Hindi Cinema traditionally had a great command over the melodramatic mode of address in films. Even if they didn’t always result in great films, it certainly left the audience with some poignant and memorable moments. Somewhere in the course of the transition from Hindi Cinema to Bollywood, from Stand-alone theatres to Multiplex and from individual producers to corporate finance, melodrama became some kind of an anathema in mainstream films. Either it was consciously discarded or simply forgotten; and consequently Hindi films forgot to tell certain kind of stories in a certain manner. Rahul Dholakia’s Raees, the story of a poor boy growing up without his father and rising to power while going against the system which finally defeats him, immediately brings to mind films like Deewar (Yash Chopra, 1975) which may not have been great in terms of craft but was perfect in terms of affect generated. (One can even think of the Shah Rukh Khan starrer 1993 film Baazigar in the same vain) These films could successfully channelize the entire plethora of suppressed emotions which couldn’t have been otherwise articulated. In its absolute failure to do so or bring anything new to the table, Raees is a sad reminder of Hindi Cinema’s great loss!
An unofficial biopic of bootlegger Abdul Latif (1951-1997) and a plot hybrid of Agneepath (Mukul Anand, 1990), Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983) and Narcos (Netflix, 2015-present), Raees desperately attempts and spectacularly fails to place itself within a canon of gangster genre betraying the incompetence of almost every other technical department. The film misses out the most essential generic concerns like identity and kinship and most importantly a sense of history which provide the ground for a gangster film to take off. There is instead a superficial attempt to ‘fit in’ everything within its two and a half hour span and so one gets a bit reference to Godhra or a bit of Bombay blasts which actually further disconnects the narrative from history.
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The screenplay of the film with its four credited writers is a classic example of too many cooks spoiling the broth. There is no sense of flow from one scene to another and instead there is mere episodic movement of plot points and after a while the whole thing becomes repetitive, stagnant and predictable. Another major flaw in the script is the lack of a suitable opponent against the protagonist, a super villain, an arch enemy, a nemesis. As a result, the film is continuously in search of an adversary moving from rival bootlegger to corrupt politicians to a hound-like cop which finally culminates in the obvious and offensive Good Muslim vs. Bad Muslim conflict. It becomes very difficult to have any emotional stake in the narrative because the protagonist will emerge triumphant every time he is in a crisis, until the runtime reaches its end and he meets a very functional death. None of the emotions, be it hope, ambition, disappointment, anger or pain, leaves any mark on the narrative as it continues to be flat without any curve.
Cinematographer KU Mohanan who had earlier impressed with films like Miss Lovely (Ashim Ahluwalia, 2012), etc. provides a very usual collage of Bollywood elements in terms of compositions and colours and camera movements. And with a poor screenplay and Shah Rukh Khan giving his 100% while looking like the king of the world, the camera almost gives up on the film and instead opts for a fetishist love affair with SRK’s image. Thus there is an abundance of low angle shots and slow motion tracks of the man walking down. And if the cinematography is unremarkable, the editing is a complete let down. The overall rhythm of the film is uneven and inconsistent, not giving any sense of progression especially for the entirety of the second half. Barring the first fight scene with the meat sellers which had a masochistic excess, the rest of the action scenes are complete debacle giving only noise and flashes and stylized angles but no sense of direction, geography or movement of characters.
On hindsight, Raees is a rather poor show marked by sheer wastage of marvellous possibilities in the content. By making the entire film about Shah Rukh Khan’s stardom, the film misses out on essential elements like character arcs or establishing the space. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is utterly wasted in a poorly written role whose character was probably meant to be complicated but ends up becoming confusing and contradictory. There are no clear motivations for his actions or shifts from his ethical self to mere settling off scores. The film keeps harping upon the name of Gujarat and various other towns within the state but there is no attempt to build any connotative association with any of them. They just remain locales instead of becoming spaces.
The most uneasy and hence memorable moment in the film was the scene when an ‘obviously right wing’ politician takes out a Rath Yatra (Chariot Procession) on a moralist issue in the state of Gujarat and is stopped midway in a violent outburst of action by a Muslim mobster, amid swords, guns and fire. But as mentioned earlier, Hindi Cinema has forgotten the language of melodrama. So instead of the moment having an autonomous life with the obvious political and historical ramifications and escaping the otherwise normative parameters of the narrative, the scene just dies with a whimper as the screen fades to black.
Arup Ratan Samajdar
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