Shah Rukh Khan’s introductory scenes, in all of his films, define the film itself. Generally he walks out of a cloud of smoke, hair impeccably in place, that glorious smile on his face, arms outstretched, reminding you once again why he is the country’s king of romance. In Raees, the man is first seen shirtless, whipping himself with a cluster of blades during a Muharram procession – back bloodied, messy hair, eyes brimming with fervour and passion. Raees (Shah Rukh Khan) is a self-made bootlegger in prohibition Gujarat who slowly rises to political power while playing cat-and-mouse with a policeman (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) obsessed with reigning him in. As he climbs up, Raees finds allies in powerful men, but like they say, the higher you rise, the lower is the fall.
Directed by Rahul Dholakia, the man behind the unforgettable Parzania, Raees is a slick commercial film with all the elements of a mass entertainer. Packed with action, plot twists, hummable music and dialoguebaazi, the film ticks all the boxes. But the film does not abandon sense or sensibilities while doing so. The script is tight and well-written, with short reliefs of dry humour thrown in. There are delectable Macbethian shades in Raees’s character and in his relationship with his wife. The cinematography and editing is commendable. One must specifically mention the meat market sequence – which was also ably supported by the production design department – and the dance bar face off. The songs are not memorable and mostly unnecessary, but the theme score is definitely striking enough and does its job. The background score is a tad too much but the necessity is understandable given the seventies-style action film treatment of the film.
And why do I talk about sensibilities? Bollywood films rarely have protagonists, especially leading men, belonging to minority communities. It is refreshing to see a Shah Rukh Khan ditch his lovey-dovey Rahul vibe for a character more real, rooted and robust. Not to mention that Muslim-Hindu bonhomie is portrayed with such a delightful matter-of-factness, one realizes how distant politics is from people. There is a poignant moment when Raees realizes that he has been unknowingly instrumental in a string of bomb blasts in the country. He breaks down, overcome by guilt and horror, and passionately tries to distance himself and his religion from the terrorists. His wife (Mahira Khan), unlike other action hero films, is not a pin up. She is his source of support and encouragement, and even that final nudge of confidence he needs when he decided to run for the elections from prison, she being his representative outside. Raees might be the alpha outside, beating up men who call him “Battery” – a slang used for bespectacled wimps – but she is the one who rules the house, and is the only one who can call him by that cuss.
Raees is definitely one of Shah Rukh Khan’s best performances. The man is angry but conniving, intelligent but foolish in love. There are many moments in the film that show the prowess and depth the man has as an actor. When Raees is about to murder his mentor, his eyes mirror that of Macbeth when he was about to stab King Duncan – afraid of the man he has become but aware of the fact that this is the only way ahead. Shah Rukh is powerful, bursting with charisma, energy and a sort of hungry heat to scorch every scene with a fine balance of craft and charm. Hence, you cannot blame a Nawazuddin Siddiqui for not standing any chance at all in front of Shah Rukh, absolutely eclipsed, even though he plays his part of the obsessive no-nonsense police officer with elan. Mahira Khan is delightful in her Hindi debut and Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub makes for a fantastic support to Shah Rukh’s Raees.
For all those who enjoy macho action films, this is how it’s done. You don’t have to be brazenly masochistic, lewd and sexist to feel manly enough to fight the bad guys.