Shahrukh Khan’s Raees becomes so omnipotent in the story that there’s little that this film can offer, doling out one act of unchecked heroism after the other.
Several Amitabh Bachchan films of the 1970s opened with the hero’s backstory, placing a child actor at the centre of the action. That kid usually transformed into Bachchan, after a few scenes, via one neat cut, in the middle of an act: drinking water from a tap, fleeing from thieves or cops. It was a fascinating device, for it allowed one kind of a movie to make way for another, informed by sundry transitions – a boy turning into a man; a character paving way for a star; a (relatively) rooted story growing wings, becoming larger than life, almost mythic.
Rahul Dholakia’s Raees, starring Shahrukh Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Mahira Khan, introduces its hero, the eponymous Raees (played by Khan), in a similar fashion. In an early scene, a young Raees, a school kid, flogs himself during a Muharram procession. The scene then cuts to a grown up Raees, introducing Khan by his chiseled abs, doing the same. And this transition doesn’t seem false – in fact, it feels fittingly nostalgic. Because much of Raees can fit comfortably snug into a Bachchan film of the 1970s: a street-smart kid, a virtuous mother, a faithful friend, a patronising boss, an honest cop and, to top it all, a simmering desire to get rich.
However, like many commercial Bollywood films (trapped between a multiplex and a single screen, between approving nods and loud cheers, between drama and melodrama), Raees finds itself in no man’s land, too, often failing to distinguish between the real and the reel. Purportedly based on a real-life gangster, Abdul Latif, Raees has its roots in a real world: Gujarat of the 1980s. It doesn’t fictionalise the state’s illicit liquor trade either. But these elements of realism are upended by Khan (a superstar symbolising everything larger than life, a living example of charm trumping logic), making the film a strange concoction, an awkward mix of fact and fiction.
So we soon see overlong action sequences, veering more towards cinema, less towards life, where wooden planks and glass panes are shattered into pieces by one blow, the hero climbs a pole with the nimbleness of a squirrel, jumps huge distances effortlessly, without breaking a sweat or disturbing his composure. It’s unreal, yes, but also entertaining and engaging. Maybe, you wonder (at least initially), is this the updated masala film we need? But then, as it so happens with a Bollywood potboiler, the lines between escapist and shoddy (characterised by lazy, convenient writing) begin to vanish.
Raees’ writing credit reads four names (Dholakia, Harit Mehta, Niraj Shukla and Ashish Vashi) and yet, while watching the film, you get the sense that this film could have only been written by Khan. After a point, Khan’s Raees becomes so omnipotent – shooting a rival gangster in his own den, taking down his armed underlings, sabotaging a political rally, winning an election, outwitting cops – that there’s little that this film can offer, doling out one act of unchecked heroism after the other, an inevitable upshot of a superstar’s ego. In fact, these sequences could have still worked, still looked convincing, if they had a different actor, a different star. Because, even after all these years, Khan can’t pull off on-screen violence, especially not when it’s mythic, the kind Raees demands. Besides, Raees faces so little opposition, for a large portion of the film is propelled by lazy screenwriting, that it’s difficult to remain continually invested in the movie.
The only actor that lends this actioner a centre of credence, and a much-needed shot of humour, is, quite unsurprisingly, Siddiqui. Playing a no-nonsense honest cop, Jaideep Ambalal Majmudar, Siddiqui exudes nonchalant charm in every scene, owning it by one dialogue, one half-smile, one gesture. Siddiqui burst into our collective consciousness in late 2012 with Gangs of Wasseypur and even more than four years later, he’s managed to keep his form intact, untarnished from the unending cesspool of mediocrity that is Bollywood. You can see Siddiqui and rest assured that he won’t disappoint, that he’ll always find ways to surprise and engage, and he does – not just in Raees, in scene after scene after scene, but even before that, in different films and roles. Raees, in fact, does have a star, only if you’re looking in the right direction.
But even Sididqui can’t save Raees, which transforms from middling to bad to worse with astonishing ease. Random songs – ranging from romantic to mawkish – crop up in the latter half of the film; Raees’ transformation, much like several other plot points, seems hurried, contrived and unconvincing; his character’s absolute lack of interiority doesn’t help the drama either. Raees, after a point, is immensely forgettable, casting light on Khan’s identity crisis once more. He’s 51 now and not getting younger. Will he find newer challenges to conquer, find newer ways to reinvent himself? More importantly, does he want to?