An online film journal for Indian Cinema
Of the three recent films SRK has made, including Fan and Dear Zindagi, Raees has by the far most complicated ideological address. SRK plays a gangster who goes by the name of ‘Raees’, an exceedingly stylish avatar complete with retro sunglasses and the obligatory surma. SRK has never looked better or badder. Raees received average reviews on its release and was a global box office hit. Admittedly, Raees is an uneven work, like many of SRK’s recent films, although Fan is somewhat superior on reflection. In some respects, the avatar of the gangster is perhaps the one role in which SRK does look comfortable unlike the awkwardness of Dear Zindagi where he is seen playing a jovial therapist!
Raees is a genre work that has the respective feel of a 1930s Warner Bros gangster flick; decidedly bristling with a semi-noir like pessimism. Characteristically, the social order in the traditional gangster film, held together by a punitive universe, prevailed suitably to please the censors, grudgingly though, reinstating a puritanical morality. Even the archetype of the crusading cop, IPS Majmudar, played by mischievously yet semi-functionally by Nawazuddin Siddiqui is conjured from a bygone age. Inescapably, genre dictates the murderously charismatic Raees must be eliminated. However, the ways in which Raees outsmarts Majmudar is not very original at all. The conceits and tricks are poorly conceived and at times undermine the attempts to create an aura of virtuosity around the character of Raees.
Indeed, all of this is not as straightforward as it seems. Genre is secondary to ideology since Raees is marked in many ways. As a Muslim male, an anti-hero, as part of an underclass and lastly as a Pakistani sympathiser, which I will come to later. All the while, the performativity of the Muslimness of Raees is complicated. Raees is also situated as part of a wider secular community that in turn alludes to the inclusive Amitabh star persona of the 1970/80s in which he often fought interchangeably for the rights of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, but was unmistakably on the side of the downtrodden, the marginal. Born into poverty, Raees’ rise to power comes through bootlegging. Except the coexistence between religion and crime is not a new genre trope, describing many Hollywood gangster films while habitually articulating a narrative of spiritual destitution. In fact, the coexistence between religion and violence offers the gangster genre with a notoriously hypocritical social deportment. And often the family stands in for a corrupt capitalist system in which a contest for power is played out violently.
Structurally, the film adopts a conventional structure, reiterating familiar gangster tropes that at times wear thin. But what gives all of these hackneyed elements an astutely apposite edge is the presence of SRK. SRK is not playing against type though, having forged the early part of his acting career playing anti-heroes, although broadly in the Bollywood mode. The crisis of confidence that SRK has suffered of late has led to him taking on roles that seem to want to, reluctantly so, critique but not completely neuter his star image. Essentially, his star image has become a self-parody that was drolly satirised in Fan (although pre-empted by Farah Khan’s Om-Shanti-Om), a work that I revisited lately, leading me to reassess my earlier semi-dismissive position about the film. Indeed Fan is a noteworthy film in SRK’s star persona – less evolution, more subversion.
SRK has often made his Muslim identity a part of his on screen characters – notably Chak De India and My Name is Khan, and the politics of religious identity is a public site of contestation in which nationhood and secularism also play a role. In turn, SRK has often negotiated the multiple identity of his status as a film star, both his Indianness and on screen Muslim persona, often colliding, have nonetheless emerged as a syncretic whole that have kept in check his global popularity. Even more fascinating is the extended marking of SRK’s Muslim identity in Raees since his wife is played by Pakistani actress Maira Khan, who appears largely in a decorative yet symbolic role. This Indo-Pak cross border Muslim link is a significant one in terms of augmenting SRK’s Muslimness, a controversial marker in Modi’s India and an identifiable link to Pakistan, and a cross border cinematic tryst that now seems to have been temporarily severed by grotesque nationalist sentiments.
The 1990s, the BJP and the Yatra
Set in Gujarat in the 1980s/1990s when the Indian National Congress retained a dwindling hegemonic power bloc, the film also alludes to Hindutva and the 1990s, thereby relatedly with the current BJP government led by Modi. All of this gives the film a prescient political edge. In a central sequence, Pasha (a dead ringer for Chef Skinner in Pixar’s Ratatouille), the opposition leader of Gujarat, with whom Raees has dubiously aligned himself and who is now contesting a local election tells Raees that he will take a Yatra (political rally) through the neighbourhood of Raees, a predominately Muslim area. The rally is against alcohol consumption, indirectly denouncing Raees and his business. Raees resists and warns Pasha, several times, of the repercussions of leading a rally. This is obviously a veiled reference to the Ram Rath Yatra of BJP L.K. Advani and the neo-fascist ascension of Hindu nationalism. Raees’ protestations are explicitly business related but the ferocity with which he tries to fend off Pasha points to religious anxieties simmering beneath. While there is no overt neo-fascist paraphernalia in sight, it is questionable whether or not director Rahul Dholakia would have got away with such an unequivocal oppositional ideological address expressly since censorship has become such an obvious means of curtailing openly political critiques of Modi and the ruling establishment.
