With Dangal, Badhaai Ho and now Jawan, Sanya Malhotra has three uncontested blockbusters under her belt. This is incredible as is, and — given the diversity of her seven-year career — doubly so. Last week, a video went viral of Malhotra catching a show of Jawan at Gaiety Galaxy cinema in Mumbai, taking in the hysteria. When we meet her for this interview, she’s wrestling with her phone, trying to figure out a post on the latest collections of Jawan.
“It feels surreal,” she says happily. “When this first happened with Dangal, my debut film, I was still so new that I could not process it fully. But with this one, I am keenly aware of what is happening. I am enjoying myself.”
A lifelong Shah Rukh Khan fan — they share a Delhi University connection — Malhotra has encountered the superstar at close quarters before (“He smells so good,” she recalls her first impression from several years ago). Still, nothing prepared her for their first scene together on the sets of Atlee’s blockbuster. Khan, wrapped in bandages, his head in a bald cap, was reeling off pages of dialogue with effortless ease. They were shooting the metro heist sequence at the start of the film; Malhotra — along with Priyamani, Sanjeeta Bhattacharya, Lehar Khan and others — made up the six girls in Khan’s vigilante squad.
“All of us were surprised by how he looks good in everything… hair or no hair,” Malhotra laughs.
Later, while shooting another heist, Khan walked up to her and praised her performance in Love Hostel, the 2022 thriller he had produced under Red Chillies Entertainment. He also had some characteristic actorly wisdom to dispense. “He told me to always listen to my heart during a scene, which stayed with me. I am an overthinker and I guess he could sense it,” Malhotra says.
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Much of the euphoria around Jawan has centred on how unexpectedly political the film feels. Within the trappings of a commercial action entertainer, Atlee and co-writer S. Ramanagirivasan have managed to raise issues of farmer suicides, crony capitalism and medical corruption. Sanya’s character in the film, Eeram, is an upstanding doctor who is framed for dereliction of duty by the system. The storyline mirrors the case of Dr. Kafeel Khan in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, who was suspended over the death of 63 children and 18 adults due to a shortage of oxygen in a state-run hospital. After the film released on September 7, Dr. Khan posted a video on X (formerly Twitter) thanking the makers for highlighting his struggles.
Without confirming if Dr. Khan was the inspiration for her character, Sanya says, “I was aware of an incident like that and that made it even more real for me while I was shooting the film. It took me a few days to recover from what we were filming. I remember looking at Atlee sir and he was really happy with how it came out. But it was always (in my mind) that these things are actually happening out there in our country.”
She hopes Jawan will inspire other mainstream actors to be more vocal through their art. “Your politics is always on the forefront when you are choosing characters, isn’t it? Whether it’s movies like Kathal or Pagglait in my own filmography, these are issues I wanted to talk about. I may not be so good with words, but if you give me a script and a character I will be able to put a point across. It’s important because films inspire people and they are a reflection of the real world.”
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Another aspect of Jawan that has charmed audiences is its feminism. There is no dearth, in Indian popular cinema, of macho star vehicles pivoted on the upliftment of women (Atlee’s last film, Bigil, apparently inspired by SRK’s Chak De India, is a prime example). Jawan softens this trope through some equitable writing and a star who isn’t a saviour — if anything, in a key scene, it’s the girls who come to rescue him. The film exudes a feminism — frank, soft-centered — that SRK for many personifies in real life.
“I have seen so many of his interviews where he talks about feminism and I wish other men were also watching it,” Malhotra says. “On set, he would always stand up to greet a female co-star or technician. He treated us as equals. All of this is reflected in the kind of films he does, and how women are portrayed in his movies.”
In a recent interview with YouTuber Samdish Bhatia, former Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah praised Malhotra’s Netflix release Kathal: A Jackfruit Mystery. “I must be living under a rock,” Malhotra gasps, pledging to look it up. Even as the Jawan mania refuses to die down, she has completed two other films — Meghna Gulzar’s war biopic Sam Bahadur and Arati Kadav’s Mrs.. The latter is a Hindi-language remake of the acclaimed Malayalam filmThe Great Indian Kitchen, about the drudgery and humiliations faced by Indian women in patriarchal households.
Malhotra assures the remake will retain the original’s power. “It’s a film that really moved me and gave me sleepless nights as an actor. I met and interviewed a lot of women and what they have been through in a marriage. It’s a universal story and you cannot dilute what it has to say; I have full trust that Arati has made a beautiful film.”