First day, first show – first time ever (i think) in my life ….
Raees tells the Icarus like rise and fall from grace of Raees Alam, the son of a bangarwaali (scrap seller is the nearest English word i could find). Raees is brought up in the late 70’s era in Fatehpura (Gujarat) by his mother (a fantastic cameo by Sheeba Chaddha ), with a one point philosophy,”koi dhanda chota nahi hota aur dhande se bada koi dharm nahi hota‘. It is a line that helps her maintain her dignity even when a policeman tries to intimidate her, in the aftermath of a anti liquor raid that has failed. Raees grows up from being a school kid who transports liquor in his school bag, to being one of the major players in the Gujarat underworld. In his rise to the top, he is chased by honest cop Jaideep Ambalal Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqi); and it is this, almost erotic, relationship that is the lynch-pin of the film. the scenes with the two of them are the best, and the screen crackles with energy with they are playing off each other.
This is a plot we have seen before. Man comes from humble beginnings and becomes a ‘Godfather’. A don, but a savior of his community. Afoul of the law, but friends with lawmakers. There is a certain ambivalence in the morality. But, you root for the man who is, technically, the villain. This is Godfather, both 1 &2, Nayakan, Deewar, Shakti, Ganga Jamuna, Dalapati – and, the theme itself is fascinating. What happens to a ‘good’ man aligned with the wrong side. None of the central characters in the films mentioned above, got to the top without blood shed. The blood shed, and often public blood shed, is what builds the fear, the authority, the power base. And, the brutality at one end, is compensated with compassion for ‘my people’ at the other. And, Raees is a god father of the old kind. Although participation in community religious activities is part of his ethos, and the Shia Muslim part of him is part and parcel of the character, (the matam in the begining, is brilliantly shot)the only time you see him praying (as a one on one communication with a higher power) is at his mother’s grave. And, I find that aspect quite fascinating. In a way it is a throw back to films of an older generation – with the mother as the moral core (Mother India, Deewar ) of the family, as well as the full fledged participation and festivities that bring communities together – and the community is the community of the labour class.
But, if the plot is as old as films, the story of Raees Alam is new. The nuances of the character, the setting (Gujarat that is gritty, bleak, and with an underlying sense of dry humour), and the revival of a dynamic, and a segment that has not been seen in main stream Hindi films for long, the pan religious working class/labour class – where poverty unites more than religion divides. This is a dynamic most of us growing up in the 70’s and 80’s saw in movies. One of the things that director Rahul Dolakhia does very well, is create the 80’s vibe – be it in terms of music on radio, or Laila mein Laila featured on a caberet dancer (Sunny Leone), or the characterisations of various characters in the film. The references are real, and give the film a context of time and space. When Raees Alam is beating up a seth into agreeing to pay the dues of his millworkers, there is a hat tip to the greatest film on labour issues in modern India, Kala Patthar. The other thing that Dolakhia does well is visually narrate the scenes in which Rais stamps down on someone who has crossed into his territory. The machismo posturing, the sheer outpouring of testosterone, and the rapid spiral downwards to a a scenario that is going to blow. The scenes that bring out the sheer single focued ruthless brutality of Raees are built up the best, and shot the best. The fight sequence in the abattoir, the scene where he goes to kill his mentor (Atul Kulkarni in another fine cameo), the riot scene, and the show down with Musa (Narendra Jha) are very well done.
Shah Rukh carries the film. Raees Alam is is brutal, ruthless, and a cold blooded killer. And, yet you feel for the character. I predict he is going to bring the pathan suit, kohled eyes, and banyans back into fashion. The man oozes screen presence, and in this film you don’t see too much of the superstar, just the actor. Nawaz is good, completely understated, and has some of the best lines in the film. Mahira – is seriously underwhelming. She just seems so overawed by being in a film, that she never manages to break out of the tv actor mode. Zeeshan is a good support role, but you wished that the writers had bothered to give him something beyond being a good friend. And, I think that this is the problem with the film – Dolakhia tries to cram too many themes, and too many interesting characters, into a two and a half hour film, and none of them is ever explored with any nuance. This could have been a 10 hour narcos kind of series, but, i am nto sure that it would be a commercially viable project. But, the acting, the characters, and the editing, s the film tightly paced – though the pace drops in the second half, when the film focuses more on the ‘god father’ part of Raees, and less on the ruthless rise to the top of the crime pyramid. There is an inexplicable pregnancy that seems to go on for ever, and for ever. And, the purpose of both Mahira and the pregnancy, seems to be to build the human side of rather ruthless killer.
Is it worth a watch – definitely. I am possibly going back to watch it again, next week.