But consider the flickers of subversion at work, the chinks of secular resistance. For instance, the ideological potency of the sword that Pasha wields, as he leads the rally, an incendiary icon of nationalist demagoguery, connects him to the early 1990s and the BJP of now. In turn, the supporters of Pasha also wield swords when they clash with the people of Raees. In the 1990s, nationalist processions with the aim of amplifying communal tensions, created a situation in which the rioting and the destruction of Muslim property became a resultant target. Raees and his imagined secular community resist the procession, leading to a violent clash, in which Raees is victorious. More importantly, this act of political defiance by Raees and the imagined community can also be interpreted as a cathartic wish fulfilment, the secularism of SRK’s star image coming to the fore in the most outlandish of political spectacles – epitomised in the ‘money shot’ of SRK defiantly wielding a metal pipe as he emerges indignantly monster like from a wall of smoke, ready to do battle. Is this a veiled, almost redundant riposte to Modi?
Relatedly, when the local police clear the streets to make way for the rally, we can see the machinations of state power harnessed by politicians. Whereas the criminality of Raees is transparent, Pasha masks over the corrupt links to the world of bootlegging, taking refuge amidst a police and media apparatus that in this instance is mobilized to protect an illegitimate political position. And when the people of Raees resist the rally, retaliating with Molotov cocktails, a fantasist construct, the police fire on them, siding with Pasha and reiterating the ways in which the public face of crime is sanctioned through state apparatus. This alludes to another reality of communal rioting in which the police have often stood by as spectators or have sided with Hindu nationalists, permitting ethnic cleansing.
While Raees protests the rally is bad for business, the violent street battle disguises something far more prescient about contemporary Hindu-Muslim relations, a narrative concerning communal politics. Furthermore, the locality of Gujarat where the film takes place gives this sequence an added political resonance considering Gujarat has been the site of some of India’s worst communal riots and Muslims pogroms of recent years, much of it under the watch of the despotic Modi and the Congress in the past. But iconographic subversion reoccurs at the end of the Yatra street battle. When Raees finally catches up with Pasha in the rally he uses a microphone to beat and humiliate Pasha. This seems symbolically overburdened but iconographically insightful since a divisive demagogue such as Pasha who often resorts to the microphone to propagate hate has the very same media apparatus turned against him. Moreover, whereas Raees is ultimately punished for his crimes, nothing comes of the Chief Minister; his gangsterism transcends civil law frameworks and he remains politically immune. Such immunity is likewise tied up in the state continually acting solely out of an instantaneous moral complicity. In a moment at the end Majmudar gets the nod from his superiors to take care of Raees. In other words, the state sanctioned execution of Raees amplifies the marking of the Muslim as expendable and functional to a wider state led political rhetoric.
It is not just a contemporary socio-political reality that is critiqued but the film also partially dabbles in some historical revisionism. For instance, in the opening, the reference to Gandhi is a significant political allusion and stems from the short sightedness of Raees, first pointed out to us in class who is unable to read the board. Short sightedness restricts his access to education and the world. Upon discovering he needs spectacles, Raees naively steals spectacles from a statue of Gandhi outside a government building. And the symbolism of this act should not be understated. Donning Gandhi’s spectacles, Raees realises he still cannot see (they do not have any lenses), and yet one imagines he would considering the supposedly reverential on screen depictions of Gandhi as a saintly halo! Although Gandhi was supposedly a man of the people, like Raees I guess, it is the charitable doctor who gives Raees the spectacles, for free that is, so that he can see. This is the first of many occasions when the legitimacy of politicians and leaders is questioned and undermined, emerging as a recurring motif in which demagoguery is conflated with gangsterism as part of an ostensibly inseparable whole. It is real people not ideologues that define a sense of community, nurturing belonging and identity. Symbolically we also return to the iconography of Raees’ spectacles at the end whereby liberation is transformed into violence. The spectacles worn by Raees, now an instrument of punishment and expiation, are used by Raees to kill Musa, suppressing fundamentalism and religious bigotry, slaying the bad Muslim, an inversion of the non-violence first assumed when we saw Gandhi’s statue at the start of the film.
