Raees is the story of Raees Alam (Shah Rukh Khan), who trades in liquor in the perennially dry state of Gujarat, where selling alcohol is prohibited. An upright police officer Jaideep Ambalal Majmoodar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is determined to stop Raees’ trade. Directed by Rahul Dholakia, Raees is alleged to be based on the story of Abdul Latif, a notorious gangster of Gujarat, though the film-makers have denied it, and called it a work of fiction.
At an early point in Raees, a young Raees goes to an eye doctor to get a pair of spectacles. The doctor asks for a payment of two rupees; however, Raees’ mother cannot pay and delays the purchase for a few days. She also refuses to borrow money for the glasses as she does not want to give Raees a borrowed vision; rather she wants him to have a clear vision of his own. She says, “Main use udhaar ka nazariya nahi, chokas nazar dena chahti hun.” The ingenious Raees thinks of an innovative idea to get the spectacles. He goes to the nearby statue of Mahatma Gandhi, steals the glasses from his bust, and gives it to the doctor. The doctor asks him to put the stolen glasses back on Gandhi as they suit him better. This is a lovely scene in the film that also makes a point about Raees. Raees does not believe, as his mother says, in the ‘borrowed vision’ and this vision points to that of Gandhi. Gandhi believed that alcohol consumption was hindering the upliftment of the masses, and he strongly advocated a policy of total prohibition.
The state of Gandhi’s birth, Gujarat, had implemented a policy of prohibition after Gandhi’s death, which continues to exist till today. Raees does not care about the prohibition; rather, he makes alcohol as his business, even though it was illegal. While Gandhi had his own ideas of being dependent on swadesi goods, Raees trades in foreign liquor. For Raees, no business is bad, and there is no greater religion than a business until it causes harm to people. Raees, like Gandhi, wears his own set of glasses throughout the film. When Raees meets Musa for the first time, Musa gives him a new pair of glasses and tells him that it will help him see well. This, again, subtly points to the type of vision that Raees is going to adopt, which is certainly non-Gandhian. There is a running gag in the film where Raees hates being called ‘battery’ because of shortsightedness. Raees even tries to become a father-figure of his community, like Gandhi was called Bapu, which makes Majmoodar, at one point, to say, “Bacche ka baap bana hai, Gujarat ka nahi.” He is his child’s father, not the father of Gujarat, which subtitles changed it to the father of the nation—another hint for Gandhi. This is why the scene was fascinating, as an interview with Rahul Dholakia also said, “The scene becomes a metaphor for the changing vision of a generation.”
It is interesting to contrast Raees with Swades. While the former subverts aspects of Gandhi’s vision, Swades promotes his vision. Coincidentally, Swades also begins with a quote related to vision by Gandhi. It says, “Hesitating to act because the whole vision might not be achieved, or because others do not yet share it, is an attitude that only hinders progress.” In another related scene, a villager tells Mohan that he should not make them wear the glasses (Gandhian views) that he is wearing. In Swades, Shah Rukh is named Mohan that was also Gandhi’s first name—Mohandas. Later, in Swades, at some stage, Mohan’s desk has the book Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi by Rajni Bakshi, which was also the book credited in the beginning of the film. A description of the book elaborates that it is ‘a story of twelve individuals who search for the solutions to the many problems of modern India and these activists find themselves coming to the same conclusions as had Gandhi.’ Mohan’s views and philosophy mirror some of Gandhi’s own beliefs, such as the one on girl’s education. Mohan gives a spiel to the villagers when he sees that they have become comfortable with living in darkness and then inspires them to do something themselves. This was a reference to one of Gandhi’s famous quotes—”Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Swades is Mohan’s journey of the rediscovery of Gandhi and India. Raees and Mohan are two opposite ends of this spectrum of Gandhian vision.
There is another connection between the two films. At some point in Swades, Mohan helps Haridas, a debt-ridden farmer struggling to make ends meet. Meeting with Haridas changed Mohan after which he embraced India’s water, literally and metaphorically. In Raees, the same actor who played Haridas becomes a mill-worker, who is also struggling to make ends meet after the mill is closed and the owner refused to pay compensation to the workers. Raees helps him and other mill-workers get back their dues from the owner, for which the workers are grateful to him. In both cases, the man is helped monetarily.
