Early in Raees, the titular young hero is prescribed spectacles, but his widowed mother cannot afford them. The doctor offers help, but she is too proud to accept his charity. Raees decides to take matters into his young hands and steals the spectacles perched on a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. This is India in the 1960s, a secular nation that still offers hope to the minorities who have chosen not to embrace the Islamist nation across the border. The spectacles are symbolic, but Raees does not get the benefit of Gandhi’s clarity of vision. He must fall back on the doctor’s charity, an allusion to the minorities becoming dependent on aid.
Raees director Rahul Dholakia made his debut with the National Award-winning Parzania (2005), which was a scathing look at the Gujarat riots as seen from the point of view of a Parsi family whose child goes missing. Dholakia had a personal connection with the family, and the incident deeply influenced him. That Dholakia is still alive and kicking in Raees. Charged with making a big-budget blockbuster, the director laces the narrative with a distinct political undertone throughout. At times, the movie almost feels like a protest for the treatment meted out to Parzania, which was banned in Gujarat.
Raees (Shah Rukh Khan), a rookie bootlegger, exploits the ambivalence of the political class in enforcing prohibition in Gujarat and establishes a direct line to the Chief Minister. Prohibition has been imposed in the name of Gandhi, and we see politicians using the law as a political tool while benefitting from the largesse of the bootleggers with impunity. Raees is very much a product of the ghetto, a devout Muslim whose mother teaches him that business is greater than any religion. This allows him to rise above the restrictions that his religion may place on his dealing in alcohol. Raees himself never drinks and takes care of the poor, including Hindus.
There is an almost daring foregrounding of Muslim identity – Raees is unabashedly Muslim. The first time we see the character is during Muharram. In a smooth edit, the boy grows up into a man, his back bloodied with whipping himself as penance. Raees is an orthodox Muslim, but there is no trace of religious fundamentalism in him. This is a big gamble from a mass film, and Dholakia even serves up a slick fight sequence set in a meat market with plenty of close-ups of the forbidden fruit.
Bringing up the other end is the dashing police officer Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) whose character starts off as a quirky stickler for rules but inexplicably becomes obsessed with Raees. From being a model law enforcement officer to somebody who looks the other way for his personal agenda, Majmudar ultimately commits a vile criminal act under the tacit approval of the political establishment. This can be effectively read as a parallel to the conduct of the state police as it allegedly allowed a massacre to take place during the Gujarat riots in 2002.
Apart from Khan and Siddiqui, Gujarat is the most potent character in the film. The political legacy of the state is presently bookended by Gandhi and Vallabhbhai Patel Patel on the one side and Narendra Modi on the other. The film is set in the Gujarat of the 1980s, before the dawn of the Modi era and much after the legacy of the freedom movement had been subverted by a highly corrupt political class with communal polarisation and vote bank politics very much in play. In the film, a politician organises a pre-election pro-prohibition rally that is reminiscent of LK Advani’s infamous Ram Mandir Rath yatra.
The unknowing involvement of Raees in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts is another interesting episode. This tragic event further branded the community as being close to terrorism. The fact that Raees unwittingly becomes a pawn for a terrorist plot is Dholakia’s way of making a passionate case for seeing the community as a victim of rather than the perpetrator of terrorism.
After being betrayed by politicians, Raees himself enters politics, wins the election and becomes an outcast with the establishment, pointing to the fact that the Muslim vote bank is prized and is a critical source of political power, but true power of self-determination is rarely given to the minorities directly.
The political film in India is gasping for breath and has been in steady decline, except for misunderstood gems such as Vishal Bhardwaj’s Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola. It is very refreshing to see a film as resolutely mainstream as Raees smuggle its political subtext into the theatres, even if it is stealthily blended into a case of bootlegged liquor.