Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan resumes his much-anticipated comeback with “Jawan” (Hindi for “Soldier”), a high-toned action-adventure about a well-meaning terrorist and his crack team of hostage-taking girls with guns.
Khan’s revival began a year ago with a prominent cameo in the otherwise meh mythofantastic superhero pic “Brahmastra Part One: Shiva.” Then in, January, he stormed the box office with the lead role in “Pathaan,” a manic spy thriller and the most recent installment in the Yash Raj cinematic universe. “Jawan” will probably delight Khan’s established fans, and maybe uninitiated viewers, too, if only because he’s comfortably playing the hits, now with somewhat greater conviction and a little more polish.
“Jawan” was produced by the star and his wife Gauri Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment production company, so it’s not surprising to see how well-worn and carefully navigated the movie’s contrived plot and conventional mood swings tend to be. This is a Shah Rukh Khan vehicle, and by now, that conjures certain formulaic expectations. Still, the makers of “Jawan” spend a little too much trying to convince viewers that we don’t really know Khan’s mysterious antihero, who, after an overproduced but still rousing flashback action sequence, takes a train-ful of commuters hostage.
Khan’s character, soon revealed to be Azad, the warden of a women’s prison, seemingly executes a woman in a burqa, all while wearing a goofy bald cap, which he soon rips off. Khan, in character, rasps out his expectations-flouting demands to the generically incensed negotiator Narmada (Nayanthara): get the Agriculture Minister to pay off starving farmers’ extortionate loans, or more people will die.
“Jawan” careens from one twist to the next, fast enough that it almost doesn’t matter how familiar and ultimately staid its story and set pieces often are. A few plot twists are also easy enough to anticipate. Azad romances Narmada and charms her impressionable ten-year-old daughter Suji (Seeza Saroj Mehta). He denounces various government officials and combats their corruption with a handful of bloody, media-amplified demonstrations. Azad speaks for the common people but behaves erratically, performing a little soft-shuffle dance surrounded by terrified commuters. He proudly and laboriously explains that he’s actually a good guy fighting the real enemy: public servants who do not serve the republic.
There’s an involved and agreeably goofy subplot that ties Narmada and Azad’s story with the movie’s opening scene, set 30 years prior in an unnamed village that may or may not be Tibet (somewhere near “India’s border,” terrorized by Asian soldiers in white star-studded green caps). If you’ve seen Shah Rukh Khan movies before, you won’t be especially surprised at how these two subplots tie together, though you may be delighted anyway. It’s a major plot twist that predictably takes over the back half of the plot and re-orients Azad’s plot so that viewers know that this time, unlike all the other times, it’s personal.
This time, there’s a nefarious weapons dealer, Kalee (Vijay Sethupathi), who is as malicious as he is violent. There’s also a surprise cameo from a big Bollywood star, whose presence isn’t really a spoiler if you pay attention during the opening credits. And be on the lookout for a duet dance number led by Khan and Deepika Padukone, who have great chemistry, possibly because they know that, by now, they don’t have to really compete for viewers’ affection. Oh, and a couple of the fight scenes are maximalist show-stoppers despite being over-edited and under-directed. Loud and rote, sure, but never boring.
The main reason “Jawan” doesn’t deliver more than what Khan has previously delivered is because its creators seemingly included every masala-style subplot they could think of. Still, “Jawan” is unlike Khan’s last two comeback trail stops because its creators are better at navigating its many hairpin twists and turns. Kudos to director Atlee, a former assistant director whose credits include the Rajinikanth vehicle “Enthiran” and its sequel “2.0,” and his creative team.
Most importantly, in “Jawan,” Khan looks more relaxed than in years past, toggling leisurely through his repertoire of tics and poses. He looks especially comfortable in undemanding musical numbers, and he still gives great Blue Steel looks every time he turns on a slow-mo heel to pout at viewers’ and/or co-stars. Shah Rukh Khan is still a star, baby, and “Jawan” uses him about as well as his fans might hope.
Khan even looks good delivering a corny but impassioned speech later in the movie. As Azad, Khan reminds us that he’s just like you and me, the apathetic public who, despite our best intentions, have not always exercised good judgment when voting for government officials. There’s a general election in India next year, and while the makers of “Jawan” could have otherwise taken bigger risks, their efforts are appreciated.
Now playing in theaters.