This is not a happy movie. But it is a good movie! I’m glad I can be a fan of someone who wasn’t afraid to make a sad good movie.
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)
This is the movie where 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.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Okay, just to get us all on the same page, one paragraph to cover the plot of the entire film:
Shahrukh is born and raised in a small area in Gujurat, where everyone lives off of bootlegging. As a young man, he decides he wants to start his own bootlegging business and goes off to Bombay and impresses the big Bombay boss “Musa” with his bravery and personality. Musa gives him the start up funds and he quickly becomes a successful bootlegger, while remaining tied to his home neighborhood and community. And also starts a romance with a local girl. At the same time, the one honest cop in Gujurat, Nawazuddin, is re-assigned to Shahrukh’s small area as punishment for arresting a bigwig. Nawazuddin starts a game of wits with Shahrukh, even though Shahrukh is one of the smaller bootleggers in the area, setting an informer to watch him and desperately trying to capture one of his trucks. Shahrukh and the rest of the bootleggers respond to this pressure with increased efforts, until finally Shahrukh gets so connected and so big that he represents a threat to his original boss Atul Kulkarni, the big man of the area. Atul tries to have him killed, Shahrukh fights off the attack and kills his attacker. Musa from Bombay helps Shahrukh avoid charges. And confirms to him that Atul ordered the attack and indicates that Shahrukh needs to take Atul out. Shahrukh does, and it’s a bloodbath Nawazuddin is re-assigned for allowing it all to happen on his watch. INTERVAL. In the second half, Nawazuddin is reminded of Shahrukh when Shahrukh sends him an invitation to a party to celebrate his son’s birth. He starts to put it together that the trucks which drive through his current territory are delivering to Shahrukh. And that Shahrukh has both the current CM and the opposition in his power. Meanwhile, Shahrukh has become more and more of a savior to his community, buying sewing machines for the women, beating up a corrupt mill owner until he agrees to pay back wages to his employees, generally being beloved and awesome. Nawazuddin raids one of Shahrukh’s partners, and Shahrukh leans on the CM to get him re-assigned again, this time to the central control room. Where Nawazuddin starts listening in on Shahrukh’s phones. He uses the information he gathers to put a wedge between Shahrukh and the politicians by publicizing a threat Shahrukh made. This pushes Shahrukh to follow through on his threat and lead a riot against the politician. He is arrested, and this time to get out, he runs for political office himself and wins. Riding high, Shahrukh decides to invest his money in a new development where the whole neighborhood can move and own their own homes. But then riots happen elsewhere and the police issue a curfew order. Shahrukh spends his money buying food and delivering it to the people while the shops are empty, and at the same time the corrupt politicians take their revenge by canceling his building permits. Desperate for money to pay back the down payments made by his neighbors, Shahrukh goes to Musa in Bombay who tricks him into agreeing to smuggle gold. Only hidden in the gold is bomb materials which are used to set off explosions around the country. The police quickly track the smuggling back to Shahrukh, and Shahrukh goes to Bombay to find Musa and take his revenge for being set up and on behalf of the dead. Shahrukh kills Musa, then returns home when he realizes his family and friends are being tortured by the police as punishment for his sins. He pulls one final trick, bringing a group of reporters with him when he returns so he can’t be shot on sight and can have one last farewell with his family. And then Nawazuddin takes him away, and pulls over on the side of the road and shoots him in cold blood. THE END
Phew! That was LONG! Okay, what are the big points I want to bring up right away? I know what the BIG BIG point is that I need to talk about, but I’m going to save that for the end. First, the guyliner. And the whole bearded traditional look, and just generally Shahrukh’s appearance. It was great, right? Except, I think he did have fillers or something put in his cheeks to make him look younger. And, while I loved his intro action scene, and both of the ones in Bombay, but the “Laila” one got a little over the top. And the one during Muharram got really bad at certain points. If it was a standard Rohit Shetty kind of movie, then I wouldn’t mind the physically impossible fight movies. But the rest of the film is fairly grounded, so it kind of stood out.
Second, how AWESOME was Mahira???? She did a great job with her role (as I was expecting, after seeing her in Humsafar), a believable partner for him in every way. And it was a really great role! I can’t decide if we meet her in the middle of their romance as an artistic decision, or if they cut some scenes. But I could believe either way, because it was really cool to have Shahrukh this tough clever awesome guy, and then all of a sudden we see him take off his glasses and fix his hair and look unsure, and we don’t know why until suddenly Mahira shows up and we realize that this is his little routine. I also really liked how their relationship progressed. She was completely in control of their courtship, and some of the flirty moments later. Clearly, Shahrukh got off on giving up control to her. But then way at the end when things started to fall apart, we see how when it gets down to the wire, he is in control and she is okay with that.