We also see other films of Shah Rukh Khan with some elements in Raees. Raees often quotes his ammi‘s sayings, like Rizwaan Khan used to repeat his mother’s quotes in My Name Is Khan. Raees wants to construct his own housing project, which he calls it Apni Duniya. He tells his wife his dream of how Apni Duniya would be like. This was also quite like the advertising company that Rahul wanted to have in Yes Boss. In both the cases, Raees and Rahul are willing to bend law and ethics to make their dream fulfill, and in both the films, the dream is never fulfilled, perhaps, as a consequence of their actions. In another coincidence, Raees is the second film where Shah Rukh Khan is seen putting eye drops, like he did in Dear Zindagi.
After his business is established, Raees becomes a father-figure to his community. Raees might not have his own wealth, but as his name suggests, he is raees—wealthy—because he has a heart of gold. He tries to help everyone. The first time Raees’ love interest Asiya appears on the screen, she is dancing on Kaante Nahi Kat Te from Mr. India, another film about a man, who is trying to become the father of the nation. In another throwback to the cinema of the ’70s and the ’80s, Raees goes to meet the owner of the mill, who is watching Kala Patthar at a drive-in theater. The particular scene is playing where Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) confronts Seth Dhanraj (Prem Chopra) after the accident in the mine, which had killed many workers. Raees confronts the owner of the miller in an almost replica of the scene from Kala Patthar with the scene playing in the background. In addition, the Laila Maina Laila is a remixed version of the song Laila O Laila from another ’80s film Qurbaani. In a lovely small touch, the playing cards of Jairaj have Dream Girl written on them with a picture of Hema Malini.
At some early stage in the film, Raees is called a tiger by the doctor. A few moments later, Raees and Sadiq go to Bombay to sell goat meat. Their plan to make money does not prove to be fruitful as the existing shopkeepers refuse to accommodate them. There is an engrossing sequence where Raees fights others with flesh and meat in the market. When Musa comes, he compares Raees to a lion and tells him that a goat is a lion’s prey, not his business. Bakri sher ka khuraak hoti hai, karobaar nahi. Raees is again compared to a lion in the film, when Majmoodar comes to visit him at the site of his construction project. Raees tells him, “Din aur raat logon ke hote hai. Sheron ka zamana hota hai.” Days and nights are for humans, lions have their era. Interestingly, in the film’s final moments, Raees is shot and left dead in the wilderness of cacti and sand, as if he was a lion preyed by a human for his hunting expedition, and left to die in the jungle.
Raees lives by the words, “Koi dhandha chhota nahi hota, aur dhandhe se bada koi dharm nahi hota.” The last time a dialogue on business that became quite popular was from Band Baajaa Baaraat—Jiske saath vyaapar karo usse kabhi na pyaar karo. Raees is set in Gujarat, and as Raees says, business is in the blood of Gujaratis. It might be tad simplistic, but since the film praises Raees’ baniye ka dimaag, it is worth exploring some of the business concepts in the film. When Raees decides that he will do his own business, he has no plan at all. He has no investment fund to start a business, and it was naïve of him to expect Jairaj to help him with funding. When it comes to money, even father-figures want guarantees, and hence, it is crucial to have someone back a business. Then, Raees and Sadiq go to Bombay to sell meat. They have no permission to set up a shop. Innocently, they tell the other shopkeepers to give them some space. Naturally, no shrewd businessman will do so. However, Raees become smarter in business later. Raees talks about removing the middleman and going to the supplier directly to get the product, similar to backward integration. After the alcohol business is threatened by Majmoodar, all the players form a cartel to save a business—another common business concept. Raees’ baniye ka dimaag takes inspiration from the simplest of things. All his great ideas come to him not from any book or some inspirational leader, but from his observation of common objects. For instance, he gets the idea of selling goats when he bumped into someone. The guy told Raees how much people are willing to pay for goats. Then, he gets another idea by looking at the tea being poured into two glasses at the police station. He gets his idea of home delivery when he sees a postman carrying a bag and delivering letters to people. The most interesting one was the one where he was playing with a matchbox, and he gets the idea of sending his consignment through the sea. It is worth remembering Ship was one of the famous brands of matchboxes, and Raees is playing with the same matchbox, and gets the idea from there.
