Punching below its weight

Shah Rukh Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Raees is the type of film where the protagonist emerges from behind clouds of dust, does back flips on top of a moving truck, and turns everyday objects such as hairgrips and geometric compasses into nifty weapons. 

The Shah Rukh Khan-starrer pauses strategically for cheers from the audience, an audience that is willing to line up outside cinemas at 8.20 am on the day of release. With such commercial intentions affixed proudly on the sleeve, any chance of being a meaningful addition to the roster of gangster dramas is lost. What remains is a candyfloss crime movie.

It is another curious addition to the uneven track record of Rahul Dholakia, director and co-writer, who in the past has made the nondescript Parzania (2005). 

The premise of this movie showed promise: a rags-to-riches tale of Raees Alam (Khan) who bootlegs liquor in the dry state of Gujarat from the 1980s to the 1990s. He goes from being a problem-solver for illicit liquor barons to setting up his own impressive operation, edging out competitors. He even wins a lover, Aasiya (Mahira Khan). His rise is interrupted by an upright police officer, ACP Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). A game of cat-and-mouse ensues.

The treatment, however, opts for fanfare over depth. There is little insight into Alam’s criminal personality. It is not clear what stirs and sustains his enormous hunger for success, although low self-esteem is hinted at in his disapproval of the nickname “battery” (a colloquial reference to his spectacles). It is only explained through repeated uttering of what the man believes. “Koi dhanda chhota nahi hota. Aur dhande se bada koi dharm nahi hota” (No business is lowly. And business outranks religion).  

Dholakia and his team lionise Alam. He is street-smart, an able marksman, a lifter of heavy weights, a baddie with scruples, a philanthropist. While the character’s triumphs are punctuated with songs, moments of defeat or despair are brief and afterthought-like. The result is quite enjoyable but equally unexceptional. 

One dazzling moment is in the introduction of Siddiqui as ACP Majmudar, who delivers a hilarious speech with textbook understatement. The fights, featuring parkour moves and a videogame-style shooting spree, are somewhat sanitised. The characters land safely like cats, and wounds, if suffered at all, appear to heal quickly. Much of the film, while intending to transport viewers to a mohalla in small-town Fatehpura, looks like a movie set. 

Shah Rukh Khan does not do a Shah Rukh Khan. The signature stutter is absent; he makes himself big and menacing. Yet the actor, who spoke in recent interviews about wanting to get his cinema right, is mainly left dealing in punchlines. Mahira, who is a top-ranked television star in Pakistan, shows a kind of restraint that seems out of place in the masala flick. Siddiqui has a meaty share of good lines and banter.

Raees will no doubt be among the big earners in Bollywood this year. It shows, as promised, “baniye ka dimaag, miyan bhai ki daring”, but it could have aspired to do more.

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