Director: Rahul Dholakia
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Mahira Khan
Raees is a protagonist that isn’t villainous enough to despise, isn’t large-hearted enough to root for, and isn’t misguided enough to feel sorry for. His aura, too, is kohl-lined like his eyes – everything is presented in broad aggressive strokes, including his robotic swagger, finely trimmed wisps of lion-beard, token Gujarati phrases and signature spectacles. Each of them screams out: this is ‘badass’ Shah Rukh Khan, the cool and stylish gangster, the natural descendant of Darr and Anjaam, and this is different because he isn’t the good guy. Unfortunately, though, he is still the ‘hero’. And in Hindi films, this is often more self-aggrandizing than being the good guy.
So you have a director wanting dramatize the legend of a murderous bootlegger (Abdul Latif), and you have producers yearning to humanize this chap to accommodate the effeminate strengths of their in-house superstar. And this is precisely how inconsistent, how painfully functional, Raees is. On one hand, you see Khan doing his snarling Josh-meets-Don impression, and on the other you see a middle-aged Rahul aching to open his arms and show you the omnipresent glycerin in his eyes.
Therefore, Raees ends up as a film that is just about mediocre enough to pass off as “mainstream” – a euphemistic term used to justify dated plots, simplistic caricatures, incessant hamming, pulpy 70s hangovers (I blame Sriram Raghavan and Balaji Telefilms), unauthentic dialects, venomous background scores, redundant heroines and underutilized talent.
Within the first few minutes, we are made infinitely aware of the character that plays Khan. Or, wait, is that the other way around? Maybe not. A proud Muslim mother (Sheeba Chaddha; wasted) tells her weirdly driven kid that ‘no work is too big or small’ – a proverb that he misinterprets as ‘be a criminal in prohibition-laden Gujarat, as long as you don’t hurt people’.
Soon, the Chinese whispers in his adult brain turn the phrase into ‘kill anyone you don’t like, as long as you believe in secularism and Hindi-Muslim bhai-bhai Aman ki Asha.’ To display his anger management issues and killer instincts, we see him slay a few goons here and there. But to reinforce his inherent nobility, we see him walk away dazed and confused from these bloody battles. It’s all ‘dhandha,’ we’re repeatedly told, and made to wonder why the rousing ‘Gurubhai Gurubhai Aavya Chhe’ chants have evolved into the quasi-techno idiocy of ‘Enu Naam Chhe Raees’. One is also somewhat disappointed that the writers didn’t grab the opportunity to slip in a cheeky ‘drinking is injurious to wealth’ disclaimer.
On one hand, you see Khan doing his snarling Josh-meets-Don impression, and on the other you see a middle-aged Rahul aching to open his arms and show you the omnipresent glycerin in his eyes.
The Robin Hood of Fatehpura breaks away from his greedy mentor (Atul Kulkarni), monopolizes the illegal-alcohol market in a rather Chopra-Sharma (Baazigar fans only) manner, before starting a cat-and-mouse game with super-cop Jaideep Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui; a Godsend) – an equation that the writers will have you believe is far cleverer than it looks. Block the bridges, and we’ll take the boat; block the highways and we’ll do something ridiculous enough to distract you with a romantic song showcasing a pretty woman who only exists for these interludes.
At some point, she is declared pregnant, and only a full year later, a post-interval scene acknowledges the rare scientific miracle of a post-mature newborn baby.
But the baby and his mother aren’t important. Raees is. Hence, an Uttarayan (kite-flying) sequence is inserted only so that he can rock the post-modern dialogue interpretation of Agneepath’s ‘hawa tez hai, topi sambhalo’: don’t fly too high (insert symbolic kite-in-sky shot), or you’ll be cut to size (insert kite destroying villain kite).
Naturally, a Dandiya sequence immediately follows – forget that Navratri is actually eight months later – because it is Gujarat and moviegoers are tired of Delhi stereotypes. Gandhi and Garba must find a place. To the makers’ credit, I saw no dhoklas.
Soon, he becomes a corrupt politician, no doubt causing plenty of chaos and unforced errors (read unnatural deaths). He has the chief minister and his crony running scared – depicted by them perpetually and urgently walking together, in corridors and rooms, narrating the plot’s happenings and mouthing gritted-teeth variations of ‘We must eliminate this Raees!’ But whenever we doubt his psyche, he is shown leading a gang of local women, in between standing up to the ills of communal terrorism.
Shah Rukh Khan is ostensibly so obsessed with maintaining a balance between the Salman Khan brand of cinema – which he is too smart for – and the Aamir Khan brand of cinema – which he is too self-aware for – that he has forgotten to be the effortless bridge that connects these stark worlds.
This constant tug of war, I suspect, isn’t thematic as much as it is an exhausting pull between two perilous spectrums of Khan’s own career. Because he is, in every way possible, at the crossroads. What we see on screen is sort of an existential crisis distilled into the realms of lowbrow commercialism, eons away from every writer’s favourite intelligent, witty and charismatic interviewee.
Shah Rukh Khan is ostensibly so obsessed with maintaining a balance between the Salman Khan brand of cinema – which he is too smart for – and the Aamir Khan brand of cinema – which he is too self-aware for – that he has forgotten to be the effortless bridge that connects these stark worlds. He is neither the populist superhero, nor the visceral inventor, and the everyman star he ends up impersonating is every bit an idol seeking lost worshippers. He expresses himself on screen as if he were trying to prove a point; his pursed-lip crying and throaty baritone bear the signs of a conflicted artist trying to act the hell out of every frame.
It’s truly a pity Fan didn’t work at the box-office. Its success would’ve perhaps kept Khan exploring and experimenting, trying and occasionally thrilling, instead of sitting on his throne and surveying the lowest common denominator of entertainment.
This film is nothing more than a misdirected medium for him to retreat back into the warm embrace of star-driven vehicles. The ‘prohibition’ theme is just a sales pitch; it could have been a child-trafficking business and we’d still be none the wiser. The geography, I fear, is surface-level and more than merely incidental, given the whims of the current ruling government.
You’d think a role like this one lends itself to bravery and riskiness, but this is probably the safest risk ever taken. The truth is: I’ve seen it all before. I’ve seen Chennai Express. I’ve endured Dilwale. I’ve watched Happy New Year. But there wasn’t a moment in Raees when I winced and thought: hey, you’re better than this. Because, honestly, I don’t know if Shah Rukh Khan is better – or even good – anymore.