Catch him if you careShah Rukh Khan revisits his old anti-hero roots in Rahul Dholakia’s new Raees, playing a formidable Gujarati mobster with, you guessed it, the proverbial Heart of Gold.
Shah Rukh Khan revisits his old anti-hero roots in Rahul Dholakia’s new Raees, playing a formidable Gujarati mobster with, you guessed it, the proverbial Heart of Gold. However, while it’s possibly one of his best performances of late, that’s also not saying a great deal, because for a good long while now, it’s felt as though Khan the Superstar has increasingly come to supplant Khan the Actor. More and more in his recent string of films, Khan has proven incapable of shedding that familiar stock of mannerisms and expressions, refusing to take on all dimensions of a given role and really enter the skin of the character, rendering each new stint vaguely similar to the last. So, though it’s nice to see him trying to push himself performance-wise here, in a way that he hasn’t since maybe Chak De! India in 2007, the effort is not consistent. And he’s certainly not done any favours by a confused screenplay that can’t seem to decide what tone it’s going for, whether it wants to be a more realistic meditation on the workings of the underworld, or just another vapid SRK ego-stroker, ending up half-hearted on both counts.
On the crowded streets of the make-believe city of Fatehpura in Gujarat, a young bespectacled scamp named Raees Aslaam is being initiated into the booming illicit liquor trade. Prohibition has been in full force in the state (much like it has in real life), and as is wont to happen in such circumstances, a host of bootleggers, including one Jayraj Seth (Atul Kulkarni), have popped out of the woodwork, all too happy to cater to clearly—undiminished demand. And little boys, practically invisible to law-enforcers, are valuable to these gangs as scouts and, as Seth eventually does with our young hero, as mules—there is a telling scene where Raees removes his schoolbooks from his bag and packs in a couple of bottles in their place, without so much as a glimmer of hesitation.
As time goes on and Raees comes of age (now played by Khan), his ambitions have considerably surpassed what he could hope to achieve as one of Seth’s lackeys. So he, with childhood buddy Sadiq (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), decides to branch out, but in finding Seth unwilling to offer any help to his little start-up, is compelled to approach one of his competitors, Musabhai (Narendra Jha). This turns out to be a wise decision—business kicks up, and Raees is finally living up to his name, raking in the moolah, with a sweetheart (Mahira Khan) to boot and plenty of connections up the political ladder to ensure a degree of stability to his “dhanda”. It’s not long, however, before a storm is headed his way in the form of an adamantly ethical cop called Jaideep Majumdar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), recently transferred to Fatehpura and determined to bring down Raees and others like him.
Dholakia’s most notable previous work is probably the 2005 drama Parzania, also set partly in Gujarat, and his familiarity with the setting comes through here. The production design, in terms of the period flourishes in the backdrops and costumes, adds to the authenticity of the visuals. If only such incisive attention to detail had been ministered to the story itself.
Raees is clearly inspired by the crime films that dominated Bollywood in the 70s and 80s—evident in the title font, the “In and As” tagline, and the scene where our hero is bearing down on the owner of a mill for some misdemeanor or the other, and Kala Patthar is playing behind them, among other elements—but better aesthetics apart, it’s a pretty watered-down take on those classics. The script moves too slow in some places—the interminable songs, coming in what feels like 10-minute intervals, would be one example—and too fast in others where one could’ve done with a bit more elaboration: Raees’ childhood, for instance, passes by in a blur, little explained about what’s made him so keen on walking the wrong side of the tracks; and although we’re made to feel as though we should be impressed by how incredibly streetwise he turns out, to be perfectly honest, he resolves every challenge with almost cartoonish ease, and that too primarily with his fists rather than any actual gangster cunning.
Indeed, despite being based, albeit loosely, on the story of real-life bootlegger Abdul Latif—just the sort of thing you’d think would make for a smashing big-screen adaptation—Raees manages to offer very little by way of insight into the criminal psyche. It appears keen, at least at first, to dip a toe in the grey zone of moral ambiguity and perhaps raise some interesting questions therein, but then seems to lose its nerve as it goes on, almost as if worried about being unable to retain audience sympathy and choosing instead to whitewash the lead to the point of leaching the character of complexity. By the end of the film, Raees has become almost noble—defending the meek, even feeding them on occasion, donating to local schools and building a new housing complex for the community—but also far less believable, and far less interesting.
Had Khan demonstrated a bit more range, maybe we could’ve still been sold on the film. But, as discussed earlier, while this is some of the best work he’s done in recent years, and he definitely has the look of the character down pat—the performance is still lacking, whether it’s the obvious inattention to getting the accent right or the botching of the key emotional moments, in which the actor just doesn’t come off as sincere. And Raees has little time to devote to any other characters; supporting acts, although plentiful, barely even make an impression. That, of course, doesn’t include Siddiqui, who does register and who brings what little interest and urgency there is to the film—but ultimately, it’s out of his hands as well.
At least the film wraps up on a quasi-positive note. Raees makes clear that his business and his faith are two entirely separate things, and it’s nice to see that his largesse is extended to local Hindus as well as his own fellow Muslims. It might not seem like much, but in these crazy times, that kind of pointed stance on religious tolerance is reassuring. Of course, it’s hardly reason enough to watch this rather disappointing film, but I’m just saying.