Liminality and Secularism
Raees is a liminal figure and one of the ways in which the film constructs this liminality is through a secularist prism. Raees, a man of not just his people but also all the people, is framed in two clear ways, both worth discussing further. Mid way through the film Raees stumbles upon a funeral in what is a predominately Hindu neighbourhood and discovers a mill worker died because the contemptuous owner refused to pay into the worker’s pension. Raees consoles with the mourners at the funeral and takes immediate action, resorting to traditional gangsterism and roughing up the mill owner at an outdoor screening. Fascinatingly the film being screened is Yash Chopra’s Kaala Pathar, a self-reflexive gesture that not only consolidates the secularist overtures but also inserts a class explication into the narrative and the populism of Raees. The second secularist imagining comes when Hindu-Muslim communal riots break out as a result of an incident in which pilgrims coming back from Hajj are attacked on a train. A ten-day curfew is put in place but basic food and amenities are out of reach of the people. The Chief Minister fails in his duties to adequately address the basic needs of the people. Instead, Raees uses his infrastructure and network including police vans to distribute food. When one of the men suggests they only deliver to Muslim areas, Raees reacts furiously, berating the suggestion of a differentiation between Hindus and Muslims. Rather than playing into the hands of the politicians, the secularist gesture attempts to erase such arbitrary religious divisions, imagining a united community but also overtly reconnecting with SRK’s secularist star image. But worryingly even the secularism and religious tolerance of Raees is not enough to redeem his sins or to save him from the markings of his Muslimness, as we will discover in the ending.
The street battle worries the Chief Minister and Raees promises to go to jail to appease the backlash provoked by those who are upset by the insolence of Raees. While in prison, Pasha and the Chief Minister duplicitously make a pact to contest the seat. Upon discovering the political betrayal, Raees also runs for election in the same area, winning a unanimous victory, irking the politicians with whom he was earlier in cahoots. Empowered, the election victory bestows upon Raees and his criminal enterprise a newly realised legitimacy that connects him politically to his community, a riposte to the democratic nation state. In terms of the gangster universe, Raees transcends what appears to be a sacred threshold, signifying a sovereign position.
The liminality of Raees also articulates a further political discourse concerning the failings of the Congress party, and also partially secularism, in meeting the basic needs of the people including adequate housing. The Chief Minister has bought new property in Maningar but some people are staying there illegally and he asks Raees to get rid of the squatters. Subsequently, Raees buys 200-acres of land and dreams of building a new housing colony titled ‘Apni Duniya’ for the semi-impoverished community, another Utopian ideal. And to make this economically viable he proposes to his people that they only have to pay half the money up front. Since the economic and political autonomy of Raees threatens the status quo – the last thing the politicians and state need is a bootlegging Muslim, secularist and outlaw building homes for the impoverished! Both Pasha & the Chief Minister are quick to curtail the ascension of Raees but not simply because of the power he accumulates. Another reading is that Raees’ plan to make housing accessible to his own people, bypassing the state completely, will not only eradicate the partition between Hindu and Muslim communities that often only serve the purposes of politicians and electioneering but will give the people hope for an alternative kind of future that comes from an internal dimension in which community is central to identity. But the Chief Minister closes down Apni Duniya and Raees loses all the money that people from the community have invested in the housing project. Ideologically, the liminality of Raees also means he can just as easily be erased altogether, which is exactly what transpires.
The Apologetic Muslim
Inevitably Raees has to pay the price for his Muslim identity, concealing a dissident ideological observation that seems to speak volumes about the current state of the Indian establishment in its myopic, persecutory view of Muslims. With the failed project to build new homes for ‘his people’, Raees comes undone. He misunderstands the dynamics of the political establishment that exists outside the territorial localism of the enclave he has nurtured and in which he functions as a kind of celebrity, yet another self reflexive quip on the SRK star image. In a desperate attempt to pay back the people who have invested in his dream, Raees takes on a job for Musa. Raees agrees to smuggle gold to Mumbai from Doha. He delivers the gold and returns the money to the people. But it is only later Raees discovers the gold was a ruse for smuggling RDX into India that is used to detonate a bomb. Incidentally, this plot point seems like a ghostly cinematic reference to Sanjay Dutt’s involvement in the Mumbai bombings of 1993. When Raees discovers his complicity in terrorism, as a moderate Muslim he is compelled to take action. But this is never going to be enough to conceal the wounds of his murderous crimes that Inspector Majmudar has been cataloguing fervently.
Raees’ final transformation into a terrorist exhausts all the ways in which a Muslim can be marked. Although Raees, irrespective of religion, can ultimately be dismissed as a social aberration, his final execution by the state explicates political containment; subduing the threat posed by Raees to the status quo of political skulduggery. Just as he confronted the politician and his rally, Raees does the same with Musa but this time it is far bloodier, reiterating that there is no place for fundamentalism in Raee’s idea of a secular India not even in business. While Raees tries to make amends, the film does not seek a relatedly apology from the deplorable corruption of the Chief Minister. If so, then why is that the Muslim must be seen to be taking action, to make amends and indirectly apologise for the extremist actions of a few? And yet even though Raees is a murderer who has killed to consolidate his business empire, his censuring is still not enough to appease the establishment. The truth is, it will never be enough for the Muslim.
In some respects, what makes Raees such a pertinent work is the ways in which it makes the marking of the Muslim, all within a populist, mainstream context, an elucidatory socio-political negotiation between stardom, secularism and genre.