I already put up a quick SPOILERS review late last night for everyone who’s already seen the film, now I want to put up a NO SPOILERS version for those of you who are debating whether or not you want to watch it.
This is not the standard Shahrukh Khan film. If you want the Shahrukh-the-sexy-lover kind of movie, the bright colors and child appropriate and catchy songs kind of movie, this is not that. On the other hand, if you don’t usually think of yourself as a “Shahrukh movie” kind of person, if you like something a little grittier and meatier in your films, then don’t be turned off by the star, this might be the movie for you!
(And if you are that person, you should also check out Chak De, India if you haven’t already)
I said in my headline that Shahrukh does Amitabh and Akshay. And that’s essentially what the film feels like. In the mood and message, it is very similar to the classic 70s Amitabh films. If even has a little homage in the middle, in case we missed the connection.
But Akshay is in there too, in the sort of modern feel to the way the film is presented. The action scenes are intense. Intense like the Amitabh ones are, where you feel like he is fighting all of society, and working out some kind of inner rage through it. But also intense in the Akshay way, the fight choreography is very good, and very brutal. This isn’t the Amitabh fighting with the huge punches and kicks. This is modern fighting with kicks between the legs and elbows in the face and big wrestler style throws.
Akshay is also there in the concept of the hero. I mentioned in one of my discussions of the song trailers how Amitabh didn’t dance in his classic films. He was so angry and so intense, he had no time for dancing. But that’s not what the new heroes are like. They dance, they joke, they have fun. And then when the situation requires it, they get serious. That’s what Akshay was like in Airlift and Rustom and dozens of his other more recent films. And it’s what Ajay is like and Tiger, and all of these newer action heroes (“newer” meaning post-Amitabh). Only, I think, Akshay does it better than the others, the combination of serious and light-hearted.
(He somehow makes this song work perfectly with the tired and overly responsible and scared character in the rest of the film)
Really, this almost feels more like an Akshay movie than a Shahrukh film, now that I am writing it out. Except for one very important thing. Well, two things, one of which is important and one of which is very important. Oh, and one other thing that is just interesting.
The just interesting one first. As we know from the trailers, there is a bit of a cat and mouse thing in the film between Shahrukh and Nawazuddin. And Shahrukh plays it in a kind passive way. There is no macho posturing in his interactions, he gives Nawazuddin innocent eyes and soft voice and all that. The result isn’t that Shahrukh looks weak, just canny, and Nawazuddin plays off of that well too, also avoiding the macho, being soft-spoken and polite through out. I could possibly see one of the regular “action” heroes playing the scene in the same way, but it wouldn’t ring as true, you know? It would feel like they were just “acting” like they were calm and reasonable, but actually wanted to flip over the table. Where as here, it feels like both Shahrukh and Nawazuddin enjoyed their interactions partly because it let them reveal the sort of soft meditative side of themselves, instead of the big violent macho actions they have to go through with others.
That “softer side” is also part of the first “important” thing that happens with Shahrukh in this role, the way Mahira Khan is treated in her role. Shahrukh really sells the idea of his hero being put on the backfoot (that’s a saying, right?) by his lover. And of him being genuinely vulnerable when he is with her. And enjoying her strength and confidence. Akshay does well with strong women too, really all the action heroes do, often an “action” movie gives more space for the heroine to speak her mind and be herself than a straight romance does. But the specific way this relationship works, with Shahrukh being so aggressive everywhere else in his life, and so cautious in his romance, so puppy-eyed and helpless around her, I think that would only work with Shahrukh Khan. And it let’s his heroine take control in a way she couldn’t otherwise. Oh, and by the way, remember that vow that his heroine’s would always get top billing about Nirbhaya? Yeah, he’s sticking with it! Mahira got the very first credit in the film. Not just ahead of Shahrukh, but of Nawazuddin and everyone else too.
(The way she teases him in this song and he goes along with it, that’s their whole relationship and it’s AWESOME)
And finally, the “very important” thing that is different with Shahrukh in this role. It’s just so Muslim! He celebrates Muharram and has a Muslim wedding and goes to Masjid and everything else. There are a few scenes that, if you want to read them like that, are specifically about the Muslim reaction to the Hindutva movement, and they would not be the same with a different star in the film, with someone who isn’t “India’s Most Famous Muslim.”
Setting all of these things aside, if this was the first Shahrukh movie you ever saw and you knew nothing about his public persona, I think you would still have to recognize him as a truly amazing actor. There was an interview I saw with Karan a while back where he talked about how Shahrukh creates a different walk for each of his characters, that’s one of his starting points for building a character. I’d already noticed his “Don walk” in the Don films, because it was so distinctive. But then I started watching closely in his other movies, and he really does make a new walk for each character! And his Raees walk is phenomenal. Efficient purposeful stride that is matched by every movement and every expression he has. There is no waste, if that makes sense, in anything he does.
Except in his romantic scenes and his scenes with Nawazuddin. I saw a comment on twitter, I think Shahrukh re-tweeted it, that he has even more chemistry with Nawazuddin than with Mahira. I don’t know if I agree with that, but I can see where they are coming from. Because his whole body relaxes when he is with them, either of them. Relaxes, but stays recognizably “Raees”, rather than any other Shahrukh character or Shahrukh in real life.
I focused a lot on Shahrukh so far, because after all, this is an “In and As” movie, the central character/star is 90% of the film. Unfortunately, the remaining 10% doesn’t really live up to the central performance.
The other performances do live up to Shahrukh, Mahira and Nawazuddin are predictably wonderful. But the fight choreography is a bit uneven, almost like they used a different choreographer for some fights versus others. The songs are all right, but feel a little choppy. I could have done with slightly longer takes and more time spent in certain settings, instead of 30 seconds and then moving on. Feels lazy, like they didn’t want to bother coming up with anything interesting, so they just keep changing settings instead. The whole movie feels slightly choppy too. There are 2 big time jumps, those are clear and okay. But there are multiple other time periods that are just not clear. At one point there is a definite 3 week deadline given, and I have no sense of when that deadline approached.
Part of the problem is that there were just too many different tracks and everything was happening at once. So we cut from an intense business conversation to a love song with no real barrier in between. Just as I was getting invested in one storyline, we would suddenly leave it and I would have to get invested all over again in another.
The whole narrative in general felt slightly confused. Like the One Big Idea of the film was lost somewhere along the way. I think I know what the one big idea is supposed to be, there is a line that is repeated through out, but I’m not sure how exactly that idea relates back to everything we see happening on screen.
But what makes it work and roughly holds it all together is the central performance and the central character. That’s another way in which this is structured like an Amitabh Bachchan film. Like the later Amitabh films, the filmmakers were counting on the Star to both be the Sun around which everything revolves, and the force driving it all forward at the same time. And that works! To some degree.
Shahrukh is what makes this a good movie; the narrative is what holds it back from being a Great Movie.