Raees : Much Ado about Stardom

Directed by Rahul Dholakia, 2017.

img_20161207_185553I was looking forward to Rahul Dholakia’s Raees’ release like any other popular film lover would do. A film set in Gujarat, generic in nature and a Muslim bootlegger as protagonist is something that surely catches one’s interest. In the time of ultra-nationalism and Hindu rightwing upsurge, of which the director has been perennially aware about in almost all his earlier films, Raees promised a lot. All the central characters – the hero, the heroine and the villain – are played by Muslim actors (the lead actress is from Pakistan). But, when we are done watching the film, one tends to ask whether, as promised, the film provides the same critical feeling against mainstream politics or its uses, as any other run-of-the-mill Bollywood super hit, or does the film exploit liberal politics to lure a certain audience who otherwise would have remained indifferent to the film. I think in this context, Raees fails miserably. While saying so, I also acknowledge the fact that never for a moment did I feel that the film is being dishonest to its `cause’, but it suffered from poor execution; something that you don’t expect from a competent film-making platform backed by the market.

To my belief, the film had two obvious formal options to follow; firstly, that of following standard generic conventions of gangster movies and fitting things into place and secondly, showcasing the stars in a way that if the generic thirst doesn’t get quenched then the audience would at least have some take-home value in terms of performances. Taking a cue from Bollywood’s earlier manifestations of socially outcasts, gangsters and marginal male characters, the film consciously reminds us of Amitabh Bachchan starrers from 1970s. The film also uncannily resembles Mukul Anand’s 1990 film Agneepath where Vijay Dinanath Chauhan and the title character of Raees shares almost similar life events: a rebel kid who gets hired by illegal organizations turning into an uncontrollable gangster-messiah who is constantly chased by the state and its machinery, finally meeting his inevitable death.

Raees quite intelligently places itself in the league of earlier popular classics and also tries to revamp the angry young man persona with more relatable contemporary swag and style. The film works flawlessly on Shahrukh Khan aka SRK’s star persona. In its promotions,from its first look to the trailer, the film has been showcasing miyan bhai ka daring (the ‘muslim’ man dares) image of the male star by fetishizing his body and stylizing his gestures. But the problem is that, such fetishizing tendencies end up overinvesting in the fetish object more than the historical reality, which is the context. My problem with the film precisely lies there. The overexposed star body – created out of stereotypical ideas of clothing, makeup and mannerism – kind of reduces the politics of the films to the religious identity of the star.The Pakistani actress, Mahira Khan, with no exceptional acting skills remains just a female consort and the archenemy police officer, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, becomes the statist moral center.

As far as the plot is concerned, the film offered us something fascinating. The Robin Hood bootlegger takes one ethically wrong step and falls, typical of a gangster film. But a film is not only its plot. The script has four writers and it seems as if they were responsible only for their sections, the parts don’t gel into a whole. The humour and the drama of the first half just vanishes the moment Raees grows up. As if the sheer presence of SRK made the writers so sure that they deemed further character development unnecessary. They perhaps forgot that apart from narrative progression, writing a script also calls for a character arc. The grown up Raees as the miyan bhai needed something more than ‘dare’ and stylistic display.

The writer responsible for the romance scenes has also failed miserably. The moment you lose interest in the romance scene of a SRK film, either the film is trying something new without being sure or they have just lost it or both.

The only scene I think I will remember is when Raees stops the rightwing political leader’s rath (chariot), a moment when the clash of religious identities and stardom of SRK seemed to gel so well.

However, one could still appreciate the effort, which shows – for example – in the much-publicized song sequence where Raees enters the opponent’s den to commit a reluctant massacre. The moment of transformation – Raees apparently has not committed murders before – will inevitably lead to self-destruction. But the poor editing, shot-taking and other technicalities failed to deliver the pathos. The sequence borrows the song, only song of the film that one might remember, from Feroz Khan’s 1980 film Qurbani and tries hard to objectify Sunny Leone, the sex starved Indian public’s current porn fetish, and fails.

Raees is a long film; too long to make you feel ‘I know he’ll die at the end so let’s get over with it’. The times we find Raees in a soup, he comes out of the mess triumphantly but the moment he dies is almost predictable and unlyrical. A fallen hero always demands an epic goodbye and the moral and ethical archenemy needs better reasons to kill him than merely unidimensional obsession.

To me, Raees is a faulty exercise of scriptwriting though it started with positive political intentions. Whatever my criticisms are, could have been not there had the film been better crafted. The actors did their job, the director did his and so did the screenplay writers but none of their output worked together on the screen. And we ended up with a much-promised mainstream political film reduced into a star spectacle and nothing else.

-Shenjuti Dutta

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