Director Atlee Unpacks India’s Biggest Hit



Director Atlee‘s “Jawan,” starring Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, is the highest grossing Indian film of the year with $138.6 million. With 91%, it has also become the first Indian film to surpass the 90% level critics score on Rotten Tomatoes, above Karan Johar’s “Rocky aur Rani kii Prem Kahaani” (88%) and Khan’s own “Pathaan” (83%).

Atlee apprenticed with renowned blockbuster maker S. Shankar on “Enthiran” (2010), starring Rajinikanth, and “Nanban” (2012), starring Vijay, and made his directorial debut with Fox Star Studios’ “Raja Rani” (2013).

“Jawan” began in 2019 when Atlee received a call from Khan’s production company Red Chillies Entertainment requesting a meeting and initially thought it was a prank. It took a mutual friend – producer Aalif Surti (“Soorarai Pottru”) – to convince Atlee he wasn’t being pranked. Atlee met Khan at his Mumbai residence Mannat and realized that the star was serious about working together.

“Then I started working on it, I just tried all the best ideas I can put together. Then, in the process of eight months, we arrived at a line of one jailer and five women who are going to be vigilantes and take revenge while championing social causes,” Atlee told Variety. “We developed it in a couple of months, and we narrated to Shah Rukh-sir and he really liked it. And from there, the film started.”

“He asked let’s do a film, so it was like something else to me, I have to give the best to him. The film process was exclusively made for Shah Rukh-sir. So once he asked, I started to write a love letter to him and that is ‘Jawan,’” Atlee added.

What brought Atlee to Khan’s attention was a trio of blockbusters starring Vijay, “Theri” (2016), “Mersal” (2017) and “Bigil” (2019). “He was really keen after seeing these three films that I had something in my filmmaking process and in my film language. He said, ‘I want to do an Atlee film.’ I asked him ‘What is an Atlee film?’ and he said, ‘Having everything in the film, all kinds of entertainment,’” Atlee said.

“Jawan” follows Indian army commando Captain Vikram Rathore, who is wronged, and his son Azad (both played by Khan), a jailer who reunites with his father after years of separation to right the wrong and also correct social injustices. The cast also includes Tamil-language cinema superstars Nayanthara and Vijay Sethupathi.

Khan debuted in television in 1988 and in films in 1992. Prior to finalizing the “Jawan” script, Atlee and his writing team watched the actor’s entire oeuvre spanning more than 30 years. “We had a thought, this vigilante world he has not tried. And the father role he has done in ‘Veer-Zara’ [2004], but it’s not that massy, it was very script oriented. I want to create a massy world for Shah Rukh-sir, I wanted to bring the massy-ness of Shah Rukh-sir, which he has not exploded for the last 30 years. He has done dramatic roles, he has even done action roles and he has done a Bourne-like role in ‘Pathaan,’ he has done all genres, but he has never tried the mass zone, mass touch,” Atlee said.

In terms of process, Atlee, who is from the world of Tamil-language cinema, wrote the entire script in Tamil as the cast and crew was largely from that industry, with Khan’s portions translated to the Hindi-language. The language of communication with Khan was in English. Any apprehensions Atlee had vanished the moment they started shooting, he said, and the cast and crew fell into a rhythm from the get go.

The filmmaker says that his star was initially very fond of the role of Azad but when they started shooting Vikram Rathore he enjoyed it even more. “He was like an innocent kid on the set, enjoying every moment. Once we started shooting Vikram Rathore, he said, ‘This is something I’ve not done, it really excites me.’ All the mass moments of Vikram he really enjoyed and said he’s not done this in 30 years and that is the world I tried to create,” Atlee said. “That’s the word I think most of this part of cinema has not seen for some time. I think it’s been done before, but in the recent 20-30 years, it is not done here. So, I think that is the magic behind the success of ‘Jawan.’”

“Shah Rukh-sir said when we met for the first time, ‘I am bringing you from from the place where you are very successful. Once you come here, you have to be the most successful director in the country and you have to be talked about.’ So I said ‘Sir, we will see.’ He said, ‘No, no, that is our first aim and then we will see where the film goes.’ So it is completely Mr. Shah Rukh’s vision to make this film this big,” Atlee added.

About the possibility of “Jawan,” where the principal characters remain alive, being extended into a franchise, Atlee said: “Generally all of my films are in that zone. But as a writer, I’ve never needed to get into those shoes. Maybe in future when I get a really cracking idea, I might come up with something for sure.”

An extended cut of “Jawan” is now streaming on Netflix.


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