Raees: An Empty Shell of a Gangster Film

This film review was first published in Huffington Post India.

Many gangster films have a common template: young upstart enters the world of crime, rises to the top, and then navigates different violent conflicts on the way to his end. But within that template, great movies achieve what art should, by revealing human character, or showing essential truths about the times. Raees follows the template, but achieves nothing of the sort. It is an empty shell of a film, a vehicle for a superstar to display his charisma and how well he emotes (not acts). What makes it not just a run-of-the-mill bad film but a truly awful one is the following three things.

One, it tries for a veneer of gritty realism, but the Gujarat the film shows is a make-believe fantasy land. This is most clearly reflected in the arc when Raees Alam, the bootlegging ganglord played by Shah Rukh Khan, warns a pro-prohibition politician not to carry out a Darubandi Yatra through his area because it will affect his business. This is laughable, and not how the world operates. In reality, every bootlegging ganglord owes his existence to prohibition, and his biggest benefactor is the politician who enforces it. An actual bootlegger would be embracing this man, even funding him, and not fighting him. (In economic theory, this phenomenon is best illustrated by the concept of Bootleggers and Baptists.)

Indeed, although the film is supposedly inspired by a real gangster, all the plot points are contrived and implausible. The film’s makers seem to have got all their ideas of the worlds of crime and politics not from the real world, but from other Bollywood films. This is how nonsense perpetuates itself in popular culture.

Two, Raees treats its eponymous character as a noble soul who has been wronged by others, and in doing so implicitly justifies some abhorrent behaviour. At the start of the film, Raees (the character) is built up as an enterprising and well-intentioned young man with a “baniye ka dimaag, aur miyabhai ki daring.” But the film gradually goes into gangster-movie-cliché territory, with elaborately choreographed slow-motion violence, most of it gratuitous. His mother is shown saying at the start of the film that every business is noble as long as it harms nobody, but Raees leaves a trail of collateral deaths during every killing that he carries out.

The violence is especially galling in the latter half of the film, such as when he goes on a rampage at the aforementioned politician’s rally. No more the principled renegade he was set up to be, he now behaves like an unhinged psychopath.

This would have been fine if Shah Rukh played him as a character with all these shades of grey (or black, frankly). But no, we’re clearly supposed to root for this guy and cry when he dies. It’s that portrayal of Raees as a hero that bothers me, when he’s nothing more than a narcissistic psycho.

Three, the 51-year-old Shah Rukh has reached the stage where he can no longer pass off as a character who is half his actual age, and much of this film is cringeworthy for that reason. Male Bollywood stars (and only the males, mind you) have traditionally played 20-something characters well into their 50s, but there always comes a time when their age shows and it seems discordant. Raees might well be the film where Shah Rukh crosses that line.

Some of the scenes of Shah Rukh romancing the much younger Mahira Khan are downright creepy, for no fault of his own. Why can’t he just play characters closer to his own age? (He did that in the recent Dear Zindagi, for example, where his hamming was atrocious, but at least he looked his age.)

Overshadowing the question of ‘When will Bollywood heroes play their age?’ is the larger one of ‘When will Bollywood grow up?’ Raees is nothing more than adolescent macho escapism, and if it turns out to be a hit, I guess we’ll have to wait.