Niccolo Machiavelli, had he seen the new Indian blockbuster Jawan (Soldier) taking the world by storm, would be delighted that his key idea – of active citizenship in a republic – is at the heart of it. Machiavelli, admirer of Greeks and Romans, was convinced that citizens need to remain continually active and vigilant between the times they vote. Without this alertness and engagement in civic matters, there could be no enduring republic, and without such republican values there could be no true democracy. The American founding fathers took that lesson to heart well, as did the Indians when they named India a Democratic Republic. And in Jawan, the world’s biggest movie star Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) charismatically conveys this simple but powerful political message.
Having grossed $60 million in its first four days alone, the film presents Khan in his multiple avatars as the ultimate avenger of justice, humiliating ill-informed ministers, exposing corrupt and inefficient governments and crony capitalists, redistributing money to the most vulnerable, discussing agrarian distress and getting justice for those punished for speaking the truth. He does all this with SRK’s trademark charm and athleticism, becoming a hero of the masses in the film and in the theatres. He educates people about the stark inequalities that they choose not to notice, while thrilling them by outwitting the baddies.
True, it is a bit of a stylistic mash-up cinematically with over the top action sequences, romantic ballads and multiple roles for the hero. But that is to miss its real draw, which is the link to SRK’s own recent life. King Khan to his enormous fan base, he is the only star whose off-screen persona is as admired as the heroes he plays. But he is Muslim and lives in India where the dominant ideology of the Modi-led government is ‘Hindutva’ or Hindu majoritarianism, in a flagrant disregard of India’s constitutional commitment to religious diversity. Some years ago, Shah Rukh made mildly critical comments about the new vulnerability of religious minorities in India and for that he faced a virulent attack by right-wing trolls and his films faced boycott. He hasn’t made a political statement since, to the frustration of those who want all those in the public eye to take a stand. But despite his restraint, two years ago a government agency jailed his son, without a shred of evidence of the drugs they said he had carried. SRK is a doting father and talks of his children often. It was as if the government decided that punishing the most famous Indian Muslim by hitting him where it would hurt most would demonstrate their supremacy nicely.
SRK and his wife maintained a dignified silence through the ordeal but there was a huge outpouring of sympathy for them. Social media was flooded with anecdotes of his endless acts of kindness and plain decency over the years to technicians, junior journalists, younger colleagues and ordinary people. Women noted his impeccable chivalry even when no one was looking. Everyone praised his ready wit and intelligence. All agreed the arrest of his son was politically motivated. His lawyers did manage to have the young man released and the charges were dropped this year because of the complete lack of evidence. In response, rather than make a statement and again jeopardise a film that supports thousands of livelihoods, SRK did what he does best and Jawan is the result.
Minutes before the end of the film, before the audience walks away and their suspension of disbelief ends, SRK appears on the screen alone and talks directly to camera. Holding each viewer in his gaze, he chastises us for asking more questions about whether a laundry powder works than of the governments we elect. He reminds and admonishes the audience that they, the ordinary citizens, need to recognise they are the real superheroes, for they live in democracies and possess the vote which is their ultimate superpower. ‘Choose wisely’ he tells them – and once you have, keep asking questions. His unmistakable political message, like Machiavelli, is that democracy can’t be left to politicians without the constant vigilance of ‘active citizens’. The film is Indian, but this message is true for everywhere.
Message delivered, he goes back to one last breath-taking stunt in this high octane hugely fun film. The reaction to the film has been bonkers. SRK Fan Clubs have organised huge banners and celebrations in cinema halls across India and abroad. Audiences comes to watch the film with their faces wrapped in bandages and masks – the hero’s signature look. Shah Rukhs’s famous dance moves have been memorised and are performed wearing red shirts just like him and ‘with him’ during screenings. People are going back to watch it multiple times.
Why this hysteria? It is SRK’s huge draw of course, but also that people want to be told, by him, that they too can be heroic and vanquish the powerful by being active citizens and thinking hard about what kind of country they want to live in. Most of all, he communicates the truth about democratic politics and civic virtue in the language of emotion. Progressive politics too needs an emotional tug, something right-wing politics is adept at manufacturing, but which has been lacking on the centre-left in India and elsewhere. SRK shows a different way by confidently harnessing the love millions feel for him to make serious points, making his audiences feel good about themselves in the process, making the posing of difficult questions look sexy and charming, just like him. As Barbie and Oppenheimer showed, even lessons in feminism, hubris and moral confusion are best delivered with plentiful eye candy. Jawan takes that to another level.
Mukulika Banerjee teaches anthropology at LSE and her most recent book is Cultivating Democracy (2021).