Third, what was up with Nawazuddin’s character? He’s one I’m really going to need to sleep on. I think maybe there was a progression in corruption from his side at the same time that Shahrukh was progressing in goodness? But I’m not sure. We see him constantly getting transferred for honesty. And then suddenly he is Superintendent of Police? There is also a moment towards the middle when it looks like maybe he has been sleepwalking through his latest job, until he gets a clue that Shahrukh might be involved, and that inspires him again. So maybe he is supposed to be going from a dedicated and excited cop, to a burnt out cop, to finally one who has learned to play the game?
And finally, fourth, This:
Is what Shahrukh wants to do to Yatras.
This is the point that I’m not sure if it is a reach or not. But I can tell you, as I was sitting there watching this scene thinking “wait, what?????”, my friend leaned over and said “Is this some kind of wish fulfillment for the Ram Rath Yatra?”
Yatras are a political thing that all sorts of groups have done for all sorts of reasons. It could just be an image. But the image is a bunch of saffron wearing people supported by police going through a Muslim slum. And the residents of that slum being ready for it and slamming them down and pushing them back.
Sure, at the end, we have the alternative wish fulfillment of him brutally killing the Bombay boss who ordered the bombings. So both sides of extremists get their punishments.
But come on, when was the last time you saw a bunch of aggressively-coded Muslims just plain beating the tar out of a bunch of Hindu politicians? That CAN’T be “just a movie”, right?
Here’s another thing I was very aware of: do you know how tiny Fatehpura (Raees’ hometown) is? TINY!!!! Super small. Like, doesn’t even have a full wikipedia entry kind of small.
Which made me think about the whole film differently. Maybe it’s not about our hero rising and rising until he finally falls. Maybe it’s about our hero always being kind of a small town guy who is manipulated and used by the big city folks.
One image that struck me in that opening childhood sequence in the film is when our hero first tries out his new glasses. He climbs to the top of a clocktower with his friend and uses his new sight to look around their world and spot a mechanic cleaning a car, the doctor in his office, and so on. And finally, the police about to raid the distillery which supports all of them. The point isn’t the liquor or the distillery, it’s everything else. Their whole community rests on this one industry, and the community is the point.
This carries through to later, when the romance starts so seemingly suddenly. We never see a “first meeting”, we are dropped right into the middle of a routine with Shahrukh hitting a cricket ball onto the roof of her house so he has an excuse to go inside and see Mahira. And they are already flirty and seemingly in love, before we’ve seen anything else of their relationship.
But, if this is a “village” movie, then there wouldn’t really be a “first meeting”. This is presumably a girl he has known off and on his whole life, who has suddenly become the biggest flirt and beauty of the district. While he has become the biggest leader and richest young man in the area. Naturally, they would gravitate towards each other.
And their whole romance changes then, right? This isn’t a romance of glamour and excitement, this is a boy pulling the pigtails of the girl he likes. And the way Mahira becomes more of a business partner in the second half, that makes sense, because they were both brought up in this industry and this criminal environment, they had the same “training”, it’s not like he married some innocent rich girl, or low class naach girl. This is someone who saw the same things he did and knows the same things he does just from growing up where they grew up.
If we look at it from the “village” side of things, then Nawazuddin becomes more clearly the “villain” of the whole thing. He is the outsider who doesn’t understand the local economy or environment and customs and shakes things up and breaks a stable pattern.
It’s got to be on purpose that the illegal trade chosen is the Gujurati bootlegging, right? Because it is the most moral immoral possibility. Alcohol bootlegging is always kind of a hard sell as “super evil”, since it is such a part of everyday life. And in this instance, it’s legal everywhere else in India, it’s just this one particular state that is dry. More over, from the little background reading I did, it’s not just Gujurati addicts who are buying from Gujurat. It’s actually cheaper to buy it illegally there, than legally in other states and pay the taxes on it. In fact, part of the reason it might still be “illegal”, is because the tax-free sales bring so much money into the state that the government wants to keep it rolling.
So our hero and his whole neighborhood doing this business is not because they are innately evil or uncaring, it’s just what everyone does and has always done. They even go a step further and show the very opening when there was a “country whiskey” still going, which really is harmful due to the high alcohol levels and funky ingredients and so on, and how after there were deaths from that liquor, our little hero decided to only bootleg legitimate alcohol that was brought in from elsewhere. It’s a completely harmless trade, the exact same stuff you can buy and drink legally just a few miles away, only sold here without taxes attached.
