(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)
At some point in the second half, I lost count of the number of films Rahul Dholakia’s Raees is a weak cocktail of. Everything from Nayakan to Deewar comes to mind. In the second half, there is an actual scene at a drive-in theatre that parallels the angry young man’s antics in the film within the film with that of Raees’s (Shah Rukh Khan). On one hand, Dholakia has made that solid decision to introduce Shah Rukh Khan, the star and titular hero, in comparatively understated manner while Nawazuddin Siddiqui the “actor” – playing ACP Majumdar – gets a brief dance-off, a costume party and possibly the most fun opening for a star this year. We don’t complain because is there anything better than Siddiqui in Hindi cinema today? But soon after, when the actor delivers a zinger, we hear a background score that seems to partly mock the character. Dholakia cannot decide if he wants to prepare a cocktail or a mocktail.
Raees wants to recall the 70s Hindi cinema myth or even the South Indian larger than life star vehicle myth that occasionally hits the mark even today. It has the flashback, the humble beginnings right from childhood, the mentor and the mentee, the changing dynamic within when the shoe begins to rest on the other foot. Raees has his punch dialogues and his parkour moments. Raees is very much a genre exercise and that genre is something that’s exclusive and dear to Indian cinema. But is it a good exercise? Unfortunately far from it. I really wanted to like Raees. It has some of our best actors. Not just stars. Actors. Shah Rukh Khan. Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Atul Kulkarni. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. Yet the film is either empty or full of uninspired writing.
Why they don’t work? Because Dholakia chooses to gloss over details that should have been more eventful. Raees’s life doesn’t radiate that lived in moment vibe as nothing makes an impact and we never register his trajectory. Of all genres, this is not the one to go painting vignettes in. The script doesn’t even reflect a huge passage of time. It’s like we are at a standstill even as we are told Raees’s mind works fast, he is toppling his competitors as he rises and he is also a philanthropist who is in love with his neighbor. The script is too busy with nothing to affect us in any way. The film builds some kind of a momentum in the middle portions and things get remotely engaging. The news of Raees creating life for the first time arrives just before he becomes a killer for the first time. An L.K Advani type politician on a chariot tour leads to a mass moment that Tamil cinema heroes would be proud of and Shah Rukh Khan even pulls it off.
But then what about Majumdar and the cat and mouse narrative that we were promised? Dholakia keeps that in the back-burner and resorts to it only when nothing else is working. What Dholakia doesn’t realize is this is true for the most part. Raees leads from nothing and leads to nothing. When you have two excellent actors, two actors who can dial up and dial down equally well, wouldn’t you want them on screen every other scene? It’s apparent that the Khan/Siddiqui face-off has immense potential from some of the scenes that work but the writing is so lazy and drab that it is unfair to put the blame on them. But Siddiqui gets several moments of his own. Just last week I marveled at what he can do and what else he can do when he played the sleazy school teacher in Haraamkhor. Here he is again, in a film that’s as far from the zip code of Haraamkhor as it can be, and yet pulls something newer out of the hat. For all of Raees’s punch dialogs and Majumdar’s one liners, it is Nawazuddin Siddiqui who has found his rallying cry in a line from this film – camerawalon ko bula le, jalsa karenge.