In Jawan, sparks fly as a megawatt movie star meets a hugely confident director. Atlee’s guts-and-glycerine saga has big names from the Hindi and Tamil industries, a crowd-pleasing theme of vigilante justice, slickly filmed action set pieces, snarky humour and earnest social messaging topped by Shah Rukh Khan in peak charismatic mode.

Just to be amply sure, Atlee and co-writer S Ramanagirivasan throw in a couple of effective cameos, nods to Khan’s back catalogue and at least one fluffy dog. And did we mention the computer-generated cheetah?

The cheerfully nonsensical plot revolves around corruption in high places, orchestrated by a criminal mastermind who has a Marathi name, Kaali Gaekwad, but speaks Tamil-accented Hindi. Azad (Khan) and his posse of six women set out to thwart Kaali (Vijay Sethupathi), earning themselves the tag of public enemies and the attention of government officer Narmada (Nayanthara).

Narmada oozes purpose but cannot dodge the contrivances placed in her path by Jawan’s makers. Like the heroine of the Khan starrer Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Narmada tirelessly chases Azad but fails to recognise him when he is standing by her side. Those puppy-brown eyes? That distinctive schnozzle? Like Azad’s avenging angels, Narmada too turns out to be only the latest fan of the movie’s over-achieving superhero.

Nayanthara in Jawan (2023). Courtesy Red Chillies Entertainment.

Azad isn’t just an untiring messiah who speaks up for stricken farmers, victims of a crumbling health care system and disgruntled voters (at least one of his missions is subversive, given the current political climate). Azad is a feminist too, Jawan will have you know.

His biggest supporters are adoring women, played by actors including Priyamani, Sanya Malhotra and Sanjeeta Bhattacharya. There’s a neat circularity between this movie, Chak De India!, in which Khan played a coach who leads a women’s hockey team to unlikely victory, and Atlee’s Tamil-language Bigil, in which a coach leads a women’s football team to unlikely victory.

A movie with a male savior is often cringe-worthy. However, Khan’s screen image – expansive, suffused with love, heroic in an old-fashioned way without being aggressively macho, irreverent but also sincere – helps sell a conceit that might have crashed with any other actor.

Jawan (2023).

Fleet despite its 169-minute runtime, with sequence after sequence designed to draw whistles as well as wring out tears, Jawan deftly leaps from one incredulous moment to the next. Atlee’s skill at demanding that we suspend disbelief in exchange for an all-round entertainer is most evident in his handling of his leading man. If the other cast members don’t stick, it isn’t for lack of trying.

Deepika Padukone has a superb cameo, with her character Aishwarya displaying more of a frisson with Khan than the neglected Narmada does. If Nayanthara is less than impressive in her Hindi language debut, it’s hardly her fault.

The brilliant Tamil actor Vijay Sethupathi too makes for a feeble arch-villain. Kaali says a lot of mean things and acts on them too, but Sethupathi’s boredom is evident. It isn’t his show, after all.

Vijay Sethupathi in Jawan (2023). Courtesy Red Chillies Entertainment.