One Khan works in films
which are bent on letting us know their protagonist is pure as a snowflake. He carries cherubic innocence across the border into Pakistan never resorting to lying even when his neck is on the line. Yet another Khan acts in roles that are perfect
. His film will show you a dad who won't even raise his hand on his girls - they become world champions out of voluntary determination, of course. And then you come across this other Khan who seems to be saying, why be pure or perfect when you can be perplexing?
Raees is a perplexing film. Starting with the protagonist (Shah Rukh Khan as Raees) himself. His mum tell him that no business is small and no religion is bigger than business. So he sells booze in a dry state (Gujarat, of course) while being tailed by shrewd cop Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Before you can ponder over the morality in bootlegging, Raees is bribing politicians, inciting riots, and even murdering people who get in the way of his business. You know you aren't supposed to take him to be a hero. He is an anti-hero and that is how it is intended.
More perplexing is the film's star who accepts these strange roles. Quite recently, he played a narcissistic star and his doppelganger fan
who seeks revenge over the former. Neither of those characters was perfect (sadly, nor was the film). Now he plays a Muslim bootlegger who screws up often and lands into quite real trouble, physically and ethically. These are roles that top stars wouldn't even hear of in our risk-averse film industries. Yet, Shah Rukh Khan plays them with aplomb. Whatever be the reasons for and whatever be the roles he is taking up, he's certainly not playing safe.
The most perplexing thing about Raees however is its director. Rahul Dholakia's best known work is Parzania, a film about a Parsi family which loses a child in the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. Touching and thought-provoking, nothing about that film betrays a commercial sensibility. And that same director now has a film with Sunny Leone in an item number! It's like visiting your school's language teacher who taught you a thing or two about integrity and morality and "dharam", but who now pours you a peg of Old Monk and sets aside a plate of chilli chicken to go with it. It's like he's saying "Dharam can be dharam but then rum is rum".
Raees is unabashedly commercial. The songs, particularly the item number, are a misstep but the background score is alive and kicking. Khan jumps to some nicely choreographed desi-parkour in the middle of a Moharram march. Majumdar and Raees exchange juicy one-liners. Their respective attempts to get the better of each other are engaging, if not exciting. And most importantly, the film knows to worship its star with unerring frequency and creativity. This commercial entertainer certainly entertains.
Dholakia doesn't leave it at that. He does other interesting things like texturing his Gujarat the way a Ghosh or Sircar would detail their Bengal. You know that Siddiqui's Majmudar is not of equal priority as Khan's Raees, and yet Dholakia will never let you feel like Majmudar is shortchanged by the film. There's a cool and admirable dignity in the conflict. Something that Siddiqui makes great use of.
The filmmaker's flourishes along with the actors' rich performances could prove to be worth your ticket money. However, the film still walks a tight rope on morality. Add to that the political atmosphere where religion and economics are often mixed up, and you'll begin to observe that the tight-rope walk is held on top of burning embers. Whether the rope-walker walks the rope or falls to be burnt really depends on the viewer. All we can tell you is it's a, well, perplexing trick.