It took me the second watch to realize that the opening voice over is Nawazuddin. He doesn’t have a very recognizable voice, and we don’t get an intro scene to explain why he is telling the story. I only figured it out when the voice over came back after the Interval and this time Nawazuddin identified himself. This could be a cool artistic decision, to let the audience only slowly realize that this story is being told by Nawazuddin. But I think more likely it is just sloppy. It would have been a lot better if we had known all along this was Nawazuddin, for one thing it would have made his introduction and eventual importance to the story a lot less out of nowhere.
(Like Randeep Hooda in Once Upon a Time in Mumbaii)
Anyhoo, Nawazuddin is telling the story of Fatehpura, Gujurat. That Gujurat is a state where everyday is a “Dry Day”, ever since Independence. Which brings up the question, is this opening sequence supposed to be set close to Independence? We get almost no clear timeline indications, and the ones we do get sometimes conflict. I would be grateful for an indication that Shahrukh’s childhood was supposed to be back in the 50s, and therefore his young manhood was in the 70s, and so on.
The visuals that go along with Nawazuddin’s explanation are dirty and confusing. Which is a bad way to open the film, because it’s hard to figure out what is happening, but it does serve a purpose. We are watching a country still making country liquor, and it is a gross and confusing process, so they want it to look that way. They are throwing in a million different ingredients and stirring them in pots outside, pouring them into plastic bags, and dirty bottles, and tasting and spitting out the results. Lil’ Shahrukh (I guess) comes running up and gives all the supplies he has bought for them from the market and is congratulated on bringing the most of all the boys. It took a minute for me to realize this was lil’ Shahrukh, because I had thought from the trailers that “Raees” would be used like “Godfather”, as an honorific that he slowly earns, not just as his name. I kind of don’t like it. The build to being called “Godfather” (or “Akbar” in Jodha-Akbar), was a natural dramatic tension and gave an extra power to the title of the film. Having it be just Shahrukh’s name loses all of that.
(Love the Spanish subtitles!)
After getting the view of the country still, we get to see lil’ Shahrukh’s regular life, brushing his teeth productively in front of a mirror while his mother tells him to shower. It’s a nice contrast, seeing the dirty dangerous life of the country still, and then his normal happy childhood, being well-cared for and clean. But the really good part of this sequence is when he leaves his house, striding quickly and efficiently down the street without looking back, and issuing a sharp whistle which brings other little boys leaping out of their houses to fall in behind him.
This is one of my favorite moments of the film, and I wish the rest of it had lived up to this. It’s establishing him right away as someone rushing into the future, with a clear idea of his goals, and loyal followers who will jump to run after him. But in the later sections, that clarity and confidence gets lost. We are promised the rise and rise of a great man here, but in the end, the film is about 5% “Great Man Succeeds”, 75% “Great Man struggles to attain goals”, and 20% “Man ultimately fails for no particular reason.” I want it to end like, well, The Godfather! With him finally having achieved total power, the goal he is running towards now.
At school, he runs into his first obstacle when he can’t read the board because it is fuzzy. His teacher calls him up and slaps his wrist, saying she hates when she has to do this. And then we see lil’ Shahrukh and his mother (Sheeba Chaddha, the wonderful prostitute actress from Talaash, and her first movie ever was Dil Se, playing Shahrukh’s mother again!). They are meeting with the nice local doctor who tells them that Shahrukh needs glasses, and they can’t have their “tiger” without sight, he will arrange for them. Sheeba cuts this off and says that she doesn’t want her son to use “borrowed vision”, she will arrange the money somehow. Cut to lil’ Shahrukh and lil’ Saqib, his best friend, huddled outside a fence looking through at a statue of Gandhi. Shahrukh tells his friend to shout out “Bhaijaan” to warn him if he sees someone coming, and then scrambles of the fence, runs over to the statue, and takes the glasses off of Gandhi’s face (I’m guessing this is similar to the temple statues that are dressed in real jewelry and clothing? That the Gandhi statue has separate glasses and it looks like real wool in the spinning wheel as well?). The watchman comes around and lil’ Saqib shouts out “Bhaijaan!” and lil’ Shahrukh goes running. Cut to the doctor looking at the empty frames and chuckling. He finally tells Shahrukh that he will arrange glasses for him, if Shahrukh can pay two rupees. Shahrukh hesitates, so the doctor looks around like he is afraid of being caught and pulls out his wallet and slides a two rupee bill over to Shahrukh, and tells Shahrukh to give it back and then he can get glasses.
