’s latest stretches its arms wider and demonstrates flickers of idiosyncratic vision. It’s properly pan-Indian: the emergent Tamil action stylist Atlee imports South Indian cinema’s characteristic rowdiness and social conscience, alerting the mass audience to pressing regional concerns, before apparently losing control over his material. A star vehicle that functions like a runaway train, Jawan covers a lot of ground in surprising fashion at full throttle – but that’s also a polite way of admitting it’s utterly all over the place.
Its surest organising principle is its lead, again shuffling knowingly and wittily through a range of personas. From his opening line (“who am I?”), Khan draws us into wondering what relation the bandaged warrior liberating a village in a prologue has to the gruff baldie laying siege to Mumbai’s metro and the prison warden clinging to a second chance at love. A one-man Cloud Atlas, it’s a puzzle movie where the star proves the puzzle, and a great showcase for Khan to play everything under the sun: godly, bad-ass, dandyish Army vet, total sweetheart with a prospective stepdaughter. There’s undeniably ego involved, but few stars in any cinema could model such radically diverse hats with this much flair.
Less smooth are the moving parts around him, a whirlwind of ideas good, bad and flagrantly pilfered that suggests this project would have benefitted from one script editor for every five Shah Rukhs. Atlee maintains a frenzied momentum – but he has to, lest we pause to consider the preposterous tosh this plot keeps pushing our way. Once our hero’s genesis is resolved, we’re left with another headscratcher: how a movie that features cinema’s lamest Matrix and Chris Nolan allusions could also generate a tremendous stretch of highway-bound carnage, as thrilling as anything Hollywood managed this summer. No more enduring than Pathaan in the Khan pantheon, I suspect – but a semi-fascinating display of star power, and a rollicking (if bumpy) Friday-night ride.
Jawan is now showing in cinemas nationwide.