Watching the film with this in mind, and aware of how it ends, you can see it as Nawazuddin as sort of an Inspector Javart figure, overly invested in law and order. More than that, as the figure that drives Shahrukh to the dark side.
Look at how they interact. Shahrukh sets up his business and donates books to the local school and supports the local economy, and is generally good for the people. Nawazuddin comes to town and starts pushing back at the trade. His pressure is what inspires the other bootleggers to consider banding together. And, once that is suggested, Shahrukh sees the chance to take control and consolidate his territory.
Nawazuddin blocks all the roads in an attempt to trap Shahrukh’s shipment; Shahrukh is driven to partner with Damla Seth, and take over the seas as well as the land. It is this growth that leads his former boss Atul Kulkarni to see Shahrukh as a threat, which leads to the first massive gunfight and murder spree of the film.
Once Nawazuddin is transferred and gone, Shahrukh turns even more to the “good”. He buys sewing machines for the neighborhood women, he forces the local mill owner to pay his employees, his business grows but, again, he isn’t actually harming anyone. If you watch the film, there is never a scene of a dangerous drunkard or a desperate addict. There is no harm in the alcohol itself, it is all in the business surrounding it.
And even the business is not that bad until, again, Nawazuddin gets involved. Shahrukh went head to head with Atul before, when he wanted to go out on his own. But he was able to navigate that situation peacefully. It was only when police pressure heightened the situation that it got out of control.
And the same thing happens again in the second half. Nawazuddin leaks the content of Shahrukh’s conversation with a politician, which is what forces him to follow through on his threat to start a riot if the politician comes through his area. If you notice, after that initial angry phone call, Shahrukh pounds his hand on his desk and then slowly flattens it out until he just gently taps and asks for tea. His anger is spent, he may have forgotten the whole situation. But Nawazuddin purposefully chooses to exacerbate the situation by publicizing it, which leads to a riot.
(Great images though, right?)
And the riot leads to Shahrukh being in jail, which leads to him spending money to run for office and get elected so he cannot be touched again. That expense, plus the expense of feeding the neighborhood during a police ordered curfew, plus the expense of losing his investment in his construction project thanks to politicians who became his enemies thanks to Nawazuddin’s interference, all of this is what drives him to being deep in debt and desperate.
And this is where “Musa” steps in, the Bombay boss. If Nawazuddin is putting pressure on him from one side, Musa is applying it from the other. And they both only see Shahrukh, and the people around him, as something to be used for their own purposes. Nawazuddin sees it as a game, he wants arrests, to see his power of law take over the powers of chaos. There is no greater motivation for him, no tragic backstory, no emotion. He just follows the law because it is the law and he wants to defeat Raees because he challenges that law.
Musa has a different purpose. Musa saw Shahrukh’s potential years earlier and has been cultivating him since then for the moment when he might be valuable and perhaps a little too trusting. While Nawazuddin and “The State” have been putting on the pressure from one side, Musa has over and over again appeared as a savior. He gave Shahrukh the start up funds he needed in the beginning. He helped him get out of jail after Nawazuddin arrested him for killing his assassin. And, most importantly, he was the one to tell Shahrukh that it was Atul Kulkarni who ordered the killing, and say “I give him to you.”
Shahrukh does a magnificent job in this scene. The first time I watched it, I saw it as just processing the betrayal of his old friend. But it’s more than that. While he is on the phone with Musa, you can also see the shock and hesitance when Musa offers that he should “take” Atul. He feels the pressure of expectations, that this man who is more powerful than he thinks the response should be lethal. And thinks that he is capable of a lethal response.
If Nawazuddin and Musa had never entered Shahrukh’s life, he might have been happy as a small unambitious bootlegger in his hometown. It was this pressure from both sides which made him expand his operation, grow increasingly more lethal, and ultimately be used as a pawn in a game in which he has no role.
I was watching for it the second time, and I still think there isn’t enough lead up to Nawazuddin’s switch turning right at the end. He has been a Javart figure, obsessed with rules and regulations. And with playing the game with his mind. And now, suddenly, he is torturing people and killing in cold blood.
And it’s not even like he is killing because of “the rules”! His superior wants to arrest Shahrukh and have him stand trial. It is Nawazuddin who insists on killing him instead, against orders and without authorization.
