Raees is set in the Gujarat of the 1970s and ‘80s, when Prohibition has been in effect for well over two decades. It narrates the story of Raees Alam (Shah Rukh Khan), in whom the famed entrepreneurial spirit of the Gujaratis takes a turn that runs contrary to the letter of the law.
We start off with Raees as a young child, who serves as a runner for a bootlegger. In school, he has trouble reading the board; he is given a pair of spectacles. The glasses give him his vision back, they also give him a violent aversion to being referred to as “battery”.
Raees is affected by one particular incident — when he is upbraided by a policeman for warning an establishment selling illicit liquor of an impending raid, his mother steps in to save him. The cop ridicules Raees’ mother for being a ragpicker, she tells him, “Koi dhanda chhota ya bada nahi hota, aur dhande se bada koi dharm nahin hota” a thought that impresses her son greatly. He decides that he will get into the liquor business himself, but not the cheap desi daru one — he is going to go the whole hog with imported spirits. For this, he signs up to be a runner for Jayraj Seth (Atul Kulkarni) — the first one to ever observe of Raees: “Baniye ka dimaag aur miyanbhai ki daring”.
We see Raees grow into a young man, determined to set up his own business rather than serving as a lackey to anyone else. This is easier said than done, of course. And so the stage is set for Raees to outwit not just his contemporaries in the business, but also the law.
The law here shows up in a particularly challenging way in the person of Inspector Jaideep Majumdar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an honest, upright, unflappable (if eccentric) officer.
It is perhaps a sign of how vital this antagonistic but, oddly respectful relationship between Raees and Majumdar is to the plot that Nawazuddin’s ‘entry scene’ is filmed with as much style as Shah Rukh’s himself. (He appears — to great effect — as a Michael Jackson impersonator!) Not even Mahirah Khan, who plays Raees’ love interest and later, wife, is given the same kind of entrance.
By halfway point, we have Raees as the leading figure in the illegal liquor business in his part of Gujarat, firmly in Majumdar’s sights, and having descended into a spiral of shocking violence that he hasn’t anticipated committing.
A note on the violence itself: this is no stylised, sanitised action. It is brutal, bloody, and very physical. The violence reaches a crescendo with Sunny Leone’s ‘Laila Main Laila’ song — an oddly operatic soundtrack to Raees’ most violent act yet.
How is it that you root for Raees Alam despite his being the ‘bad guy’? Why do you want Majumdar, the good cop, to fail? While Shah Rukh Khan’s portrayal no doubt is the major reason, it also has to do with how the role has been written by Rahul Dholakia.
Raees is motivated primarily by the profit motive, he is not a sadist — although he isn’t averse to using violence when the situation demands it. But he is also endearing, especially in the moments reserved for his wife and his closest friend (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub). Even in his arrogance, he is appealing.
The second half builds on this other side of Raees Alam: the Robin Hood do-gooder sort, who earns the goodwill of the poor with his charitable deeds. The frenetic pace of the plot so far slows down a bit as we spend some time getting to know Raees, the man. By a twist of fate, this is also the time when Majumdar (Raees’ old nemesis) is getting to know the gangster he’s been on the tail of so far. The connection between the duo is depicted cinematically: when Raees wishes for some chai, it is Majumdar, far away, who reaches out for his cutting glass.
Raees’ trajectory is very similar to that of Pablo Escobar (as seen in the Netflix series Narcos; or even in any of the other gangster flicks director Dholakia has said he was inspired by, such as Godfather and Scarface. Surprisingly, Raees’ approach also reminded me of Abhishek Bachchan in Guru, delivering this monologue: ‘Sarkari darwaze the yeh aap ke banaye hue. Ya to laat mar kar khulte the ya ji hazoori de ke. Maine dono kiya, jahan laat mar sakta tha laat maari, jahan bola salaam do maine bola salaam lo’). He comes from nothing, rises to dizzying heights, but discovers that it is when you reach the top that you must face the biggest hurdles.
Raees realises this when he is let down by his collaborators in the government; he now decides to wrest the power he does not have yet — political, and contests elections. You can’t help but know that his rise cannot go unchallenged. Soon enough, his troubles are beyond his powers to fix — be it in terms of money, muscle or wit.
All the while, Raees is hurtling towards some dangerous end.
Before we reach the end though, there are plenty of twists and turns — betrayal, defeat and widespread death.
There is a circularity to the story and dialogues as Raees races towards its finis. It also gives a chance for Shah Rukh Khan to deliver what is by far the most crowd-pleasing dialogue of them all: “Dhanda mera dharm hai, par main dharm ka dhanda nahi karta.”
What a fine, fine performance this is by Shah Rukh Khan — possibly a career best. And what a fine, fine film this is by Rahul Dholakia. Its triumph is that it brings the best of ‘Bollywood’ — the sheer entertainment and glamour and scale of it — to a gripping story. What it’s attempting is most evident in a scene where Raees (Shah Rukh) is juxtaposed against an image of Amitabh Bachchan in his ‘angry young man’ avatar on a movie screen. That one quick clip speaks volumes. Which brings us to the cinematography of KU Mohanan, without which, Raees would not be such a visually rich experience.
Watch Raees for Shah Rukh Khan. Watch Raees for Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Watch Raees for Rahul Dholakia. But most of all, watch Raees for Raees.
CAST: Shah Rukh Khan, Mahira Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Atul Kulkarni
DIRECTION: Rahul Dholakia
DURATION: 2 hours 35 minutes