Unexpectedly and unusually, both films (Rahul Dholakia’s Raees and Sanjay Gupta’s Kaabil have bucked the Bollywood trend , of Box-office bonanza becoming bust due to two big star films releasing simultaneously on same day (some exception like Lagaan and Gadar), writes filmoanalyst Sushil Kumar.
Contrary claims concerning two films, conveying contrasting messages and meanings, have caused controversies and crowd conflicts at cine-halls. Continuing mindless assertions and counter accusations completely convinced me to comparatively review, cinematically of course, the content and context of these two cine creations and to understand whether controversies and consequent conundrum could create obstacles for real understanding of actual cine contents and context.
One must state , at the outset, that one should clearly comprehend that effort to catch meanings from movies says much as much about men deriving them than meanings actually contained in movies themselves. In other words, men’s project their own ideas on these movies much more than what movies project on screen.
A serious comparative count-in between Raees and Kaabil reveals more commonalities than contrasting contradictions: both films first portray a protagonist ( common citizen/ an average aam aadmi) as a system’s victim and his protracted duel with an all compassing, corrugating, corrupt and rotting socio-admin-politico-policio-protected established order ; in Raees he does so by manipulating the established order and becoming a kingly cog in the wheel till his ever expanding operations threaten the very existence of the system that sustained him, whereas in Kaabil he first becomes the victim of political- police highhandedness and then vanquishes the system by manipulating the gnawing gaps and gaping holes in legal loopholes to avenge, seek revenge and justice ; both films depict helpless individual’s efforts to take law into one’s hands to correct injustices of the system- with a difference that in Raees protagonist perishes in the process whereas in Kaabil he conquers unbelievably against blinding handicaps.
Raees covers a much wider canvas as it depicts the protagonist’s existential evolution as a helpless child to his metamorphosis into a mafiaso and a major mover and possible wrecker of the system leaving only option of his eventual elimination; whereas Kaabil only depicts a limited time frame of protagonist’s post marital life of few months. Both protagonists are not natural nihilists but only take up cudgels when system seeks to strangulate their entire being. Both films show helplessness and battle of the protagonists against rotten, corroded, corrupt admin-legal-political-economic symbiotic system and this causes immediate connect with viewers’ own existential experience-thereby enhancing identification and Freudian wish fulfillment mirroring heroic deeds of dreams and wishes. Not for other reasons, film industry worldwide is called dream factories.
Both films are stinging comments on corrupt politicians and political system and indicate a continuation of trend started with films like Aaj ka MLA and Inquilab a couple of decades ago; both protagonists recoil and violently react when driven to the wall and take law into their hands and are basically are of genre of revenge films – Raees does that by going against the systems’ symbols like mentor dons and politicians whereas in Kaabil he does that against an indifferent legal –police- political system.
Both films fundamentally are founded on time tested formulas forever tried and tested on Bollywood Box office , as they portray heroic deeds of a protagonist and are based on themes of love, friendships, family, revenge, retribution ,injustices by unjust system run by run down rotten politico-police administrative apparatus. Their fight for justice and revenge are hailed by spectators as justified responses even though their acts spill over the line in legality and reality.
Now let us consider the differences: Raees encapsulates an evolution of a small towner’s rise to big time name, fame and fortune threatening the system that nurtured him and his ever looming doomed fall; whereas Kaabil is about a newly married blind couple’s marital world’s destruction and an unbelievable revenge unleashed by a helpless hero against the insensitive system and their representatives.
Raaes’s canvas is considerably vast as it depicts, albeit allusionally, Gujarat’s prohibition and virtually no prohibition in illegal power play by an oppressive and octopussian politico – police –administration apparatus; its depiction of basic illegality of a graft ridden, under the carpet existence, prohibition and police encounter is inevitably touching raw nerves and causing controversies- causing camp divisions for and against much like in Trump times in current America. Kaabil also depicts mirror montages of same rotten and graft ridden society but it primarily highlights hollowness of a legal system and his attempt to obtain justice a la vigilante mode when system fails to keep vigil and forces one to take law unto one’s hands to vanquish villains in a vanguard action. In Raees, the long arm of law eventually catches the hero whereas in Kaabil its reverse – hero first wants the law to catch culprits but in the end takes law into his own hands to go beyond the long arms of law! Ironically, both films deal with issues of injustice- Raees deals with existential one faced by a struggling lad and in Kaabil its legal one faced by a blind man.
