The era of Bollywood in the 80's can be considered the height of the masala genre of films. A genre best described as being massively crowd pleasing, entertaining with substance and quotable dialogue that finds its way into pop culture. It's got a bit of something for everybody. So even though Shah Rukh Khan's new film is a period gangster drama set in the same time period, the pure masala nature of the movie is a bit of an unexpected surprise.
'Raees' is a return to form for Shah Rukh Khan the actor.
Rating: 3 Out Of 5 Stars
Writer & Director Rahul Dholakia's story even follows a very masala film concept of showcasing the protagonist at a young age, establishing the background and morals that will determine his grown up persona, then cutting to a fully aged Shahrukh Khan as Raees in a very cool, if not gratuitous transition.
The story itself follows the usual rise and fall concept of a gangster; his life, love, business and his eventual downfall. Set in the state of Gujarat in India, the business that Raees essentially grows up around is that of bootlegging; the illegal selling and distributing of liquor, despite Prohibition laws being very much active in the state. Raees is good at what he does, and has the whole state wired, from politicians, and cops to the good will of the common people. That is until the entry of morally righteous and charming as hell cop Majumdar played to perfection by Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
'Raees' is a departure from the usual Shah Rukh Khan movie. While most of Khan's roles in recent years have had his off screen persona bleed into his character, the arrogance and ego portrayed by Raees, and depicted by Khan, is earned in the story. Khan is at his finest and this is the a kind of performance that we haven't seen in a long time, and his boisterous nature isn't just being used to charm the ladies, but is in context to the story and it fits. While a similar gangster role in 'Dilwale' was glossy and undeserving of the set up in the story, the character Raees goes through a journey that exacerbates his inherent flaws, leading to his eventual downfall. Even though the character can be described as being grey, there are elements of a messiah complex at work too, but that further adds to the nuance of the role.
Mahira Khan is a delight. She's not given much to do, but in her limited screen time, she makes an impact and stands out. While the role could have been done by any new debutant, Mahira takes control of it and makes it her own. The depiction of her character's relationship with Raees is also interesting, as she's not relegated to being the obedient wife, but rather is involved in his criminal activities.
The charm of the movie, and majority of the humour, surprisingly, comes from Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Acting as the predator in the cat and mouse game with Raees, Majumdar is a relentless cop who becomes obsessed with taking down the bootlegging smuggler. Siddiqui plays the role with a ruthless charm and roundabout delivery of lines that makes it hard to see him as the antagonist.
The highlight of the movie are any scenes with Siddiqui and Khan together with their respectful and double meaning discourse, which is very much reminiscent of the chemistry shared between Amitabh Bachchan and Pran in the same era.
The movie however isn't far from perfect. While the action choreography is a hit and miss, the most jarring element has to be the in-movie songs. The film is very much a regional setting in Gujarat, with many lines and common expressions being uttered in the regional dialect. But the glossy and random song sequences in perfect Hindi really take you out of the that atmosphere. It's not even the Hindi really, but more the departure from a gritty crime setting, transitioning into a polished and gorgeous location for a romantic song that really took away from the weight of the on-screen events before and after.
But, in a way, that could easily be attributed to the very much 80's masala movie that 'Raees' is. It's the perfect tribute and throwback to that genre of films. The one-liners are simple yet dramatic. The shift between funny to serious, from realistic to cheesy and the loose morals and imperfect political system are staples of these stories that sees criminals and public servants socializing together openly.
The most glaring of these inconsistencies has to be Raees' loose moral code. His entire motivation is built up around the idea that business is greater than religion, as long as it doesn't harm others. A stipulation provided to him by his mother during his formative years. This is why, as we're consoled, he only sells imported liquor, and not the impure local kind that ends up killing people.
Fine. However, there are instances where Raees straight up murders people, brutally and up close, without a second thought. While he shows some remorse in one instance after a specific person's death, it's not an issue for him otherwise. It's the usual trope that bad guys being killed by the hero is justified because they're bad. Moral or legalities be damned! This really takes away from his dramatic reaction near the climax, and sort of undermines it the events afterwards.
The role in 'Raees' is proof that Khan is very self aware of the envelope he needs to push to evolve in the industry, but this movie is still playing it safe with his image. With every negative action of the character, we're treated to overly excessive instances of nobility and goodness, almost as if to compensate the grey aspects of his actions.
There are also many aspects of the story that are underutilized or absent entirely. Having been raised by a single mother and fatherless, you'd think becoming a father would be a bigger deal to his emotional state of mind than it actually is. Especially given his relationship with Atul Kulkarni's character. Most 80's films heavily rely on parental themes as character motivations, however most of those relationships are foregone to further develop the love story angle, which felt like wasted opportunities.
'Raees' is definitely a step in the right direction as far as Shah Rukh Khan's performances and choice of roles go. The film itself moves briskly without any loitering of scenes or unnecessary elements. I would still have preferred the omission of some song sequences in exchange for some more scenes showing Raees' emotional development.
I highly recommend 'Raees' for audiences who want to see a glimmer of Shahrukh Khan in his prime, and an example of the intensity that he is capable of in a non-romantic context. 'Raees' is a that crime-drama that is very much in the veins of 'Vastaav' or 'Guru', albeit much more mainstream and and made to be a blockbuster.