It’s the same old wine — -hooch wine — in a not-so-new battle, and I do mean battle.
Prohibition in Gujarat is the playground for this pulsating saga of twisted morality. As the good policeman Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) wages an all-out war against hooch seller Raees Khan (Shah Rukh Khan). What emerges from the smoke, fire and ashes is a kitschy 1980s-style potboiler that tells the story of a gangster’s protege who grows into a Robin Hoodlum, the do-gooder whose Ammi (Sheeba Chadha, so brilliant and yet such a fugitive figure in the screenplay) teaches him that no job is too small or petty.
Taking that maternal advice a bit too seriously (probably uttered by the short-lived Ammi-jaan in an unguarded moment after she may have heard it being said by Alok Nath), Raees spends the next 40 years of his life and two hours of ours, selling illicit liquor and killing opponents with an impunity that defines death by Dawoodian ideology.
A ‘hai-hai’ for a ‘hai’ and bomb for a bomb.
There is plenty of gratuitous action, rapid fire movement and swift reflexive responses to violent impulses. But Raees never succeeds in getting its act all together. It’s all too hazy, scattered and sketchy, except when Nawazuddin walks in as the ‘good cop’ who vows he will get Raees by hook or crook.
Nawaz’s Majmudar is funny without trying to be. Habituated to being transferred on his job, he insists on his seniors giving their orders in writing, and when he realizes that the sweets he is savouring have come from his arch-enemy, he continues to nibble on them while reiterating his vow to get the bootlegger. This is a man who probably laughs twice a year and that too because his wife expects him to.
While Nawazuddin makes sure his character is coherently defined, Shah Rukh’s Raees remains surprisingly hazy, and we are not talking about his moral values alone. It’s the way he plays Raees, as though he doesn’t really like the man for his immoral acts. But what to do? He must do the job to the best of his ability.
At many points in the plot, Shah Rukh’s Raees falters as he attempts to come to terms with the rapid changes in his fortunes. Failing to find a feasible centre to his character’s doddering ethics, Shah Rukh plays Raees with an arrogant indifference.
In his defence, the material provided by the writers (Rahul Dholakia, Harit Mehta, Ashish Vashi, Neeraj Shukla) is at best derivative. We have seen the same story about the rise and fall of the Gangster with the Bloodied Gun in scores of films by Ram Gopal Varma and Anurag Kashyap.
There is nothing even remotely novel in the shootouts and the other shindigs (the latter includes a sudden sunny swing of Sunny Leone’s “Laila” kind into an item song). Even the tender relationship that Raees shares with his coy wife Asiya (Mahira Khan, assuming the “Mere mehboob” persona all pert, pouty and silky) has been done so much more effectively by Manoj Bajpayee and Shefali Shah in Ram Gopal Varma’s “Satya”.
Such considerations are perhaps unwarranted in “Raees”. Director Rahul Dholakia attempts to assemble an inherently messy saga of gangsterism set in the 1980s, told in the way films were narrated in that era. There is even an action sequence in a drive-in theatre where an Amitabh Bachchan film plays while Raees intimidates a builder.
Deliberately stagey and self-consciously ‘retro’, Raees gathers its strength from the voluptuous resources of drama in the protagonist’s life and the power of the narrative to make cliches come alive by their defiant reiteration. The director knows his material is weather-beaten and he doesn’t pretend it is any other way. The shoot-outs filled with bombast and bravado, are from an era when such violence was considered macho.
At the end, when Raees’s world falls apart with a close encounter of the ‘thud’ kind, there is no surprise left in the plot. It isn’t only Raees who has nowhere to run to.