Caution: Spoilers ahead about Jawan.

Since Shah Rukh Khan’s Jawan was released on Thursday, it has already totted up huge box-office earnings. The vigilante drama stars Khan alongside Nayanthara, Vijay Sethupathi and Deepika Padukone in a cameo. Jawan’s director, Atlee, has previously directed four movies in Tamil, which include the hits Theri (2016), Mersal (2017) and Bigil (2019), all starring Vijay.

Jawan’s success is being attributed to its status as a “mass entertainer”. This phrase is usually associated with Tamil and Telugu cinema. The feeling among trade analysts is that the Hindi film industry, which has been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, needs the “mass movie” if it has to continue to attract audiences and keep A-list stars in circulation. But what is this mass movie, and how is it different from the “masala movie”, which is what we call the all-purpose entertainer? Another way of asking the question is, what distinguishes Jawan from Khan’s previous hit this year, Pathaan?

For answers, we turned to Baradwaj Rangan, the Chennai-based critic who is editor-in-chief at the website Galatta Plus. Rangan began his review of Jawan by saying: “In the same year, Shah Rukh Khan gave us a masala movie with Pathaan and a ‘mass’ movie with Jawan.

In an interview with Scroll, Rangan deconstructed the mass movie, analysed filmmaking conventions in Hindi and Tamil cinema, and discussed the important role played by fandom. Here are edited excerpts.

How do you define the mass movie as opposed to the masala movie, especially in the context of Jawan?
I use the term masala to denote a movie that is like a regular film, but it’s heightened. It’s a home-grown genre derived from our myths. If you look at our epics, they are full of contradictory things put together, a bunch of many flavours – romance, the affection between brothers, what we call “Amma sentiment” [the mother figure]. When we started making movies, these elements were always there.

For me, Pathaan is a masala movie. Deewar is a masala movie, where you have a mother and brothers on either sides of the law and a realistic social drama, but the emotions are heightened. The dialogue is very precisely sculpted and shaped, it’s not like real conversation. Scenes are built up just to get that punch dialogue.

Sholay is a great masala movie, but it’s not a random, all-flavours movie, it is very carefully constructed. Gadar is for the most part a masala movie and then it becomes a mass movie.

Jawan is a mass movie with 10% of masala, in the scenes featuring Deepika Padukone. In Jawan, there is a scene in which a man is coming out of jail in his underwear. You wonder about the continuity of that scene.

You usually set something up and then you wait for the pay-off. That is completely removed in a mass movie. Why does Nayanthara fall for Shah Rukh? No idea. But there is a song, and the song is all that matters.

Nobody wants movies to be real all the time, we want escapism. But even a masala movie has an emotional foundation. The mass movie goes far away from anything connected to reality. I need to show Nayanthara and Shah Rukh in a song, and I need to get them together in a fairly new way. So instead of getting her to meet him, I will use the kid. Let’s keep throwing things at the audience in the hope that something sticks.

Baradwaj Rangan reviews Jawan.

Some of the elements of the mass movie are a hero who’s middle-aged or approaching middle age, a samurai/ronin-like figure who has a back story typically revealed through flashbacks, a slow-motion introduction, anthemic songs, toothless villains. What am I missing?
Masala movies had these big highlights that would be built up. Now the highlights have become the movie. The mass movie is a mass of punchlines, punch scenes, punch this and punch that.

Mass films remove the connective tissue and are just hero worship vehicles. Why should I do the set-up and pay-off when I can just show you the highlights? This has existed for a long time in Tamil and Telugu films. Recent films like Pushpa: The Rise and K.G.F have mass elements. But the mass film is one step removed from even such films.

Salman Khan’s Dabangg is a solid masala movie, with a cause and effect. For example, Salman’s mother dies of breathlessness when an inhaler isn’t given to her. The villain is asphyxiated. Masala films carefully build all these parallels. But when you watch Kick or Ready, these are mass movies – Salman movies for the sake of Salman movies.

In Atlee’s Mersal, there is a scene in which Vijay lands up at an airport in France in a veshti. Two seconds later, he is dancing in jeans.

Mersal (2017).

