By Sarit Ray, Hindustan Times
A boy with humble beginnings sets up an empire by smuggling contraband. All he has going for him are his wits and insatiable ambition.
He has a loyal sidekick, a brother, almost. As he grows powerful, he makes rivals. He wants to head a “syndicate” of other more-despicable smugglers.
He bribes, kills, goes to jail, turns benevolent towards locals, and decides to run for elections. Add tapped phones and kids who act as eyes on the ground.
Seem familiar? This isn’t the skeleton for Narcos, but Rahul Dholakia’s Raees, a film that seems so remarkably inspired by the TV series on Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar that it is impossible to analyse it in isolation.
Swap Medellin with Fatehpura (a village in Gujarat), cocaine with alcohol, and a trump card: Shah Rukh Khan as Raees, the Escobar of Gujarat.
Raees is a typical ’80s potboiler.
It’s fast-paced (half a dozen songs notwithstanding). But it also feels like 20 episodes squeezed into three hours. In that, plots and characters are often left without rhyme or reason. It’s like a film racing on skates. Albeit ones with wobbly wheels.
The film opens with a brief childhood sequence, a ’70s set piece. The young Raees is street-smart, and with a head-start into criminal activity. Yes, he’s poor. And overtly touchy about being called “Battery”, slang for someone who wears spectacles. But there’s no scarring humiliation or tragedy, or “Mera baap chor hai” tattoo.
When he grows up, in one broad stroke, he’s out to conquer the world with two basic lessons: mommy said “No business is small”. And smuggling mentor Jayraj Seth (Atul Kulkarni) said he has “baniye ki dimag, aur Miyabhai ki daring”. The first lesson he interprets as a license to break the law. The latter, if you think about it, comes from a person who’s hardly a role model.
But though Raees is creative at getting illegal shipments past cops (so was Escobar), he isn’t the smartest businessman around. He bungles up his effort to get seed money, trusts the wrong people, and picks fights for every slight.
And he does pick a lot of fights, taking on dozens of men, alone. If only a film on Escobar was made in Bollywood, he, too, would be Parkour-ing through Colombia.
But in that, Raees is a typical ’80s potboiler. Disturbingly, like commercial cinema from that period, the moral compass is a bit off. As Raees breaks up a political rally with flaming bottles of spirit, it sanctions violence. And it is borderline misogynistic, with the female lead (Mahira Khan) little more than a prop: a love interest he marries, keeps at home to bring up his child, and either yells at or romances.
As an actor, SRK brings to Raees his usual screen presence. But also something that has shades of his early career: the ability to play the menacing anti-hero, with a simmering, all-consuming anger. You must also give the man credit for powering through the dance and action routines at 51.
Dholakia couldn’t have found a stronger support cast. The cop, Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), has the best lines, and is a worthy screen rival. As he meets Raees for the first time, he sits filling a fountain pen, and offers tea: the tension palpable, but each trying to show no signs of it.
But in films starring SRK, other characters often exist only in context to him. Majmudar is his antithesis – the incorruptible cop with who he trades punch lines. The very talented Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub is little more than a loyal sidekick – the Gustavo to SRK’s Escobar – but with much less agency.
Raees also deserves credit for going with a principal set of Muslim protagonists, a rarity for present-day Bollywood, and even SRK. In the intolerant times we live in, that is a statement on its own.
Yet, the problem is fundamental: the writing is shoddy and unoriginal. And by the time it wades into certain true events, it is left with too little time and meaning. Raees perhaps works only as an SRK showcase. But we’ve seen many of those already.