Synopsis – Criticizing the prohibition of alcohol, prostitution and illegal drugs in Gujarat, this film unfolds the story of a cruel and clever bootlegger, whose business is challenged by a tough cop.
My Take – Finally, this much delayed gangster flick from director Rahul Dholakia has finally hit the screen! And it’s not alone, it brings back the memory of those great writers Salim-Javed blockbusters of the Seventies, where the hero grows up mid-action, breaks the tension and action sequences compel you to whistle. Director Rahul Dholakia who’s made off beat films till now including the national award winning film Parzania and the Sanjay Dutt starrer Lamhaa in 2010, marks his return to the big screen after seven years with an output that is a mixture of commercial heroism with some realistic touches. Here, he hits bulls’ eye by serving us a power packed entertainer filled with some terrific action sequences, fabulous songs, and fascinating high speed shots, which only adds to the impact of the film, both as a character and an overall film. However, despite being a Shah Rukh Khan fan, I cannot ignore the gaping flaws the film possesses. Yes, if you are planning to go for this one, it’s important to remember not to expect subtlety, mainly as the plot is not quite eccentric as we might expect. Remember those films from the 70s, which often had the protagonist playing an anti-establishment gangster with a heart of gold, who finally falls prey to a morally right cop’s obsession? This film is more or less the same plot all over again, but with superstar Shah Rukh Khan oozing his shades of grey & power house performer Nawazuddin Siddique displaying his righteousness with his usual doze of comic relief, this film ends up being one of one of the most thrilling & engaging gangster films released in recent times. The story follows Raees Alam (Shah Rukh Khan) who along with this best friend Saddiq (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) grows up in Fatehpura, Gujarat working as henchmen for a bootlegger named Jairaj (Atul Kulkarni) during the period of probation. Probation was the period when the sale of alcohol in Gujarat was illegal & anyone caught doing so could serve up to ten years in prisons. However, things take a turn when the two decide to leave Jairaj, much to his dismay, and establish their very own empire. Starting with a few hiccups, the empire grows rapidly mainly due to Raees’s intelligence & innovative methods in bringing in alcohol to the state. Hated by the police but immensely loved by his own people, Raees’s power gradually increases as he gets ministers & many other powerful people working for him. Raees even falls in love & marries Aasiya (Mahira Khan). However, everything good has to come to an end as an honest cop Majumdaar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) gets stationed at Fatehpur and decides to place all his efforts to thwart Raees & his competitors.
Thus begins a cat & mouse game between the two as Raees uses his strategies to outsmart the police again & again as Majumdaar gets incredibly obsessive about bringing him down & all those close to him by any means possible. Coupled with action, drama, thrill and dance all clubbed in one is what makes this film a massy entertainer. Yes, the film does manage to live up to the expectation set by the trailer, dialogues and songs that we have seen in the past few weeks, well almost. Director Dholakia, who wrote and directed the deeply affecting film Parzania, about a Parsi family caught in the midst of the Godhra riots of 2002, brings a thorough understanding of the times and the landscape the film is set in. Shah Rukh, meanwhile, who is also a co-producer on this project, seems clear about the tone he wants to take. The result is a mostly compelling drama that is fast paced, despite feeling over-plotted and bloated at times. The film’s first half is riveting stuff as we watch our anti-hero expand his enterprise on the strength of his quick thinking and sheer ruthlessness. It is precisely these qualities that make him such a magnetic figure, but post interval it feels as if the writers decided to trade his grey shades and blunt his edges to make him more likeable. By now Raees has become a messiah for his people, the mobster with a heart of gold, a staunchly secular humanist. The plot too slips into repetition and predictability, and characters like the corrupt chief minister and other venal politicians come off as caricatures. It is the presence of Nawazuddin Siddiqui, as Majmudar, an incorruptible police officer obsessed with taking Raees down, and the thrilling interplay between both men that keeps you invested despite these bumps. Exploiting his relationship with powerful political figures, Raees routinely thwarts Majmudar’s plans, but the cop remains steadfast in his resolve. The film is clearly intended as a piece of popular entertainment, which means that its politics—when in evidence at all—remain muted. In one notable sequence, a Hindu politician has taken out a yatra, and despite warnings from Raees, has decided to pass through his (Muslim) neighborhood. Raees and his followers end up attacking the procession. Swords are grabbed, people are set on fire. The political implications of what is, in all but name, a communal riot in Gujarat aren’t addressed; the incident is presented simply as a businessman protecting his turf. Later in the film, when Raees is distributing food during a curfew, one of his people suggests not sending supplies to Hindu neighborhoods until their finances are sorted out. He’s scolded by Raees, who asks why he’s bringing up religion now when he never thought of it while doing business with them. One of Dholakia’s smartest decisions is to treat the anti-hero as a cocky and industrious Gujarati who just happens to be supplying liquor rather than running an oil refinery. The beautiful line that commerce is in the very air of Gujarat and is therefore impossible to stifle doesn’t get the play it deserves. The Hollywood film American Gangster unflinchingly portrays its black drug smuggler as a crooked entrepreneur whose actions are shaped by embedded racism and white domination. The heroin supplier in American Gangster is no saint, but nor are his white competitors and the corrupt police officers who suck him dry. Here the character is more timid in its portrayal of its anti-hero as an alternative businessman of the year, one whose acumen and gumption might even find him a place in business school. Here is a character, who is a gangster and charges at right-wing political rallies with alcohol bottles and a flash-mob; here is a character stoically bent on making sure that his business doesn’t hurt innocents, an ideal that – actually – foreshadows that this is a character whose morals are bound to break by the end. The beauty is in the detailing, even if the big picture is banal. There is a lot of subtext and tons to bite into, in this film, sure there are no names taken, but the film has some relevant things to say about the identity politics of the time.