At this moment, I want to give you a punch or a high. I don’t care about character or narrative continuity. If you get a high in this moment, I have got you. I want to get to a song really fast, so let’s cut out the build-up to the romance. So it’s the masala movie with all the connective tissue cut off.

It’s post-modern, but not consciously so. There is no effort to deconstruct anything. It’s not like a masala movie can’t have mass moments, or a mass movie can’t have masala moments. It’s a porous line that keeps getting crossed.

What is the role played by fandom in creating the mass movie?
The mass movie is a fan service mechanism, to give audiences the stars they have come to see. But to get to that level of hero elevation or hero worship, you have to have been around for a while.

You can’t have someone like Kartik Aaryan doing this, since he hasn’t developed that kind of fan base yet. Vijay, Shah Rukh, they have earned this fan base.

Nowadays, a movie is a hit if you get back 50%-60% through theatrical business. That wasn’t the case earlier. The theatrical business was what mattered and determined stardom. Unless people bought tickets and saw the stars in theatres, they would not have been stars. It will be interesting to see how stars come up in the new eco-system, because traditionally all our big stars are theatre-created stars.

How did the mass movie come into being?
I was talking to a filmmaker and we were trying to trace the origins of the mass film, because masala films always existed. When did this mass movie begin? It can’t be attributed to Amitabh Bachchan. Those movies built up to their moments. At what point did the connective tissue get cut off and we were left with highlight reels?

I’m not sure you can trace this genre to Rajinikanth – his films like Baasha, Padayappa and Annamalai are masala films. They have a proper arc, you feel for these people on the screen. Somebody doesn’t just erupt into a hero. Rajinikanth’s recent films, though, have mostly been mass films, like Jailer.

Jailer (2023).

In Atlee’s Bigil, when the senior Vijay dies, he dies next to an ATM. Only Atlee can answer whether it’s only an ATM or this moment is a reference to Vijay’s Azhagiya Tamil Magan, which was called ATM. This is purely fan service.

There are certain directors who want a back story, and others who say, cut the crap, cut the flab, let’s just go straight to the fan service. I want a sentimental scene, a romantic scene, a cute scene, with everything connecting back to the hero

Atlee embodies the mass movie, in a way. Lokesh Kanagaraj is trying to do masala films, he is trying to tell stories. Like in Master, the villain played by Vijay Sethupathi has a huge back story. What is the back story to Sethupathi’s villain in Jawan?

The mass movie is also a way for aging heroes to survive – a kind of rejuvenation pill. But they might become traps for movie stars, as appears to be the case with Rajinikanth and Salman Khan.
Today, the star is finding a new way to connect with younger audiences by giving them a flavour of their stardom. It is a kind of rejuvenation, as well as a calculated move by directors to showcase the hero so that the hero worship that has always been a part of Indian cinema is even greater. I am going to see a Rajinikanth movie – cut the crap and give me Rajinikanth.

How do you make yourself relevant to a new, attention-deficit generation? They might look at, say, Shah Rukh’s Baazigar, and say, why is the film so long¸ why is the mother crying? Dunki will be a big test for Shah Rukh. I knew that Jawan would make huge numbers because Atlee really has the pulse of the audience. But Rajkumar Hirani’s films have a very different flavour.

Jawan (2023).

Mass movies are nearly always associated with male stars. Where is the place for women in this kind of film?
There is very little place. Women exist either as arm candy or as nominal characters.

In Jawan, if you look at Nayanthara’s character arc, there is really nothing that she does that showcases her strength. She does strange things, like agreeing to marry a man she hardly knows.

Mass movies are not meant for women at all. Deepika’s character in Jawan is there only to give the hero a back story, to say, why this man is this way. Mothers and wives are dispensable, there for the romance or sentiment factor. Like Ramya Krishna in Jailer literally has nothing to do. You could have taken her out of the movie and it wouldn’t have mattered.

Also read:

‘Jawan’ review: A rousing guts-and-glycerine saga

What dubbed films can teach Bollywood: Movies must be ‘larger than life, have mass appeal’

‘The death of Bollywood is exaggerated but…’: An industry expert shares his insights