This whole sequence is so interesting! The repeated refrain for the character is “Battery Nahin Bolna Ka”, he really doesn’t like being teased about his glasses. And it’s our intro to the character, seeing how he got them. And just now, writing it all out, I think I finally understand. The glasses are a symbol of the love with which he was raised. His teacher who figured out the problem, his mother who refused charity to get them, his friend who helped him steal from Gandhi, even the Gandhi statue itself, the local landmark of their area (he may be stealing from Gandhi, but he still takes his blessings before running away). And most of all, the apothecary who came up with a way to help him without making it feel like charity, making it appear that they were “putting one over” on someone by him slipping the money to Shahrukh to pay for it. This is the birth of his whole view of the world. That everyone has to work together to help each other. And that a secret backroom deal is more honorable than accepting blatant charity. When his glasses are insulted, it is an insult to all the care he received from everyone around him as a child.
And then there’s the bit I already talked about in the SPOILER review, when Shahrukh uses his glasses to have a clear vision of everything going on in his little neighborhood, before seeing the police arriving to do a raid. He runs down and leaps in front of the van, and then pulls out a whistle and sends a signal which is picked up by little boys up and down the area, until finally it reaches the still and the liquor is quickly hidden just as the police arrive. They are still able to find the liquor, hidden in water barrels. And when they come out, thanks to his glasses, the police are able to identify Shahrukh as the little boy who started it all. Again, the importance of the glasses. They set him apart from a young age, removed his anonymity as “just another little boy”. And he didn’t hide from that, the price of clear vision was worth becoming a target. And in this case, he is a target, and the cops slap him. At which point his mother comes running up to stop the cop and protect her son, dropping her bag as she runs and revealing the many empty little bottles hidden in it. The cop makes fun of her for selling junk (clearly bottles to be used for country liquor, but also clearly bottles she scavenged by digging through trash heaps and begging), and she comes back at him with “No trade is small, and there is no faith bigger than trade.” The word used is a variation on “Dharma”, which the subtitles faithfully translate as “religion”. Which, in some contexts, it is. But in this particular case, she means “faith”. As in, “I am not ashamed to work hard and make money, there is no greater purpose in the world.”
Later that night, lil’ Shahrukh lies in bed listening to the radio where they are announcing that their local bootlegger has been arrested, after 140 people died drinking his alcohol. He is thinking about all of this and asks his mother if it is true that no business is too small (I think “small” might have a slight tinge of “shameful” in this context). His mother confirms it, the whole thing she said, that no business is small and there is no faith greater than business. But this time she adds “so long as it hurts no one”.
(Can’t help thinking about poor Om Prakash in Zanjeer.)
This is what I was talking about in my SPOILER review. That it isn’t just that Shahrukh is a bootlegger, an “illegal” trade that has almost no immoral values attached to it, he is explicitly a bootlegger who only works in legitimate liquor, avoiding the country liquor which kills after this childhood experience. Again, the childhood flashback is setting us up for the rise and rise of a noble man. Not the inexplicable fall that we end up with.
The next day, lil’ Shahrukh announces to lil’ Saqib that they are going to start working for Seth, the big local bootlegger who only works in imported liquor, not local made. And then we see Atul Kulkarni (ha! I said it was him, and then just now imdb and wikipedia updated to include him on the cast list, so I was right!) moving through a fancy building filled with rushing people as one of them is asking how they can get their deliveries through since there is a police cordon outside which is searching everyone. And then a piping voice says “We will deliver it.” And there is a nice shot of Atul looking at two men to try to see how said it, and then finally pushing them aside, so he can see the two little boys hiding behind. He seems to get the measure of lil’ Shahrukh right away and starts bargaining, saying he will pay them such-and-such per bottle if they can take through 6 bottles. Shahrukh says no, he wants more. And Atul takes a look at him, and agrees. The two boys go into the room and dump out their books and pencil cases from their school bags, and instead replace them with carefully wrapped bottles, while the men watch, amused. They leave their school books behind and walk out of the room with that same distinctive determined walk, and as they are leaving, one of the men by the door calls Shahrukh “battery”. Shahrukh doesn’t even stop, just stabs him with his compass as he goes by and says “don’t call me Battery”. And lil’ Saqib doesn’t stop either, just yanks the compass back out as he follows.
This scene is so interesting! I want to go back to the shot of the schoolbooks left on the table behind them. From one side, it feels like “oh the poor children, giving up books for liquor”. But I don’t think that’s what it was at all. I think it was more “they can safely leave their childhood in the keeping of these men until they return”. I got no sense of danger in this scene, none of these men would hurt these kids, in fact they were enjoying them. Oh, and also, for the campus stab to work, it means that Shahrukh heard the early comment, remembered it, planned out his attack by holding back the campus when he emptied his bag, and knew he could trust Saqib to grab it for him after he walked away. It’s an early sign of leadership, planning ahead, and trusting his lieutenants. If only we had gotten to see everything that this promised!
