Raees is an epic gangster fable narrated at eye level. Rahul Dholakia’s movie is about a ruthless bootlegger who looms over his neighbourhood, city and state but manages to retain the characteristics of a streetsmart hoodlum whose only creed is money.

Shah Rukh Khan’s entry as the eponymous champion of tipplers in Prohibition-restricted Gujarat in the 1970s and ’80 is on a human scale too. As he lacerates his back with a leather belt during a Muharram procession, Raees is first encountered as one in a crowd, but also different. He has endurance and courage and is comfortable with blood. He will slosh in the red liquid as well as dunk others in it.

The 155-minute movie plays out in a fictionalised version of Ahmedabad called Fatehpura, whose alleyways teach Raees everything he needs to know about crime and business. In an idealised multi-faith neighbourhood with working-class Muslims, kindly Parsi doctors and rotund Hindu housewives, Raees commits his first crime to deal with his recently diagnosed myopia: he steals the spectacles of a Mahatma Gandhi statue.

The motif of shortsightedness, which earns Raees the moniker “Battery”, echoes through the narrative and has a satisfying pay-off, one that amplifies the character’s decision to ignore the wood and stick with the trees.

Recruited by the bootlegger Jairaj (Atul Kulkarni), Raees and his loyal friend Sadiq (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) ensure that Prohibition exists only on paper in Gujarat. As Raees chafes at Jairaj’s control and branches out on his own, a predictable sequence of events involving the transfer of power from the supplier to the courier boy is set in motion. Even the crusading police officer Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who develops an obsession with Raees, is a stock character, but Siddiqui’s brilliant display of wit and ruthlessness enlivens every one of his scenes.

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Raees.

Majmudar makes his appearance in the middle of Raees’s rise, which is loosely inspired by the Gujarati don Abdul Latif. In a deft piece of editing, Deepa Bhatia cuts from a celebration at Raees’s home to a costume party in Gandhinagar, which Majmudar has crashed in a Michael Jackson get-up. The world of smooth criminals finally gets the party-pooper it deserves.

Rather than wilting from the twin blasts of heat turned on by Majmudar and his business rivals, Raees consolidates his empire and romances the neighbourhood beauty, Aasiya (Mahirah Khan). Since he has the blessings of the chief minister and the leader of the opposition as well as Mumbai don Moosa (Narendra Jha), Raees manages to outwit Majmudar each time, but it soon becomes clear that the law enforcement officer is not the real enemy.

As the narrative deepens, the classic Hollywood-style scripting falls prey to Bollywood-style loss of nerve. Dholakia and his writers (Harit Mehta, Niraj Shukla and Ashish Vashi) veer off course when they portray Raees as the good Muslim don (as opposed to Moosa, who is modelled on Dawood Ibrahim) and a Robin Hood who bleeds for his community. The poster overshadows the plot in the latter portions. Raees loses his grey shades to acquire the blinding glare of the angelic white.

Raees’s dictum – that business is above everything – is forgotten in sequences aimed at lightening the protagonist’s dark nature and giving the movie star who plays him a heroic tint. The use of slow motion, the tacky flashbacks in a movie that strives not to be, and Ram Sampath’s nerve-grating background score and forgettable songs are anxious nods to formula elements. They interrupt the pleasure of watching the deftly written characters, the punchy verbal encounters, KU Mohanan’s richly textured camerawork, and the production design by Anita Rajagopalan and Donald Reagan, which convincingly locates us in a period setting.

Mahirah Khan and Shah Rukh Khan in Raees. Courtesy Red Chillies/Excel.
Mahirah Khan and Shah Rukh Khan in Raees. Courtesy Red Chillies/Excel.

The ghost of Friar Tuck manages to haunt some of the Robin Hood moments. Raees and Sadiq mete out punishment to a mill owner who is watching the iconic Amitabh Bachchan movie Kaala Patthar at a drive-in. The mill owner learns the hard way that the Angry Young Man on the screen is not merely a piece of fiction. Raees has loud echoes of Salim-Javed’s scripts for Bachchan in the 1970s, and the drive-in sequence is a clever retro tribute to the power of the past to ricochet through the actual and cinematic present.

Even as he succumbs to messiah status, Shah Rukh Khan delivers one of his most understated and enjoyable performances. His Raees is ruthless and single-minded – and human. Despite his chest-out walk and kohl-lined glare, Raees is only one among many villains. His presence doesn’t evoke hushed silence or immediate fear. Both Sadiq and Aasiya treat Raees as a breadwinner rather than a godfather, and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub’s lovely performance ensures that Sadiq holds his own against Raees.

One of Dholakia’s smartest decisions is to treat the anti-hero as a cocky and industrious Gujarati who just happens to be supplying liquor rather than running an oil refinery. The beautiful line that commerce is in the very air of Gujarat and is therefore impossible to stifle doesn’t get the play it deserves. The Hollywood film American Gangster unflinchingly portrays its black drug smuggler as a crooked entrepreneur whose actions are shaped by embedded racism and white domination. The heroin supplier in American Gangster is no saint, but nor are his white competitors and the corrupt police officers who suck him dry. Raees is more timid in its portrayal of its anti-hero as an alternative businessman of the year, one whose acumen and gumption might even find him a place in business school syllabi.

The beauty is in the detailing, even if the big picture is banal. Raees is overstretched and too much in thrall to the Indian gangster movie formula, but Dholakia does try to use the past to comment on the present. The nexus between politicians and gangsters is age-old, but the scenes of communal riots in Fatehpura are from not very long ago.

The movie’s philosophy is best summed up not in the line “Baniye ka dimaag aur miyan bhai ki daring”, but in the observation that where there are restrictions, there will be rebellion. Raees’s resistance is conventional, but the movie’s slyness and lack of moralising are off the books, like the liquor.