Shah Rukh Khan’s been struggling to get it right, cinematically speaking, over the last few years. His box-office success hasn’t quite matched that of his closest rivals and contemporaries, the fellow-Khans Aamir and Salman and neither has critical acclaim been universal. While Aamir has consistently set both commercial and artistic benchmarks over the last 15 years, what probably also pricks is the fact that the quality of Salman Khan’s films (which have been historically questionable, box-office success notwithstanding) has also been gradually improving (witness Bajrangi Bhaijan, Sultan). So SRK can’t claim to be pipping even Salman at the post in terms of artistic superiority.
He’s clearly trying to regain his lost throne and has not been averse to taking on new creative challenges (Fan, Dear Zindagi) while also pursing commercial success by catering to the masses (Happy New Year, Dilwale). Fan, in particular, was an intensely personal project and an extremely brave one where the star laid himself bare in front of his admirers unlike any other actor before him. For his courage and his performance in the movie Shah Rukh deserves every kind of praise. Unfortunately, the movie itself fell short of the actor’s daring and left audiences cold. On the flip side, Happy New Year and Dilwale made money but were critical duds.
So what’s a superstar to do? He allies himself with a thoughtful filmmaker (Rahul Dholakia, known for Parzania, a film that was set against the backdrop of the Indian Gujrat riots/genocide of 2002) and a producer (Farhan Akhtar) well-regarded for his aesthetic sensibility and a certain level of quality while at the same time take as inspiration the gangster movies of the 70s (Don, Deewar, etc.) to create a larger-than-life character and throw in some masala (a gyrating Sunny Leone, for instance) and some choice lines of dialogue so as to get the masses to queue up for tickets in droves.
Sounds good on paper. But it doesn’t quite work in execution. The movie is at its best in a fairly strong first half depicting the rise of the titular Raees (Shah Rukh Khan, who else) a bootlegging gangster in the prohibition state of Gujrat, taking on not only his gangland rivals but a dedicated cop (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) intent on bringing them all down, while also romancing his neighbourhood sweetheart (our own Mahira Khan). The song and dance routines don’t quite gel with the pre-interval gritty tone of the movie but they aren’t that detrimental either and the intermission arrives in the wake of an effectively bloody shootout between gangland rivals.
Post-interval is when the movie starts to go slightly off the rails a bit (it never quite does but the ride isn’t terribly smooth either) as the script aims at making Raees a more sympathetic, likeable and heroic character. In forcing the film to go in a direction which feels unnatural and trying to create crowd-pleasing moments for a classic larger-than-life Bollywood hero (all slo-mo striding, memorable lines spewing, some scenery chewing) Dholakia loses the tight rein he’s held over proceedings. As a result, the movie loses its intensity and the climax doesn’t quite have the emotional impact that it should have.
Dholakia and Shah Rukh and the movie would have been better served if they had stuck to presenting a gritty, gangster noir instead of trying to have their cake and eating it too.
However, despite its weaknesses and its length (almost 150 minutes) the movie does keep you watching buoyed as it is by its star power and performances. Shah Rukh is very good and keeps all of his worst, starry impulses in check. Nawazuddin Siddiqui can make any role authentic and the same is true here, the actor delivering his choicest lines to maximum effect. And even though Mahira, in her Bollywood debut, doesn’t get much scope to emote (there’s a sense that some of her screen time may have been reduced in the wake of the anti-Pakistan sentiments prevailing across the border these days) her demure glamour is a plus and she and Shah Rukh have genuine chemistry – plus she looks pretty darn good. Zeeshan Ayyub also provides solid support as Raees’ childhood friend and consigliere.
Watch it if you are a Shah Rukh or Mahira or Nawazuddin fan.
Cut to chase: The whole is not greater than the sum of its parts