There is a recurring line in Rahul Dholakia’s “Raees” that is meant to exemplify the eponymous protagonist. We are told he has “Baniye ka dimaag aur Miyaanbhai ki daring”, roughly translated as “the cunning of a merchant and the audacity of a Muslim man”.
The endlessly repeated tagline provided some shock value when it first came out in trailers because Bollywood almost never spells out caste or religion – certainly not in terms of traits or qualities. This was new. But for all the promise of ‘dimaag’ and ‘daring’, Shah Rukh Khan’s latest film delivers none of it.
Instead, it plays out as a predictable tale of a bootlegger with a golden heart whose crimes are redeemed by his many charitable acts.
“Raees” follows the 70s gangster film formula to the T, complete with the honest police officer who will stop at nothing to capture his nemesis, the perfunctory romance, and the final redemption that makes the audience root for the flawed hero.
While there is nothing wrong in following a formula, Dholakia is unable to fully exploit his leading man’s natural screen presence to give us a memorable character.
We follow the protagonist from his time as a precocious kid, squirreling away bottles of illegal liquor for bootleggers in exchange for money to run his own “dhanda” (business).
Raees and many others like him make a killing selling alcohol in Gujarat, a state which has followed prohibition for many years.
But Dholakia hardly ever goes into the intricacies of this situation, nor does he give us any insight into Raees’ mind, limiting him to a politically correct baddie who spends his ill-gotten wealth on buying books for poor kids, fights for the rights of laborers and preaches secularism.
He meets his match in Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the dogged police officer who refuses to stop chasing the bad guys even if his corrupt bosses tell him to.
Siddiqui is the highlight of the film, and his deadpan delivery results in some of the best scenes.