Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Raees: Review

If you’re an Indian director making a gangster film, is there some kind of form you must sign promising to make your anti-hero altruistic? Of all the rules handed down by The Godfather, the idea of don as benevolent patriarch is what filmmakers here seem to have taken most to heart over the years (not that directors abroad are immune). Your central character could be the most cold-blooded of killers, but it’s somehow palatable if he’s shown helping an old woman out with her rent.

This idea of the social-minded don was taken to ridiculous heights in last year’s Kabali, and now it’s back again, in the form of Raees (Shah Rukh Khan): bootlegger, murderer and community hero. This isn’t to say that criminals can’t, or don’t, become leaders in their neighbourhoods. It’s just that this sort of audience manipulation is too easy—even for a mainstream, extra-masala film like Rahul Dholakia’s Raees.

Throughout the film, Raees’ mother’s advice is repeated: no work is too small; there’s no religion above work; do whatever work you want as long as you don’t harm innocent people. It’s a convenient loophole—the people Raees kills are criminals, and therefore not innocent—one which the film has no interest in exploring. Towards the end, Raees’ wife, Asiya (Mahira Khan), calls him bekasoor (innocent), a description so laughably inaccurate that it could be dismissed as her delusion if one didn’t get the feeling the film believed it as well.

Raees unfolds in Fatehpura, Gujarat—then, as it still is, a dry state. Prohibition means bootleggers, and we see young Raees finding a foothold in the trade, ferrying alcohol bottles past policemen in his schoolbag for local supplier Jairaj (Atul Kulkarni). The film then jumps forward to the 1980s, with a grown-up Raees working as a strongman for Jairaj. Eventually, he starts his own distribution chain, and, through guile and blunt force, captures the bootleg alcohol market in Gujarat. This brings him to the attention of the authorities, in particular police officer Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).

As he did with another Khan vehicle, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Siddiqui jumpstarts the film as soon he appears onscreen. There isn’t another actor in Hindi cinema right now with such a direct connection to the audience. We’ve seen incorruptible cops before, but they tend to be humourless and violent, like Om Puri in Ardh Satya or Manoj Bajpayee in Shool. But Siddiqui’s Majmudar is a hoot, driving a steamroller over rows of confiscated bottles and repeatedly asking for orders in writing from his corrupt superiors. The sheer pleasure of watching him and Raees banter like hero and villain in a 1970s’ drama made my hopes rise—though I soon dialled down my expectations after two exceedingly shoddy action sequences (the fights and chases are almost as ludicrous— and less fun—as those in a Rohit Shetty film).

Raees is clearly intended as a piece of popular entertainment, which means that its politics—when in evidence at all—remain muted. In one notable sequence, a Hindu politician has taken out a yatra, and despite warnings from Raees, has decided to pass through his (Muslim) neighbourhood. Raees and his followers end up attacking the procession. Swords are grabbed, people are set on fire. The political implications of what is, in all but name, a communal riot in Gujarat aren’t addressed; the incident is presented simply as a businessman protecting his turf. Later in the film, when Raees is distributing food during a curfew, one of his people suggests not sending supplies to Hindu neighbourhoods until their finances are sorted out. He’s scolded by Raees, who asks why he’s bringing up religion now when he never thought of it while doing business with them.

Eyes lined with kohl, his body strangely stiff, Shah Rukh Khan plays Raees warily—or is it that Raees is wary? Khan isn’t as bold here as he was in Fan, but this isn’t a greatest-hits package either, like his turn in Dear Zindagi. Perhaps realising that audiences would expect him to do Tony Montana, he gives them his version of Warren Beatty as Bugsy Siegel: ingenious, unflappable. Yet, because Khan holds so much in reserve, Raees remains a cipher. To borrow an old theatrical aphorism, he plays the king as if afraid someone else might play the ace.

Siddiqui plays that ace, then plays it again. Several hands go the way of Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, quietly intense as Raees’ friend and second-in-command, Sadiq. Mahira Khan, breaking into Gujarati from time to time, looks like she’s in the wrong card game. And Dholakia has a tell; ever so often, he has someone repeat the “baniye ka dimaag aur miyanbhai ki daring” line. I stopped counting after the third time. It’s a good line, but it’s not that good.

This review appeared in Mint.

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