Like any self-respecting rags-to-riches gangster movie, Raees shows the boy before it shows the man. With a difference. In Deewar, the boy sees his father being branded a thief. He sees his mother struggling to raise her sons. So when a get-rich-quick opportunity presents itself, he grabs it, becomes a gangster. Or take Nayakan. The boy sees his father murdered by a cop. He kills the cop, flees. He ends up with the family of a smuggler, who tells him nothing is wrong if it helps a few people. This becomes his credo when he takes to crime. Now consider Raees. A Gujarati boy becomes a bootlegger in his dry state because… it’s a rush. There are a couple of cheeky masala moments when the young Raees (that’s his name!) steals something that belongs to the Mahatma, or when he walks past cops with a schoolbag stuffed with bottles of liquor. We grin. We sit back for a different kind of gangster film. Not about a gangster whose fate was decided by… well, fate, but one who decided it would be cool to be a gangster. The template, in other words, isn’t Deewar or Nayakan. It’s Goodfellas.
Parts of Raees live up to this promise. There’s a Scorsesean kineticism in the flashy editing – scenes don’t so much segue as collide and tumble into each other. Take the Laila song. Sunny Leone can’t match Zeenat Aman’s slinkiness – but the choreography keeps building, and it leads to murder, and there are undertones. Raees (Shah Rukh Khan) has just found out he’s going to become a father. And now, he’s out to kill his father figure (Atul Kulkarni). It’s good to see Shah Rukh in this mode. His slo-mo walk after the act – rings of kohl around the eyes, spatters of blood on the face – merits a long wolf whistle. As does a fight sequence set in a meat market, which involves a goat’s head. The stretch appears edited with a butcher’s knife. It feels icky, raw. It feels the opposite of the super-slick films we see today.
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It’s nice, too, to not have the wife – Aasiya (Mahira Khan) – as a conscience-keeper. She’s a stock character – as is Raees’s friend Sadiq, played by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub – but there’s a nice little aside where we see her counting notes. Aasiya seems to know who Raees is, she seems to have made her peace with it. (Or maybe that was the attraction.) The film doesn’t bother with falling-in-love scenes. When we first meet Aasiya, she’s already in love with Raees. The catchy duet, Zaalima, comes much later, after Aasiya and Raees are married. But think back to Shiney Ahuja and Kangana Ranaut in Gangster, and you’ll see how perfunctory these love scenes are. They’re merely an excuse to bring back crinkly-eyed Shah Rukh and his dimple-deepening smile. Mahira Khan’s mannequin blandness makes you wonder if they had to go all the way to Pakistan to fill out this chalk outline of a role – but it’s not just Aasiya. None of the characters come alive. When Raees badmouths Sadiq, we don’t feel the knife-twist in the latter’s heart. When he turns his anger on Aasiya, we feel… nothing. When a Hindu neta marches into Raees’s Muslim neighbourhood, the enormity of the transgression doesn’t inform the action scene that follows. Regardless of a gangster’s profession, the general arc, filled with good guys and bad guys and cops and corrupt politicians, is always the same – it’s the characters that transform the generic into the specific. Raees never convinces us that this gangster’s life deserved a brand new movie.
Very late in the film, we get the reason for its existence, the specifics. In wanting to do good for his people, Raees ends up harming the nation. It’s a tragedy of Shakespearean magnitude, but it doesn’t register because it’s too little, too late, and we’ve lost all interest in the character. But then, we never really knew him, what he meant to these people, what they meant to him. His transformation from businessman to bleeding heart seems a function of director Rahul Dholakia’s (or maybe his star’s) doubts whether a Goodfellas will work in Gujarat, whether it’s possible to make an entire movie about a flashy, amoral gangster. But you need a solid emotional arc if you want to show Raees as some kind of saviour as well. Early in the movie, we get a line from his mother that no work is too small, that business is religion. It doesn’t quite have the same ring as the Nayakan line. It doesn’t quite make us feel for the boy like we felt for the boy in Deewar. Those were soul scars. Raees is all surface. We long to dig deep.
Was Raees always a Robin Hood at heart? Or did something trigger a transformation? Even when he promises sewing machines to the women of his locality, he has an ulterior motive – something that will help his liquor-smuggling business. But suddenly, he breaks down when a debt-ridden worker commits suicide. An older film would have made this worker a character, made us spend time with him, so that when he dies, we weep with Raees. Due to Dholakia’s decision to adopt a semi-documentary approach or maybe due to one of those things that just happens while making a movie (say, you discover there’s too much footage and the subplot about this worker is something you have to sacrifice), we get the sense not of organic character growth but life events being ticked off a checklist. There’s no one to root for, feel for. Suddenly, Raees wants to build a housing colony for the people around him. It’s hard to get a grip on the man. Or the movie.
Another problem: the lack of a mythic antagonist. Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays the cop out to get Raees, but it’s business and not personal. He has no particular enmity with Raees. He treats Raees like just another criminal who needs to be put behind bars. Siddiqui is enormously entertaining (the way he tosses off his lines leave you chuckling a few seconds into the next scene), but he’s not someone you can hang a masala-movie villain on. (Though to be fair, the film’s docu-drama approach to masala may have resulted in downplaying the larger-than-life aspects of the Siddiqui character.) Siddiqui gets a fantastic scene where he runs a road-roller over bottles of liquor, but the cat-and-mouse portions don’t result in satisfying payoffs. And because this rivalry isn’t explored, the end makes no emotional sense. It’s the kind of ending you expect in a Heat, where cat and mouse are two sides of the same existential coin. But when Raees gets all emotional and asks the Siddiqui character if he’ll be able to live with the regret, we go “Huh?”
We walk out with this question: Is it possible to make a relatively “realistic” masala movie? The lines don’t have the punch they should, and the Old Bollywood scenes are an embarrassment. (Here’s how Aasiya broaches the topic of her pregnancy to Raees: “Aap apne abbu ko kya bulaate the?”) You sense Dholakia’s discomfort. He’s a shadow of the man who made the fantastic Parzania, but then mainstream movies, especially those that come with a big star, have a way of cutting talented and ambitious filmmakers down to size. You try to walk the middle path between Scorsese and Salim-Javed (Kaala Paththar is invoked here), and you end up lost. The uncertainty in the film’s tone and pitch reflects in Shah Rukh’s performance. At times, he’s servicing the script. At times, he’s servicing his fans. But the girls in the seats next to mine kept screeching every time he showed up, so maybe he’s doing something right.