No matter where Rahul Gandhi goes these days, he speaks of love. In Washington, Brussels, Paris – you can see that he is passionately laying out his vision for the ongoing struggle: “opening an outlet for love in the marketplace of hate”.

One recurrent follow-up question has been whether the politics of love will be enough to counter the venom that has spread through the country. Perhaps his close ally’s son, Udhayanidhi Stalin, would disagree. Some diseases cannot be cured, he had claimed recently. “They have to be done away with.” While Gandhi’s politics is deeply influenced by India’s spiritual and philosophical traditions, Stalin Jr upholds the legacy of rationalism he has inherited.

In this battleground for India’s future, two filmmakers representing two very different filmmaking schools similarly sought out Shah Rukh Khan as a vehicle for their potentially opposing worldviews. The first, Sidharth Anand, represents the Yash Chopra school and showcases the politics of love. The second, Atlee, reminded us of popular Tamil films like Indian, Anniyan and Sivaji. He believes that we must destroy the chokehold of crony capitalism and corruption that reproduces a diseased nation.

If Pathaan is tentative about naming a dominant political ideology that threatens the nation, Jawan bypasses it entirely. The latter believes that a political dispensation held hostage by its capitalist “friends” will indulge in a performative rhetoric that distracts people from their own needs and interests. Where Pathaan is gentle with its despondent audience, Jawan wants to be a whiplash that will force people to notice the incongruence between their lived realities and the government’s self-congratulatory messages.

Khan’s Pathaan quietly grimaces when he hears of the government’s misplaced priorities, but, as Jawan, he will call the bluff of a politician demanding that he be shot so that he can prove the efficacy of the policy measures he has implemented. Pathaan was a counsellor, holding our hand as we worked through our issues, but Jawan believes we do not have time to wallow in self-pity. Pathaan is a healer, but Jawan would much rather that we cut off the infected limb that is rotten beyond repair.

Pathaan (2023).

In his last film, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Yash Chopra creates a documentary filmmaker who follows Khan – in his army officer avatar – around with a camera in tow. Towards the end, the filmmaker admits that she went in looking for a story about valour and, instead, encountered a love story. In Khan, Chopra had found a perfect medium to communicate his fervent belief that love can conquer all. Even beyond his lifetime, films produced under his banner build on this image – this myth.

The super spy Pathaan is a hopeless romantic who, despite being jaded and broken, cannot help but fall in love with his Pakistani counterpart. His love heals the operative who is herself dealing with childhood trauma and, together, they seek to protect humankind from a threat that is beholden to no nation or ideology. Pathaan even has empathy for the antagonist although he recognises that the latter is a lost cause.

In a nation saturated with messaging on Pakistan, Pathaan told the audience that he sees them and recognises their fears, but the threat they face does not emanate from the neighbour. The danger, instead, comes from within – the antagonist was afflicted with a kind of patriotism that can easily turn into destructive hate. According to Pathaan, patriotism is not something you possess – it is something you do.

Jawan is all about that action.

It is not clear if Jawan can exist without Pathaan, but it seems unlikely that Khan could have extolled its audience for political action before acknowledging their pain first. Khan’s Vikram Rathore and Azad have been hurt but they have not been, unlike Pathaan, beaten down. Where Khan’s recent struggles – his son’s wrongful incarceration – only form extra-textual knowledge in the first film, in Jawan, it is the main frame of reference.

Jawan (2023).

Much of the film is shot inside a prison and – lest the naive viewers miss the subtext – Atlee has several crowd-pleasing dialogue that drive home this point incessantly. The filmmaker has no use for the “myth” – Khan is as much a victim of government excesses as is Kafeel Khan (played here by Sanya Malhotra), another citizen unjustly imprisoned.

All the victims of the government must band together to save democracy, but this requires them to exorcise certain demons first. The nation must address the divisions that have allowed people to become apathetic and, consequently, vulnerable to manipulation by crony capitalists. Jawan tells us we may shed copious amounts of tears along the way, but we do not have time to heal right now. Those who are clueless about the backstory (Narmada played by Nayanthara) and those suffering from (political) amnesia (Khan’s Rathore) must be filled in and encouraged to join the struggle, but the antagonist will not be spared any mercy – not only is he executed, Azad mocks him as the lever is pulled.

Atlee still appears hyper-aware of the legacy of vigilante Tamil films. The executioner in Indian was a larger-than-life hero while in Anniyan, he is deeply disturbed. In both films though, the populace learns to self-discipline on account of fear alone.

Not only does Jawan steer away from instilling fear, he seeks to endear himself to everyone. Even if he is not a patron of love politics, he wants to be likeable. He does not so much fall in love as he decides to marry the mother of the child he has grown fond of. The child, obviously, is short-hand for the future of the nation – clearly something that has been plaguing his mind. Jawan is capable of love; this is just not the right moment.

The nation needs both these films and worldviews, that is, the politics of love and that of exorcism. But in what measure and in what form is, however, up for debate.

Rama Srinivasan is an anthropologist in Germany, was a Marie Curie Fellow at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and is the author of Courting Desire: Litigating for Love in North India.