Atul goes out on the balcony and watches lil’ Shahrukh and lil’ Saqib easily go past the police cordon and then look back and wave and smile to him. Atul gives us his tagline, “Mind of a merchant, bravery of a gangster”.
And you know, I almost skipped a scene here, because there is a natural flow into two scenes later from here. Which makes me think the purposefully inserted this bit. Where we see little Shahrukh celebrating Muharram and beating his back, transitioning into grown up Shahrukh in slow-mo also beating his back. Obviously, this was inserted so we could get a sexy shirtless Shahrukh visual. And it’s a great intro in general. But also, it’s a purposeful insertion of a Muslim coded scene, one of many. This is BY FAR the most Muslim film Shahrukh has ever been in, and not a secular international kind of Muslim like My Name is Khan, but an aggressive and obvious and old-fashioned kind of Muslim. Oh, also, isn’t Muharram a Shiia thing? I think most Muslims in India were Sunni? Or is it one of those things like “every Muslim is Shiia on Muharram”? Like everyone setting off firecrackers on Diwale?
(Muharram! Here is the wikipedia entry)
And then the scene changes and we see an older Atul standing on the same balcony as someone comes running up to tell him that their shipment is held up on the road, and Atul orders them to send Raees to clear it. See? This makes much more sense as a transition, going from young Atul on the balcony to old Atul.
And then we see a cop ordering someone to let the air out of a truck’s tires, and then sitting back and watching the driver as he does squats. Until the driver looks to the side and starts to laugh a little and says “Raees is coming”. And bam! Shahrukh! With dorky 70s hair and glasses and shirt, riding a motorcycle in a straight line.
This is also a better intro for the character than the Muharram one. Establishing how he was already known as someone to be feared. And his personality, with his determined face and uncaring about his personal appearance and so on. But it’s not Muslim, that is the only reason to insert the Muharram shots (well, and the shirtlessness).
Shahrukh comes riding up, stops his motorcycle, and jumps off, walks quickly over to the cops, pulls out a roll of money and puts it in his pocket and asks “are we good now?” The cop smiles, and waves for the barrier to come up so the truck can come through. Shahrukh casually puts his arm around hims and walks him over, chatting about how now they are square, he let the truck through and Shahrukh paid him. Only, he also let the air out of the tires. The cop chuckles and asks how he is supposed to put the air back and Shahrukh immediately grabs him and shoves him down to the ground, holding him in place and ordering him to “blow!”
Like I said, a great intro. He is strong and fearless. But also smart. He will pay off the cop, but he will also exact just the right amount of dominance so the cop will never dare do such a thing again. And he can switch from friendly and kind to terrifying and brutal in a second.
Only notice, he is doing this on purpose. He doesn’t have an uncontrollable temper, he has a very very controlled temper. He knows exactly how and when to use it. This is the thing that feels most related to Shahrukh in real life, it’s the same kind of personality we saw in “Aryan Khanna” in Fan, madness as needed.
(I am still distracted wondering why there was lipstick in his dressing room)
And we know this is madness as needed, not uncontrolled, because we see him calmly talking with Saqib (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub Khan, who seemed familiar to me, but looking at his filmography, I think I might have only seen him in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan?), his friend, about how he wants to start his own business. He’s a little drunk and a little uncertain about it, this is the “real” Shahrukh, not that angry face he puts on when he is working.
Shahrukh and his friend go to talk to Atul about maybe breaking out on their own. This scene was really interesting, because it is one of the few times we see Shahrukh make a mistake. And it is because he is sucked in by the personal relationship he has. Atul is sitting at a table playing cards with a bunch of other similar rich looking guys. Shahrukh shows up, and he jokes about how Shahrukh has brought him luck, his “ace”. And Shahrukh humbly and sincerely corrects that they are merely “Ghulam (slaves)”, not aces. And he humbly says that he wants to start his own business. Atul is calm, just glances at Saqib and asks “have you tried to talk him out of this?” Saqib says yes, but Shahrukh is firm. And Atul nods, and then gestures for Shahrukh to come sit at the table with him. And Shahrukh looks genuinely delighted to be invited.