Raees is another example of the state’s own actions in encouraging crime. The establishment is as much a criminal as Raees. The government has so much power that it can actually screw anyone, if it wants. Note how Raees’ Apni Duniya project was stopped by the state by arbitrarily declaring the land area as a green zone. In 2016, Alex Tabarrok had written an exceptional piece on Mani Ratnam’s Guru, which he called the most important free market movie ever made. He writes, “The movie is powerful not because it opposes virtue and corruption but because it opposes two ideas of virtue. Is it virtuous to follow the law when the law itself is corrupt? Other artists have explored this question when the lawbreaker opposes social injustice, ala Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but what about when the lawbreaker opposes economic injustice? The question the movie asks is a classic question from Ayn Rand, how can an honest (business)-man live in a corrupt world?”
Like Guru, a similar argument can be made for Raees. Is it virtuous to follow the law when the law itself is corrupt? Raees begins with the lines, “Paabandi hi bagawat ki shuraat hai.” It is prohibition that begets rebellion. When someone tries to impose a ban on something, the market for it moves underground. I still remember a quote from one of my economics classes which said that the black markets are the actual free markets; it is the government-controlled markets that are the real black markets. There is no doubt that Gandhi is responsible for the mushrooming of this alcohol-black market. Raees does his business to meet this unfulfilled need of alcohol by fighting this economic injustice. Like Guru did in Guru, Raees also bribes the state officials. He sings about it as well. Tedhi jab kar di, ungli to seedhi chali. When I twisted my ways, the world acted in the correct manner. The state was an active consumer of his business as well, so, does making it illegal help anyone at all?
The problem with Raees’ actions comes in the second half of the film, where he uses violence. One can understand that he killed all the crooks like Jairaj who tried to harm him, but during the latter half, he becomes an extortionist. He takes money to remove people forcibly from their land. He says that he does not do the business of communalism, but he has no qualms in instigating a riot and putting lives of many people in danger when a politician wants to do rath yatra in his community. He throws a crude bomb to start a riot to protect his business. His actions cannot be defended using the garb of economic injustice; these actions of his are immoral, illegal, and criminal. He feels no pangs of guilt at this point, but, strangely, in the end, he is guilt-ridden when there are multiple bomb blasts in the country, leading to the death of many people. It is here that Raees become less clear about Raees’ philosophy towards life.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the cop Jaideep Ambalal Majmoodar is another example of this amazing man’s acting prowess. He seems to be genuinely having a lot of fun in the movie. The first time that he appears on the screen, he is dancing dressed as Michael Jackson in a costume party. It is a hilarious scene and he arrests the organizer of the party calling him aakhri Mughal. After reprising Elvis Presley as Patna Ke Presley in DevD, Nawazuddin gets to dance like Michael Jackson in Raees. His other scenes are also too funny, such as the one where he tells the Chief Minister (CM) that he cannot leave his dog, or another one, where he asks the dulha to qubool his conditions before letting him go. Majmoodar and Raees have an unexplained relationship, where they can neither stay together nor stay apart. Raees ka aur mera rishta bada ajeeb hai, paas reh nahi sakta, dur jane nahi deta. They play a cat-and-mouse game, where the other is trying to put himself in control. Interestingly, Raees and Majmoodar deal a lot with alcohol, but neither of them drinks it. Both of them drink tea a lot. Tea is a running gag in the film. When the first time Raees comes to meet Majmoodar at the police station, he tells Raees that he should get used to tea of the police station. Raees, however, uses this tea advice to come up with a trick to get his consignment delivered to the city. When Majmoodar gets hold of one of Raees’ truck, he finds a tea glass inside. In later scenes as well, there are constant references to tea. Raees and Majmoodar are often shown to be drinking tea. When Raees is held up in jail, he kicks the tea glass. The constant reference to tea is some sort of indicator of their confrontation (chai pe charcha?) or a unifying bond between them.