Raees’s dialogues are commendably catchy and verbal exchanges/ repartee between Shahrukh and Nawazuddin are wonderfully done, having potential to be mouthed many time over by masses if not by classes; whereas Kaabil’s dialogues are riddle ridden having hidden hints that connect as movie unfolds in sequential suspense much like a maze.
Raees despite being a fully formula film has a social realism feel whereas Kaabil is merely stretching an imagination to plot a suspenseful plot laced with riddles to create curiosity and sustain spectators’ interest. Raees’s Gujarat flavour is created by excellent set/costume designs, art décor ( specially of interiors of home and police station ), shots of arid landscape, step wells,garba,allusions to prohibition and real life don, police encounter,rath yatra,communal riots, real estate boom ,kite flying,jhoolas, jharokhas and so much more ;Kaabil seeks to create no such realistic feel for context of Mumbai and its sets are only of a house, a building under construction, police station etc. are not much to speak for.One should appreciate when a formula film like Raees incorporates a realistic feel despite simultaneously having clichéd plot as the film maker is making a sincere effort to address the oft repeated criticism that the film is far from reality. Kaabil has no such pretense -not even in the plot lines, forget the other aspects.
Acting wise, both stars aren’t unable to shed their star persona and mannerisms despite fine acting efforts (Aamir does that wonderfully in Dangal in contrast). Nawazuddin hardly has few frames to show histrionics but even in that small role of police officer he etches a realistic character. Both heroines are mere embellishments in supporting, ornamental roles. Ronit Roy’s role as politico villain is almost a revisit and memory recall and relook on Nana Patekar’s dialogue delivery. Jha roles in both films, in contrasting roles of a don and police officer in Mumbai, indicate a good potential.
Both films’ song’s lyrics and picturisations are just ordinary and perhaps knowing this reason both films rehash an old hit reincarnate in item numbers with scantily clad ladies gyrating wildly – seems those ubiquitous famous pelvic thrusts of Bollywood would never go out of fashion. Seems now, Indian saat surs are synthesized in modern Japanese synthesizers to create noise, not soulful sounds of Bollywood’s golden era .Seems we are satisfied with listening to old hits only on retro FM channels.
Main reason behind both films doing good business relates to reliving by each individual, his/her experiential story, of struggle against socio-politico-policio-bureaucratic system ; and when one sees similar portrayal on screen, spectator’s identification is immediate adding appeal and acceptability; one almost relives that heroic act within, in a wish fulfillment way giving some measure of relief . One wonders whether such films fulfill useful social role of letting of some steam by controlling the volcanic eruptions of feelings and emotions in real life. Some argue that such films can in fact provoke latent steam to spill onto the streets.
As stated above, Raees contains virtually every formula formulated for formula films : a single helpless mom struggling effort to raise a child in an unjust socio-eco-politico-policio-cultural context and existential helplessness causing hopelessness leading to hopping across legal lines and laxman rekhaas , and beating the system achieving name , fame and fortune , assuming Robin hood persona and getting helplessly trapped with no way to retrace steps or retreat and inevitable progression into violent perishing end much like Shakespearean or Greek tragedies.
Though Hollywood has made such films since its inception , its best specimen continues to remain Coppola’s Godfather even till today ;and our beloved Bollywood was typically prompt in making its copy- Dharmatma ( later versions include Dayavan -copy of brilliant Tamil version Nayakan- Aatank hee Aatank, Sarkar ).Many successful films have been made with similar plot lines like Ganga Jamuna, Mujhey Jeene Do, Deewar,Vaastav,Company, Once upon a time in Mumbai ,Shootout at Lokhandwaala, Shootout at Wadala.Parinda,Agneepath,Gangs of Wasseypur etc. The recurrent storyline of a protagonist helplessness to obtain justice causes immediate connect with experiential reality across all countries. And, for this reason, all countries produce mutants of such movies. Hollywood has made such movies since decades- recall Dirty Harry, Deathwish and Rambo series. Just for instance, also recall last year hits Black Mass and Rajnikant’s Kabaali. Martin Scorsese has made an entire career making such films.
In the final analysis, one can say that films with themes of injustice (real or perceived) inspired revenge cum redemption , with Robinhood tinge , are universal themes and its mutants, mixtures and medley in movie formats , would continue be made , even though these films would find only footnote favour in film schools and filmography.
One should also remember that both these films are, after all, movies and are to taken seriously in real life up to a point and if done beyond that, it would be pointless.
(The writer is senior IAS officer)