The amount of detailing in the production design of this film is a joy to absorb – we hardly get to experience the nuances of everyday Muslim living and culture in mainstream Hindi films. Rahul Dholakia‘s direction presents a keen eye for detail and world- building and it really aids the experience of the film. What the film also gets right is the humor and the tone. Here, a lot of dry humor to counteract the gore and the drama of the rest of the film, especially on part of Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s character. Sure, the film is overstretched and too much in thrall to the Indian gangster film formula, but Dholakia does try to use the past to comment on the present. The nexus between politicians and gangsters is age-old, but the scenes of communal riots in Fatehpura are from not very long ago. But as the narrative deepens, the classic Hollywood-style scripting falls prey to Bollywood-style loss of nerve as Dholakia and his writers (Harit Mehta, Niraj Shukla and Ashish Vashi) veer off course when they portray Raees as the good Muslim don (as opposed to Moosa, who is modeled on Dawood Ibrahim) and a Robin Hood who bleeds for his community. Ram Sampath‘s fantastic background score keeps up with the energy and pace of the film. His soundtrack too is catchy and serves as a breather between the heavy drama. Dialogues of the film have already garnered a lot of attention and accolades before the release, but the film has many more to cherish. K.U. Mohanan‘s cinematography manages to capture Raees like a King so much that as an audience, you are in an awe of him throughout the film. Even though there is nothing to complain about the edit by Deepa Bhatia, there exists an overall lag in the film especially in the latter half as its course is disturbed by the placement of songs. Not that I have anything against commercial masala films, but for someone who loves films like Deewaar and Scarface, I really hoped this film would stand along with them. I really wish the poster hadn’t overshadows the plot in the latter portions as Raees loses his grey shades to acquire the blinding glare of the angelic white. Yes, most of the time this not an intelligent film, but at the same time it is quite gripping to keep the viewer glued for most of the time. Ultimately, though, like always – this is a Shah Rukh Khan show through and through while making the film so very watchable! Here, Shah Rukh Khan delivers one of his most understated and enjoyable performances. The dripping surmaa as his eyes tear-up is an image that serves as a perfect synecdoche to the character’s journey and one that stays with you. He has romanced earlier, sang and danced earlier, fought earlier. However, this time around, he plays a sinner you can’t hate. Shah Rukh Khan, who has been playing romantic characters since ages, wears spectacles, kohl-rimmed eyes and a pathani to play a tough gangster and it is indeed refreshing to see that the Baadshah has lost none of his swagger despite crossing 50. When it comes to fierce intensity, no one can beat SRK and the King Khan proves this yet again here. As he did with another Khan vehicle, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui jumpstarts the film as soon he appears onscreen. There isn’t another actor in Hindi cinema right now with such a direct connection to the audience. We’ve seen incorruptible cops before, but they tend to be humorless and violent, but Siddiqui’s Majmudar is a hoot, driving a steamroller over rows of confiscated bottles and repeatedly asking for orders in writing from his corrupt superiors. The sheer pleasure of watching him and SRK banter like hero and villain is a delight to watch. The fact that Majmudar wants to destroy Raees despite having a grudging respect for him makes his character seem more disturbing and Nawaz owns it! Mahira Khan in her Bollywood debut is fairly okay. We missed the spark that is otherwise seen with the leading ladies that Shah Rukh Khan romances. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Atul Kulkarni and Narendra Jha are excellent in supporting roles. On the whole, ‘Raees’ is a well packaged 70s style nostalgic entertainer which despite its familiar tropes is worth watching for its captivating performances. This one is a treat for Shah Rukh Khan Fans.
Directed – Rahul Dholakia
Rated – PG15
Run Time – 155 minutes