But, once he sits down, Atul softly puts him in his place. Asking if he has a vendor in mind, Shahrukh says that of course he came to Atul first. Atul nods, and says he would be happy to sell to Shahrukh. 400 lakh? Shahrukh looks thrown and shakes his head. Okay, 200 lakh? No? Surely he has at least enough to pay for 100 lakh before he decided to set up on his own? The rest of the men at the table start chuckling and Shahrukh looks uncertain. He says that he will take 100 lakh, but may need some time to arrange the money. Atul nods and says that, after all this time together, he will give Shahrukh 3 days. Shahrukh nods and gets up, and as he is about to walk out the door, Atul pulls off his watch and throws it over, and Shahrukh grabs it out of the air. He tells him to keep the watch, it will help him track the time.
So much class stuff in that scene!!!! Going all the way back to when he was a kid, the local boys worked for the local still, not the fancy imported liquor trader. Shahrukh was breaking through a ceiling by talking his way into working for Atul back then. And since then, Atul has always kept him at a bit of a distance. Indulged and complimented, but ultimately still just a “Ghulam”, as Shahrukh knows. And he is trying to stop Shahrukh from leaving his employ by reminding him of his “position”. Only he doesn’t understand that Shahrukh’s mind doesn’t work like that, reminding him of his position is just going to inspire him more to prove himself. Oh, and religion is all mixed up in here too. The wealthy high class bootleggers are all Hindu, while Shahrukh and Saqib are Muslim, and the doctor in their neighborhood is Parsi. It’s not as straight as “Hindu is richer than Muslim”. It’s more that the low income folks are all mixed in together with no concern for religion, whereas the richer folks are subdivided into their own communities.
That’s also, I think, what is throwing Shahrukh’s character a little in this scene. He believes Atul’s friendliness and warmth, because he has always been shown support and warmth from those around him. He can’t believe it when he realizes it was all fake, that Atul was setting him up to be humiliated. I still think it would fit better with the character if the scene was played with a little more hardness, like Shahrukh caught on a little faster and put up his own barriers, it would fit better with that determined little boy who wouldn’t take an insult from anyone. But I guess it kind of works like this.
And this diversity and awareness of others is where Shahrukh’s strength is. He and Saqib go riding off debating where they are going to find the money. And they pass the garage where the owner has a new car for sale. And then stop as another local runs in front of them holding a goat, explaining that goats are going for double or triple the price, because it’s Eid. And Shahrukh puts this together, spins back to the garage where he is able to easily take the car for a “test drive”, and then we cut to him in the country trading the car for goats, and finally him and Saqib riding on the back of a truck, surrounded by goats, and Shahrukh declares that they are taking their goats to Bombay to raise the funds. This is the sort of opportunity and outside the box thinking that Atul could never get, trapped in his ivory tower.
(Wow, there really are a lot of goats in Bombay on Eid!)
Of course, Atul also never has to deal with the messy realities of pain and danger. Which is what Shahrukh and Saqib walk right into. We cut from them riding on the back of a truck, to walking into a teaming butchers market. There is meat and live animals EVERYWHERE. Which has the usual vibe when a scene is set in a butcher shop, from Rocky to Marty, of a sort of earthy unpleasant cold and painful feel. But also has super super Muslim feel within the Indian context!
And even more Muslim when Shahrukh uses “Bhai” to address one of the dealers and asks where they can set up a corner to sell their goats for Eid. The dealer stops him and lets him know that no outsiders can barter here. Shahrukh tries to argue, that it is Eid, everyone will need goats, there is enough for all. The dealers are slowly gathering around, and finally one of them tells Shahrukh to go, calling him “Battery”. And Shahrukh slowly folds up his glasses and puts them in his pocket, and then FIGHT SCENE!!!!
I was watching for it on the second watch, and Saqib does help out, he hits a few guys, and then is over-whelmed by numbers. But Shahrukh has that kind of madness in him. He isn’t just fast, he is brutal and won’t stop until he is sure his man is down. Plus, he is willing to use anything and everything as a weapon. Including, at one point, a goat’s head! This is what sets him apart, that he can flip the switch and be completely focused on the task and the goal at hand and not worry about anything else. Although, notice, he put his glasses away first. He was thinking straight enough to protect them (and his eyes, since if they broke while on his face, that could be serious damage). Also, if we follow the “glasses represent his childhood and community” thinking, he is carefully protecting that part of himself from this fight scene.
Shahrukh gets knocked down a lot, but he always picks himself up, until finally he is the last man standing, only to hear a gun cocking. He turns to see Narendra Jha (who is also in Kaabil! Funny, both his movies opening opposite each other. And he was in Mahenjo Daro apparently too, but I have no memory of him) standing holding a gun in his face. And with his last bit of energy, he grabs the gun and flips it back around to face Narendra. Before passing out and slowly falling backward as he shoots the fun into the air. It’s a gorgeous shot.
Okay, ending there! Picking back up tomorrow for the first song and Nawazuddin and Mahira’s introductions.