Happy Raees Week! I was considering not even including Don as an option, because it was so extremely different from the kind of film it looks like this will be. But on the other hand, it is Shahrukh’s most famous “bad” role, so I really should talk about it.
(By the way, since this is a “compare and contrast” kind of post, just assume the whole thing is filled with SPOILERS and will only make sense if you have actually seen Don and followed all the Raees trailers)
The thing with Don is, he’s not a very Indian kind of criminal. Well, he’s a very Indian-film kind of criminal, but not a “real” kind of criminal. Which is totally on purpose!
No one wants to see a movie about the kind of crime they experience in their everyday life. And really no one wants to make a movie about the kind of criminals that they experience in real life, because then those criminals will kill them (for instance, the new movie that just came out about Dawood Ibrahim which has been delayed and delayed for this very reason).
And therefore, Don! A cool international criminal and ganglord who travels the world controlling his vast criminal empire and doing cool heists. In fact, I don’t think either Don film has a single scene set in India. Don I opens in Paris, then goes to Singapore. I guess our “good” Shahrukh is in India, but that’s it (STOP READING HERE IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN DON!!! REALLY REALLY SHOULDN’T SPOIL THE ENDING FOR YOURSELF!).
Don II takes place in Malaysia and Germany, I think. Again, nothing in India. And the crimes aren’t “Indian” style crimes either. No smuggling, no politicking, no government corruption. Just fancy heists and explosions and stuff like that.
The “Indian” part comes in with the personal relationships. Especially in Don I, Arjun Rampal’s quest for his son and Priyanka Chopra’s vengeance for her brother drive the whole plot. Plus, if you pay attention to the super boring opening bit with the police chief talking, the whole gang war is just a family feud. There were two seconds in command to the big gang boss. One of them seized control while the other went into hiding. It’s just like two brothers fighting over their inheritance. And Don is the adopted son who tricks the other two and manages to take it all.
But then in Don II, even that “Indian” level is removed. Oh, we get a brief glimpse of Priyanka’s brother in a photograph. And there is some casual mention of past resentments between Boman and Shahrukh. But mostly, it’s a straight up cops and robbers heist movie. Taking place everywhere in the world but at home.
Western film loves the heist movie, and Indian film has done a few of them as well. But Don II is on a whole different level, with international settings and beautiful women and fancy sets and impossible plans. Plus car chases, explosions. And sexy James Bond style song numbers!
But what really makes it un-grounded is the lack of moral underpinnings. Or rather, of a source of morality in the world. Indian film is so “hero” focused in its story telling, the audience is completely caught up in that world view and storyline and judges who is “good” and who is “bad” with our hero as a marker.
Year before last (time moves so swiftly!), Badlapur got a lot of critical acclaim for how it played with the idea of the “hero”. Varun Dhawan goes from a sweet and charming young man, an innocent victim, to a dark and dangerous force who victimizes innocent people. It was a consciously disturbing choice to put the audience through this. We have been so trained to trust our hero right or wrong, even if he molests woman or kills heartlessly, etc. etc. Not like we believe these moral lessons and follow them in real life, but that we understand how the Indian film narrative functions, and it relies on everything the hero does being the correct choice. So the slowly dawning realization that the “hero” and “villain” characters had switched positions in Badlapur was mind-blowing.
Only, Don had already done it! We went along thinking that “Vijay” was our hero, so we could ignore some slightly questionable actions along the way (vicious fight with Arjun Rampal and Priyanka, getting drunk, flirting with Isha Koppikar). Only to find out, that he was the villain all along! Like, literally the villain, not just “changed into a worse person”, but an actual different person than we thought. That’s where the moral underpinnings are just gone, the audience discovering they have been “rooting for” the bad guy all along, and this narrative has no good or bad, it is all shades of grey. Well, until my imaginary vision for Don 3 comes true and morality is returned.
Now, Raees is promoting itself as more of an artsy “shades of grey” type of movie, but in reality, I bet it is a lot more firm in who the hero is and why than Don was. Shahrukh is going to be vicious and greedy and ambitious. But the bedrock values of the film will not be broken, I doubt he will ever hit a woman or kick a puppy or even kill a true “innocent” during all his violence.