Director: Rahul Dholakia
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Mahira Khan
Do you know Cyrano de Bergerac? The fictional character from an 1897 French play? He is a larger than life man with an oversized nose whose love story ends in tragedy. In the end, as Cyrano lies dying, he says that his enemies can take away everything from him – the laurel and the rose. But there is one thing that he will take 'unstained out of this world.' And that is his panache.
These words also hold true for a Gujarati bootlegger in the 1980s, who may or may not have been inspired by the real life gangster Abdul Latif. Raees is a brutal murderer but we invest in his journey – from a young boy who becomes a mule for the illicit liquor mafia to a reigning gangster who controls the booze trade – because Raees is played by Shah Rukh Khan. Wearing kajal and a swagger, Shah Rukh gives Raees flamboyance but he also imbues him with an inherent decency. This is a criminal who cooks for his wife. This is a don sentimental enough to get teary before he pumps bullets into his mentor.
Raees is a fascinating character who maneuvers his way to power in dangerous times. Director Rahul Dholakia and his co-writers, Harit Mehta, Ashish Vashi and Niraj Shukla, also create a memorable nemesis – a cop named Majmudar played with aplomb by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Majmudar pursues Raees relentlessly until the two men develop a grudging admiration for each other. This saga of hunter and hunted plays out like a souped-up 70s gangster film with furious background music, dialogue-baazi, frantic action and a killer item number with Sunny Leone. Rahul unabashedly pays homage to Salim-Javed and of course Amitabh Bachchan.
But Raees doesn't achieve the heft of those films because it never becomes more than the sum of its parts. In fact, the parts don't even connect organically. The screenplay is choppy and disjointed. At one point, Raees's wife declares that she is pregnant but she stays slim for several scenes afterward and then suddenly a baby appears. The narrative gets especially messy in the second half when Raees becomes a messiah of sorts and starts to build a housing colony. Despite many plot twists and dozens of characters, the screenplay stays inert. There just isn't enough excitement or tension as we trudge up to the predictable end.
The trouble is that Rahul is trying to create a gritty crime drama but he is also upholding the myth of the superstar Shah Rukh Khan. So the character must walk a tightrope and somehow be a noble badass. Which means that Raees kills but he only kills men who are truly nasty. He looks after everyone in the neighborhood. He even does the garba. It's a half-hearted attempt at villainy, which keeps the persona intact but doesn't serve the film. Mahira Khan is wholly vapid and the wonderful Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub is reduced to a side-kick. Sadly, despite the rich material, there isn't a scene here which rivals the devastating power of Parzania – which was also set in Gujarat and directed by Rahul.
The best way to enjoy Raees then is to manage expectations first. This is an uneven film. In places, you will applaud and whistle. But you might also find yourself utterly exhausted. Still, as the girl in Dangal so memorably put it: Shah Rukh ko na nahi bolte. Paap lagta hai.