Sholay (1975)’s famous angrez ke zamaane ka jailer is now history. Inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s turn as Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940), the role was played to comedic perfection by character actor Asrani. Jai and Veeru, played by Amitabh Bacchhan and Dharmendra respectively, use his ego and gullibility against him to stage their escape in one of the most memorable sequences in Indian cinema. This definitive depiction of the jailer, however, has noticeably shifted in the last few months.
Interestingly, two of the biggest releases this summer feature megastars playing jailers. Nelson’s Jailer (2023), starring Rajnikanth, is about a retired jailer revealing his power and influence after his honest police officer son goes missing during an investigation. Atlee’s Jawan (2023), meanwhile, features Shah Rukh Khan’s Azad as an IPS officer who was born in a women’s jail and grows up to not only become its jailer but also instrumental in reforming its conditions and inmates.
The depiction of these ageing stars and their relationships with the inmates of their respective jails says much about the state of masculinity in our society today. Rajnikanth’s Muthuvel Pandian is a retired police officer, meek to a fault, staying home and spending time with his family. The disappearance and suspected death of his son forces him to investigate, bringing the history of his professional life as Tiger, the tyrannical jailer of the Tihar Jail, back into focus. The de-aged actor is shown in a flashback to have run the jail and its dangerous (male) inhabitants with an iron fist, violently punishing anyone who dared to even question his authority.
Interestingly, two of the biggest releases this summer feature megastars playing jailers.
The jail becomes a space to contain men who have fallen afoul of the law; whose transgressions no longer make them deserving of any law but the jailor’s equally merciless brand of justice. This is reflected in the rest of the film, where the most hardened of gangsters are forced to bend the knee to his ruthlessness and reputation, as the 73-year-old coasts through the action film by the strength of sheer attitude and swagger, making it difficult to notice that most of the physical violence and stunts are left to his underlings and adversaries.
The depiction of these ageing stars and their relationships with the inmates of their respective jails says much about the state of masculinity in our society today.
Azad, on the other hand, has a much more intimate relationship with the space of the prison. Born in a jail, and raised surrounded by its women and their concerns, he is armed with his mother’s dying wish to regard all its inmates as being unjustly incarcerated like she was. Having never met his father (the army man Vikram Rathore, also played by Khan, who is presumed dead for much of the film) Azad’s entire idea of him is formed from what he was told of his heroics. His formative years in the prison and then with his adoptive mother – the female jailer Kaveri Amma – become the bedrock for the man he becomes and what is made of his masculinity.
Azad, on the other hand, has a much more intimate relationship with the space of the prison.
The result is the quintessential Shah Rukh Khan character we have come to love. This is the fantasy that the working women in Shrayana Bhattacharya’s Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh look towards in the wake of their unequal relationships with the men in their lives. Azad is an expansion of the fantasy: every woman in the prison becomes an extension of his mother; his every interaction with them an expression of kinship. His mission inextricably becomes both retribution for himself and his ‘girls’, and a crusade for societal reformation. The personal and political become enmeshed in this idea of masculinity that insists on female presence and solidarity.
This is far from the logic that Jailer operates on. In the absence of his son, Muthuvel Pandian’s return to his totalising personality as a cop extends to his family, who are first sidelined and then all-but-forgotten by the end of the film, after it is established that they cannot be used as leverage against him. Pandian’s crusade, then, hinges on the son, who turns out to be alive but held captive by the antagonist. This too collapses with the revelation that his son was seeking the gangsters himself to take a cut from their earnings. The honesty and integrity that the jailer had instilled in his son–which is what made him feel responsible for what happened to him–is exposed as having been corrupted by the same toxic masculinity and history of wanton violence that characterises Pandian’s history as a police officer. His uncompromising ethics leave no option but for the uncompromising Pandian to kill his lawless son, when the latter refuses to turn himself in to the authorities for his actions.
The result is the quintessential Shah Rukh Khan character we have come to love.
This link is curiously missing in Jawan, which is also constructed along the lines of the ‘mass’ film as it exists in Tamil and Telugu cinema. The sheer force of how Khan is presented as the star at its centre necessitates that the swashbuckling, brooding, and hypermasculine nature of the ageing heroes that populate the populist entertainers of the South be syphoned off to the character of Vikram Rathore. (This is a trick that Rowdy Rathore (2012) also attempted to pull off with Akshay Kumar, who played a cop of the same name.) Rathore might not remember who he used to be but retains a “muscle memory” of the skills he developed in service of the nation. His amnesia, then, becomes a convenient way for the film to aestheticise his relish for violence, grandstanding, and asocial bravado, leaving Azad to embody the beta male ideal Khan is known for. The ideals of Azad’s utopic jail- and community-driven change therefore repeatedly end up needing to be rescued by the military and statist might that Rathore represents.
It is perhaps fitting to end by comparing Pandian and Rathore to another retired enforcer of the law, Sholay’s Thakur. They are all patriarchal figures whose relentless pursuit for justice leaves little room for empathy, wrecks personal relationships, and ends in little but tragedy and isolation. But while Thakur brings in the much younger Jai and Veeru to capture Gabbar, Jailer and Jawan repeatedly stage returns for Pandian and Rathore to save the day. In the crisis of ageing male stars and theatres struggling to maintain footfalls post the pandemic, hangs the tale of how masculinity is being reshaped by popular cinema and its addressing of the aspirations of society. As we continue to navigate the complex terrain of gender roles, these cinematic narratives encourage us to question how we receive what it means to be a man in our nation today.
In the crisis of ageing male stars and theatres struggling to maintain footfalls post the pandemic, hangs the tale of how masculinity is being reshaped by popular cinema…
Watch the trailer for Jawan here: