When Sunny Leone began her moves to the rebooted – yes, we don’t call it plagiarism anymore – version of Kalyanji-Anandji’s throbbing chartbuster, Laila O Laila from Qurbani, the chair in the cinema hall next to me began rocking. Fearing the worst, I looked out of the corner of my eye, and through the limited, dark, 2-D vision, made out the gentleman on said chair moving with the rhythm. If a majority of today’s population don the grand visor of armchair activists, why couldn’t he, a respectable citizen of the country, not indulging in piracy, be an armchair dancer? That fright gotten over with, I turned my attention back to the screen. I thought I’d cracked the raison d’être for this movie. It was an out-and-out entertainer. But hang on, it also seemed to be a social entertainer. And then, it was gritty and dark too. And there was a dash of romance too.
Director Rahul Dholakia who co-wrote Raees (Wealthy) along with Harit Mehta, Ashish Vashi, and Niraj Shukla tries to straddle multiple genres in this project, in the hope that the plushy screen presence of Shah Rukh Khan, in & as Raees looms over the awning gaps across these story plates and covers them with as much grace as only he can muster. Raees, however, teeters, trying to find its balance, much as you would, standing on a single leg, wondering whether to execute a nifty aerobic move, a power-filled yoga asana, or stand still in equanimity, wishing you’d find the damned balance.
As any self-respecting gangster movie would, Raees begins with the titular character’s childhood (played with aplomb by Shubham More) in the prohibition-enforced state of Gujarat. Director Dholakia kicks off the movie with contagious energy, capturing the essence of the town of Fatehpura in all its complex simplicity, aided by Donald Reagen Gracy and Anita Rajgopalan Lata’s very effective production design. The small, constricted by-lanes and the vibrantly claustrophobic mise en scène pulls you right into the action. Young Raees works for a country-liquor bootlegger, but one epiphanic line by his mother (played by Sheeba Chaddha), “Koi dhanda chhota nahin hota aur dhande se bada koi dharam nahin hota” (There’s no work that’s too menial, and there’s no bigger religion than work) sets the young Raees thinking, and in a jiffy, he gets working for the foreign and Indian Manufactured Liquor (IMFL) bootlegger, Jairaj (Atul Kulkarni). In a scene that surprisingly (or not) didn’t get any whistles in my hall, the boy self-flagellates to grow up into the star, now nursing an ambition of branching off independently into the bootlegging business. The story set in the 80s, Raees, with childhood friend Sadiq (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), approaches Jairaj in a scene that as it turns out, is a highlight of the movie. Atul Kulkarni, superb as usual, steals the show here, effectively delivering a lesson of how to say “No” without saying “No”. Kulkarni is sadly underutilized later on, which is a pity – for it’d have been real fun to watch him play-off the other show headliner – Nawazuddin Siddique playing Superintendent of Police Jaideep Ambalal Majmudar.
Majmudar, entering Fatehpura courtesy his nth transfer, quickly gets himself to speed about the goings-on and focusses on clamping down on the illegal booze business. In the meantime, there’s power play that involves the Chief Minister, Jairaj, and Raees. Plus a long-distance affiliate of Raees, Moosa (Narendra Jha) from Mumbai, who keeps the wheels of co-operation and dealing spinning keeps popping up at a welcome cadence. This part is very tightly wound too with some fun action sequences, including the now de rigueur rooftop chase sequence that leads to the revelation of a betrayal. Which leads to the chair-rocking Laila O Laila number, that sharply turns into, what to me, was Shah Rukh Khan’s moment in the movie – as he faces his Judas, his eyes melt with a big “why”, knowing he’ll never hear an answer from the other person, his face, covered with sweat, tears, hurt, and then as he guns down his betrayer, the blood mixing with the tears and the immiscible fluids flowing as one. Brian De Palma (Scarface reference here) will be proud.
There’s another very smart scene by director Dholakia. That involves the relentless Majmudar blocking all roads from where Raees transports his liquor. As Sadiq agitatedly wonders what next, Khan looks down at the matchbox in his hand and smiles in inspiration. It’s only when the director shows you the matchbox cover and cuts to the mode of transport that Raees employs that you smile too. Very nicely done, that.
By now Dholakia’s also introduced Raees’ love-of-life and soon-to-be-wife played by Mahira Khan. There’s a (and only) lovely scene between the two, where, Shah Rukh Khan, again employing eye drops (after Dear Zindagi), winks at her, oozing that winsome charisma. She in turn, completes the circle with her wink that also solemnizes their marriage. Again, a very nice, delicate touch. And then arrives the interval, and when you return with your popcorn tub, the only pop that’s left is in there. For, from hereon, the movie plods, despite Nawazuddin Siddique and Shah Rukh’s face-offs and the former’s marvellously phlegmatic pursuit. Which is a pity, because in trying to be too many things, Raees spreads its talented cast too thin.
Shah Rukh Khan is very good, and carries off Raees with an energy, intensity, and persona that’s movingly powerful. And yet, when he breaks down in the latter half, sobbing to his wife that he’s tired, you nod in flaccid agreement too. The weary script has taken its toll on you, and you wish they’d just get on with it, by now you not caring what happens to whoever and however. Likewise for the dazzlingly good Siddique. He has so much of good rollicking fun in his turn as the cop (unlike the tough, sourpussed cop in Kahaani) you don’t want him to leave the screen. How you wish the director had extended Majmudar’s phone-tapping operation that could have led to some thrills and suspense. Instead, the actor’s hemmed in by the melodrama and by Dholakia’s pivot to a completely unnecessary social mohalla angle. As is the usually sparkling Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who, here, is serviceable, but nothing more than that. More heft is given to Narendra Jha, who, in his usual deep-voiced panache, adds a reassuringly menacing depth to Moosa (After Vinod Chopra’s polished underworld caper Parinda, Tom Alter’s suave turn has made Moosa a de facto name in gangs of cinemapur.) And while Mahira Khan is okay, I’m not sure the fuss was truly worth it.
There’s another person who occupies ubiquitous space in Raees, and not in a terribly good way. And that is composer Ram Sampath. While he employs some neat electronic chorals in the completely not-required Zaalima, he insists on belting out a background score that’s loud and unrelenting. Funny sounds for comic scenes, check. Loud banging noises for action, check. Weepy music for melodrama, check. The only time there’s no music is when composer sips water, check.
Director Dholakia and Shah Rukh Khan, then, wanted Raees to be the actor’s Deewar or Agneepath. (For the record, I love the high-octane former and can’t stand the high-decibel latter – and not because of their respective composers. To complete my blasphemous record, I quite liked the Hrithik-reboot. I can already envisage Amitabh Bachchan fans pumping their flame throwers with the nearest available gas.) Time alone will tell if Raees will make it to the legion of cult movies. In 2017, unfortunately, this bootlegging drama is more –OH (it’s the only remains of my Chemical Engineering degree I retain, thanks to single malt and brewed beer) than Aah.
Raees is rated UA (parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years). There’s gore and violence, and a distressing shot of Black Label bottles being crushed by a road roller.
Director Rahul Dholakia Running Time 2h 35 min
Writers Rahul Dholakia, Harit Mehta, Ashish Vashi, and Niraj Shukla
Stars Shah Rukh Khan, Nawazuddin Siddique, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. Mahira Khan, Narendra Jha
Genres Action, Crime, Drama, Thriller
Watch the trailer of Raees here: