Thursday, 9 February 2017

Movie Review: Raees (2017)



It’s Bollywood time again, and I am once again thankful that I am stepping on familiar ground with this one. This time around, it’s with one of the most recognizable Indian actors out there: Shah Rukh Khan. Now, that term doesn’t have as much worth to me as it probably should, but that’s only because I’m still on the learning path when it comes to understanding Bollywood cinema. It took me two decades to understand Hollywood’s antics; chances are I have a while to go yet. I’ve already covered two of Khan’s more recent films on this blog before, with the decent if insubstantial Happy New Year and the phenomenally misguided Dilwale, and I’m far from an aficionado for his work but I definitely give the man credit where it’s due; even in Dilwale, the guy still managed to deliver. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at his latest offering. This is Raees.

The plot: Ever since he was a kid, Raees (Shah Rukh Khan) has been involved in organized crime, specifically bootlegging liquor. As he matures, and decides to venture out on his own instead of working for local baron Jairaj (Atul Kulkarni). However, it seems that both the local government and his former employers will both stop at nothing to get in his way, even if Raees’ own motivations are far from criminal.

Hot damn, the music here is good. And no, I don’t just mean the showstopping numbers this time around. There are a whole lot of little touches that Ram Sampath brings to the production that all do wonders in their own way. From the crisp Bollywood drumming throughout to the genuine pep put into the songs, even the spaghetti Western harmonica stings set to the scenes with Majmudar at the police station, this is very nice in the sonic department. As for the songs themselves, it helps that they are mainly used either in the background to help build up certain scenes, like Laila Main Laila in a pivotal scene of mass carnage, or because they have legitimate relevance to the scenes themselves, and even the ones that don’t are delegated to their own reality in context to the relationship between Raees and Aasiya.

I’ve made my point about morality tales before and, honestly, the fact that this one is so straight-forward with its stances works really well considering the story we’re given. A typical organized crime tale, putting Khan into his real comfort zone of cold intimidation, that not only shows quite a bit of Western appeal but is also well structured in its own right. It basically strips away nuance for the sake of depicting the trials and tribulations of a man who, despite what his more violent actions may show him as, genuinely cares about his community and wants to help it however he can. Add to this some political and policial figureheads to show what real villainy looks like and a backdrop involving bootlegging, easily one of the most historically bass-ackwards illegal rackets regardless of what society you come from, and you have a nice bedrock for a somewhat unconventional hero story.

Of course, the fact that the film frames him as being this altruistic does end up leading to some… questionable ends. I mean, there’s a reason why the politicians think that he will be hailed as a new messiah: He kind of is. From my understanding of Bollywood film structure (stop laughing), I get that loud bombast is usually the order of the day so having a protagonist who is this purely good, even considering his actions, makes sense. However, given my disdain for Space Jesus that chances are I will never be able to take seriously, there’s shades of that to be found here. Not that it even comes into conflict with the shotgun-spraying action scenes, which are a little wobbly in terms of camera work but still perfectly fine; more, it ends up coming into conflict with itself. There’s only so much holier-than-thou a person can take before it starts to feel out-of-line, and I’m willing to bet that this would turn out a whole lot worse if it weren’t for Khan’s on-screen charisma. However, with that said, there is at least some effort made to make him out to be somewhat of a flawed individual. Without getting into spoilers, an action of his in the third act that ends up going bad keeps secure the fact that, as selfless as he is, he is still human and flawed. He still has an ego, which leads to bloodshed if his is bruised, and he can’t account for every little thing he does, no matter how well-intentioned it may be.

There’s also the matter of the romance to contend with… in that there barely is one. I mentioned before that the songs involved with this exist in their own reality, and in a way this entire sub-plot does as well. I say this because there is a shocking lack of setup to this relationship, right down to a meet-cute that made me think that several scenes got lost in the editing rooms, and the fact that this is supposed to inform his character during the climactic scene just makes it feel off. Now, this is hardly a unique problem for this film: No matter where you look, you’ll easily find a shoehorned-in love story because it is apparently one of the basic building blocks of most stories. Be that as it may, it would have helped if their relationship was given lip service beyond the musical numbers. Yeah, the musical numbers are pretty good and Mahira Khan does well enough with the material, but if you’re going to bother including something like this, have it actually feel like it belongs beyond plot reasons.

All in all, while a bit grating in just how holistically good the main character is, this is still a pretty good crime epic. The acting is solid, the characterization works where it counts most and the story takes the usual moral ambiguity of most crime dramas and emphasizes it to show a character that, even with his more unsavoury actions, well and truly has his community’s best interests at heart. It may be tried-and-true but it still works here. It’s better than Jackie, as this doesn’t have any issues concerning how graphic the imagery can get to hold it back. However, considering the slight emotional setback here due to how transparent its protagonist is, it doesn’t strike as deep a chord with me as Moonlight.

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