Really, the whole last 20 minutes feels unnatural and unrelated to what has come before. Even watching knowing it is coming, following how Musa has set him up for years as a potential fall guy and how Nawazuddin is increasingly cold and calculating, it still doesn’t work. I don’t have that “grand destiny” feeling that I have when I watch Deewar or Sholay, that this was a character never fated to be happy. Instead, it feels like a series of random incidents of bad luck and poor decisions.
(Spoilers? But does anyone not know this ending already?)
The one thing that does work really well for me is when Shahrukh cries out that “in trying to save my neighborhood, I burned down my city.” That is a good resonant theme. All along, his character has been focused on his own small town and community. For that focus to have put blinders on him to the bigger picture, and for there to be shock and guilt when those blinders are removed, that I could believe.
But not the way it happened! Even if he is desperate for money, we have seen him desperate before, there is no reason for him to take this sketchy job to earn it. And no reason for him to fall for the obvious game Musa and his second-in-command are running on him to get him to agree. And heck, why exactly is he even desperate? We learn that it all went for the free food they are giving the neighborhood during curfew, and that he needs to pay back the down payments his friends made on their units in the new construction which has stalled.
But, this doesn’t really hang together. If he still has the alcohol, and they know the curfew will lift at some point, won’t everyone be willing to just wait and be paid back later? What’s the rush? It just doesn’t work as the kind of high pressure situation that is being presented.
They needed to get us to the sacrificial Amitabh/crime doesn’t pay message. But the way they got there just doesn’t add up. Nawazuddin turning cold-hearted illogical evil all of a sudden, and Shahrukh turning into a scared babe in the woods.
Really, it doesn’t add up because there IS no logical way to get there! Shahrukh has been clear all along that no business is too small (so he won’t be afraid of starting over and therefore driven to do something he shouldn’t), and that business is only good if it harms no one (so he won’t be doing something that will bring vengeance down on him). And Nawazuddin has been clear all along that he follows the rules and sees this as a game, not life and death.
What would make a lot more sense is an ending of Nawazuddin bending the rules to help out Shahrukh, having realized that Shahrukh has an ultimate moral authority. Or Shahrukh taking Nawazuddin on as one of his “people” that he has to protect and defend. I guess what I’m saying is, I didn’t feel an ultimate conflict building between the two of them, I feel an ultimate coming together building up. It feels like two world views that will ultimately meet.
What feels like the real conflict is between Shahrukh and the crooked politicians. While Shahrukh’s world view involves fair dealing and honesty in trade, along with a strong sense of responsibility for others, the politicians are the opposite, presenting a false face to the world, using people for their own ends, weak and grasping and uncaring. And yet, in the end, these characters are dropped and play no clear role in his downfall.
Also dropped is the storyline in which Shahrukh runs for office. He wins, but we never see any real after effects of that. Maybe that is the turning point of the film? The moment it leaves the track it was on and jumps over to a forced tragedy?
What might make more sense is, after Shahrukh has been released from jail and won his elections, he starts using those same smarts and daring to climb the political ladder. If we see him force his way into a coalition. If we end with him being Nawazuddin’s boss, and giving him orders “in writing”. Finally being the kind of boss Nawazuddin (and therefore the state as a whole) can respect.
I think that’s where it went wrong in the narrative, going from the election to the over-reach of the housing development and then the illogical fall from grace. But I wonder where it went wrong in the production process?
I know this film had a lot of variations. Dholakia was researching and writing it for years. And then he got Farhan Akhtar to sign on to produce and star, playing the cop character. At which point, I assume, the cop had a much larger role. And then Farhan brought on Shahrukh to play Raees, which surely changed the perception of that character. Probably brought in the song sequences and romance track that wouldn’t necessarily have been there before. And Farhan himself dropped out, which changed the conception of his cop character to something softer and more Nawazuddin-y.
If it had been Farhan’s film, might the Raees character have been something a little closer to Emraan in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai? Less the mixture of lover/friend/fighter, and more just the crazed fighter we saw in his murder spree scenes?
Or might it have gone the other way? The Raees character being more clearly the savior and innocent victim, rather than this super hero action star?
I keep going back to that first teaser from well over a year ago. For a movie that was supposed to release on Eid. The very first scene they shot was Shahrukh standing up for his people and beating the living heck out of a politician invading his territory. Is that the movie this was going to be? Shahrukh being the angry Muslim avenger? And then the protests started, and they got scared off of it, put in an ending where he is defeated for no particular reason?