Shah Rukh Khan in Jawan
Image Credit: IMDB

Indian movie megastar Shah Rukh Khan has once again barnstormed Bollywood with his high-octane action flick Jawan, part of a wider revival of the flop-strewn Hindi-language film industry that has struggled since the Covid pandemic to win back audiences.

Opening on Thursday, Jawan (or Soldier) set a new Bollywood box office record with a 750 million rupee ($9 million) collection worldwide. It will be the second mega post-pandemic hit this year featuring Khan, whose films continue to defy concerns that Bollywood and its urbane jet-setting stars and directors based in the financial capital Mumbai were failing to cater to Indian audience tastes, ceding ground to action-packed epics from southern India.

First show review

Even before its opening day, advance bookings for Jawan looked "extremely encouraging" with wider box office collections contining to rise, a signal "movies are doing well," Deep Shah, a research analyst at Mumbai-based B&K Securities, wrote in a report earlier this week. "The Bollywood bandwagon continues to fly high."

What is Jawan about?

The fast-paced thriller stars Khan in multiple roles as a soldier, romantic lead and Robin Hood-type figure who takes on corrupt politicians and businessmen. Playing out over nearly three hours, it features over-the-top action and song-and-dance sequences that are standard Bollywood fare. One critic in the Indian Express newspaper called it a "pop-masala banger" playing out a familiar "vigilante-forced-into-taking-on-the-bad-guys" story line. "What lifts Jawan's pushback against the 'system' is the cockiness, and knowingness."

Is it Bollywood's biggest-ever blockbuster?

Pathaan, another action-packed thriller released earlier in 2023, also broke Hindi-cinema records and marked the return of Khan to the screen after a five-year hiatus. The king of Indian cinema didn't disappoint, drawing in 570 million rupees on its first day. Jawan has already eclipsed that amount. Local media has reported that some 30 single-screen cinemas in India's Hindi-speaking north which shuttered during the pandemic reopened to show Jawan. Khan, who before this year starred in a number of lackluster releases, said he was "overwhelmed" by the reception to the film.

Who is Shah Rukh Khan?

Born in 1965, Khan grew up in a middle-class Muslim household in New Delhi and was 14 when his dad, a businessman who fought against British rule and came from what is now northern Pakistan, died, leaving his magistrate mother to bring up Khan and his elder sister. After starring in television commercials in the 1980s, Khan won wider stardom as a boyish and sensitive heartthrob in a string of 1990s romantic hits, including Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Since then he has featured in almost 100 films and is now a major businessman, owning a production house and an Indian Premier League cricket team. Khan has used his fame to express concern about a growing climate of intolerance in India and like many of Bollywood's cosmopolitan and Muslim leading actors, the star and his family have been subjected to pressure and harassment from hardline Hindu-nationalist groups, including members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party.

How big is his appeal?

While other actors Khan's age have been sidelined or recast as supporting roles, the 57-year-old "- who boasts of washboard abs "- continues to be cast as one of Bollywood's enduring leading men. Crowds gather each day outside his coastal Mumbai mansion hoping to catch a glimpse of the Indian heartthrob. His ancestral home in the Pakistani city of Peshawar also attracts tourists.

Economist Shrayana Bhattacharya's recently published non-fiction book Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh examines the massive appeal of Khan and his films to emphasize the barriers women face in India. His fandom spreads way beyond domestic borders thanks to South Asia's huge diaspora, and he even has an orchid named after him in Singapore.