Raees: daring identity politics helps a complicated portrayal

Shah Rukh Khan in a still from ‘Raees.’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

On the big screen, Vijay Pal Singh (Amitabh Bachchan) is hauling up Seth Dhanraj Puri (Prem Chopra) for putting profiteering above the safety of his miners. An equivalent of this popular scene from Yash Chopra’s Kala Patthar (1979) is playing out simultaneously in a car at a drive-in theatre with don Raees (Shah Rukh Khan) ordering a mill owner to give the neighbourhood workers their rightful wages.

It’s a scene that puts in a nutshell one of the many things that Rahul Dholakia is trying to do with SRK in Raees — making him play a version of the Angry Young Man of the 70s and the 80s. Quite like Big B’s Vijay, Raees is anti-establishment, an outlaw and also a Robin Hood figure; a vigilante who is a voice to the voiceless, the underdog and the marginal.

Many of the tropes of the Vijay films are replicated here — the precocious childhood, the early initiation into the world of crime, the abiding influence of the Mother figure, the bond within the community of crooks, loyalty for the mentor and the eventual breaking away and establishment of one’s own power centre. And, of course, wordplay in dialogue after dialogue. My favourite is the mother saying that she doesn’t want to give her son to acquire “udhar ka nazariya (borrowed point of view)” but to have his own “chaukas nazar (sharp insight).”

Yet, there’s more to the film. If Vijay addressed the angst of the day and the prevalent cynicism against the system, Raees, though a lot less intense and brooding, and more brassy and overstated, is also rooted in a specific point in time, and location.

Raees is the Vijay of Gujarat (thankfully more than the song and dance, operatic, folksy Gujarat of Sanjay Leela Bhansali) where business is so paramount that even prohibition leads to its own illicit trade shoot-offs, where bootlegging is a strong commercial force thriving on a political nexus. The subversive streak is visible right from the start when the voiceover says “pabandi bagawat ki shuruaat hoti hai (imposing restrictions leads to rebellion).” Where there is a will there has to be a way. So you have alcohol-shot tomatoes on sale and liquor consumed in tea cups.

  • Director: Rahul Dholakia
  • Starring: Shah Rukh Khan, Mahirah Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Atul Kulkarni, Sheeba Chaddha, Narendra Jha, Loveleen Mishra
  • Bottomline: Rahul Dholakia's mash up makes for a provocative though not entirely populist watch

Along with all of this, Dholakia also channels the early dark avatars of SRK — in Baazigar and Darr. But what is most interesting is how he sets up Raees within a religious and community context. In Chak De India, SRK’s Kabir Khan recited his own prayer, “Nasrun minal lahe wah fatahun kareeb (God give me strength to win).” My Name Is Khan's Rizwan batted for Islam in a post 9/11 world.

In Raees, his assertion of his identity and faith get stronger, right from the Moharram and maatam introductory scene to the prolonged fight in the slaughterhouse. And more.

In Raees, he and Dholakia would rather dare than play it safe. The character, ostensibly based on the life of criminal Abdul Latif, walks on the razor’s edge. It’s a complicated portrayal. Some would complain of a whitewash regarding the alleged Dawood and Mumbai blast linkages. But it is in line with grounding SRK in his faith, and making him rise above it.

We begin with a person who puts business above religion and doesn’t intend to harm others. Betrayals lead him to cross over to the dark side. More severe transgressions — like encouraging rioting and violence — follow. Yet he is also the “masiha” (messiah) who feeds the needy and affected.

“Neither Hindu, nor Muslim should die of hunger,” says he. He is parallel government to the community. Yet he is not a superman, a man who uses the system as much as he is used; who kills yet cries at his failure to provide housing to his community. Raees is more of a Shakespearean tragic hero, so is his fall. The moral compass remains intact; transgressions are not denied. There is no escaping guilt either. “Mohalla bachate bachate shehar jala diya (In trying to save the neighbourhood I set the town afire,” he says. The crime has to be followed by punishment, the order restored. “Begunahon ko maar kar jannat naseeb nahin hogi (You won’t be able to find heaven by killing the innocent).”

The adversary, cop Jaideep Ambalal Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), gets an equal play. It’s a cat-and-mouse game between equals. In fact, with his poker-faced humour, sharp lines and Michael Jackson entry, Siddiqui gets to play to the gallery more than SRK himself and remains one up on him throughout. There are some nice touches, like Majmudar snooping on the love chat between Raees and his wife. He is human after all. The supporting cast shines. One only wishes there was more of Sheeba Chaddha and Loveleen Mishra.

If it is Gujarat, can Gandhi be far behind? Early on in the film, there is a lovely scene of Raees stealing a pair of spectacles from the Gandhi statue because he can’t afford to buy a frame for himself. The doctor asks him to put the glasses back on the statue and gives him another pair, a pair that eventually comes to stand for entirely the opposite of Gandhi’s vision of non-violence. A messiah lost to the people, the state and a nation.

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 11:54:14 AM |

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