An action-crime thriller co-written and directed by Rahul Dholakia, Raees is set in the backdrop of 1980s Gujarat, and tells the crime saga of a small-time bootlegger who rises to become the undisputed king of the state's liquor mafia. The eponymous character, said to be inspired by criminal Abdul Latif's life, is essayed by Shah Rukh Khan with Mahira Khan playing his love interest and Nawazuddin Siddiqui as his nemesis, superintendent of police Jaideep Ambalal Majumdar.
The film is raw and gritty and succeeds in transporting us back to the Gujarat of the 1980s. The movie's attention to period detail is particularly striking.
Raees starts on a rather sedate note. But once you get past the first 20 minutes chances are you'll be hooked until the very end. The choice of a linear narrative and the brave decision to not open the film with Shah Rukh Khan appear somewhat calculated, but there is no denying that SRK fans would certainly have preferred otherwise. It is the Muharram sequence that sets the movie's pace; it is coincidentally also the first scene to feature SRK. A few sequences later Siddiqui's cop character enters the fold. Voila, we have a good old crime thriller at our disposal! There are a few scenes of graphic violence, but some clever editing helps to keep the gore quotient under check except for a couple of sanguinary, no-holds-barred sequences.
Raees is about the extremes of the human psyche, good as well as bad; there are no half measures here. It is also about survival in a dog-eat-dog world. Although the film draws heavily from crime classics such as Scarface, The Godfather, Once Upon a Time in America and The Untouchables, it manages to hold its own thanks to Rahul Dholakia and team as well as the engaging plot. Shah Rukh Khan, at the age of 51, resuscitates the iconic Angry Young Man of the '70s and '80s in Raees. He steals every scene that doesn't feature him and Nawazuddin together. As for the scenes that do feature the two of them, they are not about supremacy but about acting synergy, wherein the end sum is more than the individual efforts of both the actors. That's what makes their clash so exhilarating to watch. Siddiqui's character has a humorous undertone which adds a layer of interest. As for SRK, we get to see a very different side to him—a side that lets his anger and machismo get the better of his charm and suavity.
We get to see a very different side to SRK—a side that lets his anger and machismo get the better of his charm and suavity.
The chemistry between SRK and Mahira is electrifying to watch. The grace, elegance and subtlety with which Mahira carries herself is commendable. The showdown between SRK and Nawazuddin is an absolute treat to watch. It is heartening to see Sunny Leone finally making it to a top Bollywood's production. With moves to kill and looks to transfix, she has all the makings of a new-age Helen. While Raees has several memorable moments, the drive-in theatre sequence that pays homage to Amitabh Bachchan's Angry Young Man stands out, with references to movies like Deewaar, Zanjeer, Shakti, Coolie, Agneepath, etc. While the supporting performances are solid all around, Atul Kulkarni, Narendra Jha, and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub deserve special mention.
Although it does hark back to some of SRK's early films, it has a unique flavour and also touches upon the all-important issue of communal harmony. The film is raw and gritty and succeeds in transporting us back to the Gujarat of the 1980s. The movie's attention to period detail is particularly striking. Behind the facade of fiction, Raees is actually a dramatisation of actual events and despite the maker's efforts to project it as a work of fiction in its entirety the reality, albeit muffled, speaks for itself. And, make no mistake, the film is as much about Nawazuddin Siddiqui's Majmudar as it is about SRK's Raees. Siddiqui, a chameleon of an actor, continues to impress with each and every role that he does. He is easily one of the best character actors to have graced Indian cinema. The ending of Raees is a gamble just like Fan's. If it pays off we have a blockbuster at hand else another Shah Rukh Khan film will fizzle out at the box office, not because of its cinematic value but because of word of mouth. Regardless how the film performs, Raees is a film that no SRK fan can afford to miss.
A version of this review was first published in A Potpourri of Vestiges.