Raees, directed by Rahul Dholakia and starring Shah Rukh Khan, is the fascinating story of the rise and rise of a smalltime bootlegger into one of Gujarat’s most notorious liquor barons and also, ironically, into a revered Robin Hood-like figure. If you’ve ever wondered what the love child of a staunchly realistic filmmaker and Bollywood’s most unabashedly populist star might resemble, you’re looking at it.
Dholakia, who wrote and directed the deeply affecting film Parzania, about a Parsi family caught in the midst of the Godhra riots of 2002, brings a thorough understanding of the times and the landscape the film is set in. Shah Rukh, meanwhile, who is also a co-producer on this project, seems clear about the tone he wants to take. The result is a mostly compelling drama that is fast paced, despite feeling over-plotted and bloated at times.
We’re first introduced to our protagonist, Raees, as a young boy in Fatehpura in the 1970s. He is poor but industrious, and works as a runner to a local bootlegger. The signs are all there. He has a short temper, he holds on to grudges, and resents being referred to as ‘Battery’ although he wears oversized spectacles. By the time he’s older and has had some practice on the field smuggling alcohol in and out of the Prohibition state, he branches out to set up his own business, emboldened by his mother’s teaching that “no job is too small” and reassured by a mentor that he’s got a “baniye ka dimaag aur Miya bhai ki daring”.
The film’s first half is riveting stuff as we watch our anti-hero expand his enterprise on the strength of his quick thinking and sheer ruthlessness. It is precisely these qualities that make him such a magnetic figure, but post interval it feels as if the writers decided to trade his grey shades and blunt his edges to make him more likeable. By now Raees has become a messiah for his people, the mobster with a heart of gold, a staunchly secular humanist. The plot too slips into repetition and predictability, and characters like the corrupt chief minister and other venal politicians come off as caricatures.
It is the presence of Nawazuddin Siddiqui, as Majmudar, an incorruptible police officer obsessed with taking Raees down, and the thrilling interplay between both men that keeps you invested despite these bumps. Exploiting his relationship with powerful political figures, Raees routinely thwarts Majmudar’s plans, but the cop remains steadfast in his resolve. The scenes between both actors, featuring some terrific clap-trap repartee, are easily the best bits in the film. Nawazuddin, who appears to be having a blast, cast against type and allowed to really sink his teeth into the part, once again reveals his gift for vastly improving a film by merely being in it.
The other supporting cast doesn’t have it as good. Mahira Khan is confident as Raees’ love interest, but it’s not a role that requires any heavy lifting. Meanwhile, a consistently reliable Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub suffers on account of an underwritten role, reduced to a sidekick in the part of Raees’ loyal friend.
The film, expectedly, is powered by the star wattage of Shah Rukh Khan himself, as most of his films usually are. From his introduction scene, lacerating his back during a Moharram gathering, to a “Scarface”-like shootout, all guns blazing, to his many moments simmering with rage, Shah Rukh commands your attention. In more pensive moments, and a quiet breakdown scene, he reveals the actor behind the star.
Evidently inspired by the true-life story of Abdul Latif, the illegal liquor kingpin of Gujarat who was charged for his involvement in the 1993 blasts, Raees shrewdly steers clear of naming names and only hints at true events. Still, it’s a well-made film that benefits from Dholakia’s keen eye for period and atmospheric detail. Although crammed with too much plot, and overlong on account of a screenplay that could’ve done with further tightening, the film nevertheless offers enough to enjoy.
As a throwback to those thrilling gangster films from the 70s, many starring Amitabh Bachchan and scripted by Salim-Javed, Raees delivers ample bang for your buck. I’m going with three out of five.