Though billed as a fictional film, Raees has political symbols in the film. These include not just the political characters in the film, but also elements hinting towards the activities of the real-life characters. The character of Pasha brings out a rath yatra, quite similar to the infamous rath yatra of L.K. Advani. The other political subtext was the role of Majmoodar’s actions. At one point, he is transferred to the control room, where he finds a goldmine of sorts as he gets an opportunity to phone tap all the conversations between Raees and his associates. Those familiar with politics will be aware of the case of snooping of a woman involving the top two political personalities of the country, which made headlines only a few years ago. In the final moments of the film, Raees is arrested by the police. He knows that he will not be sent to the jail, but will be killed before. Majmoodar says he cannot trust the system, so he shoots him in an isolated place. Again, a reminder of the highly controversial encounter killings of Ishrat Jahan and Sohrabuddin Shaikh by the Gujarat top cops D.G. Vanzara. Raees is allegedly rumored to be based on the story on Abdul Latif, a famous gangster of Gujarat. While the film tries to show that Raees was a secularist, Latif actually was a communal man, who had engineered several riots. Raees also shows communal riots and the bomb blasts the rocked the country.
All these events have a link, intentional or unintentional, to the current political leadership of India. Raees is set much before the current political leadership came into force, however, the point remains that the state machinery of that time as shown in the film has some parallels with the real-life events and characters. The politics is not surprising as Rahul Dholakia’s last two films Lamhaa and Parzania also had political undertones, where the latter was also set in Gujarat during the 2002 riots. Besides the political connection, the whole purpose of banning finds a resonance with the current political debate of banning various food items associated with religion. In another scene, Majmoodar mocks a junior policeman for his secularism when he thinks the policeman gave his new-born son a Muslim name. Secularism has become a dirty word in the current political climate, and the film makes a joke of it.
Raees has some splendid moments in its first half. The shootout at Jairaj’s place during Laila Main Laila is a powerful moment in the film. After that scene, Raees walks with blood on his face, and he sees himself in the mirror, coming to terms what he did. There are some pulpy seeti-maar dialogues in the first half, too. Talwar ki dhaar ko kya chahiye—gardan. It is in second half, the film loses some of its momentum with needless songs, and a slightly predictable end. Besides this, a lot has been written on the assertion of Muslim identity in the film. I, personally, did not see it as an assertion. Raees comes from a certain socioreligious identity, and it is only par for the course that he embraced that identity. The version that I watched did not have any Muharram scenes. Shah Rukh’s first scene was on a bike instead of him mourning and slashing his back as shown in the theatrical version. It seems that those scenes were cut. Not to forget, but Raees’ wife Asiya is also an active participant in his business. She never questions his actions. Rather, she helps him run his business and goes along with it. Maira Khan is, perhaps, one of the rare actresses, and that too from Pakistan, whose name appears first in the title credits of a film with a superstar. Of course, Shah Rukh Khan’s name comes in the end and is written in bold, which leaves no doubt as who is the real power centre of the film. However, given the controversy, it is worth mentioning this fact. They could have shown Nawazuddin the first, but the film shows Maira.
As an admirer of Shah Rukh Khan, it feels happy to see him try different roles. It is disappointing that 2016’s most interesting film Fan did not work at the box office. Shah Rukh is in fine form in Raees, and delivers a great performance. Raees is an enjoyable film with some masala moments, and a throwback to the villainous Shah Rukh of the nineties before he became Rahul and Raj. Call it a coincidence or a cosmic connection, this is brought about by another Rahul—Rahul Dholakia. At one point, Sadiq says about Raees, “Neeyat baandh ke khada hai, sajdha karke hi manega.” Given the recent choices of his films, Shah Rukh has tied his neeyat, the audience is ever-willing to do the sajdha.
[Read more of the author’s work at http://dichotomy-of-irony.blogspot.in]