In all likelihood, Shah Rukh Khan is playing, and glamourising, a character based on Abdul Latif in his next film, Raees. Latif, for those who don’t know, was a convicted and dreaded criminal in Gujarat in the 1980s and 1990s.
At some point in his or her career, every film superstar across each generation that they best define, have played the bad guy or gal on the screen. One of the reasons why most actors desire to play the not-so-goody-two shoe characters is the belief that these offer more complex shades as opposed to the traditional 'hero’. So, be it a Paul Muni in Scarface (1932) or Edward G Robinson in Little Caesar (1931), Ashok Kumar in Kismat (1943) or Dev Anand in Baazi (1951) or Jaal (1952), Amitabh Bachchan in Don (1979) to Kangana Ranaut in Revolver Rani (2014), the lure of playing the bad guy/gal has been there ever since films came into being. Of course, any leading man or woman (read superstar) playing the villain simply inverts the concept of the protagonist and the antagonist, and the end result is one often where the killer, the criminal or in the traditional definition of the word, 'evil' is celebrated. This becomes more alluring if the said character is based on a real-life criminal and you can see this in - Amitabh Bachchan as Vijay in Deewar (1975) believed to be based on Haji Mastan; Kamal Haasan as Velunayakan in Nayakan (1987) loosely based on the real-life Bombay underworld don Varadarajan Mudaliar; Ajay Devgn in Haji Mastan-inspired character in Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai (2010) and Dawood Ibrahim in Company (2002); Vivek Oberoi in Chota Rajan mode in Company and then Maya Dolas, a member of Dawood Ibrahim's D-Company in Shootout At Lokhandwala (2007). Shabana Azmi’s Godmother (1999) too was said to be based on the life of Santokben Jadeja, who ran the mafia operations of Porbandar in the late 1980s and Akshay Kumar played a Dawood-esque character in Once Upon A Time in Mumbai Dobaara (2013). Almost all these characters that include some convicted felons, dreaded killers and even one of the most wanted men in the world, have been glorified. They are hailed and even pushed to be emulated for their little-known human facets such as Devgn as Haji Mastan saying 'duaon mein yaad rakhna' (remember me in your prayers) to an extent, where not only does the narrative distort facts, but also allow an emotional getaway for committing heinous crimes. Up until now the three Khans – Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh – would have been the only leading stars of their generation who had not portrayed a real-life criminal on the big screen, but this is all set to change early next year.
In a career spanning almost two and a half decades, Shah Rukh Khan has played a multitude of characters. Khan was one of the last actors, who graduated to superstardom after starting out on TV and playing the second lead or even straight out villain in Darr (1993). In the past, Khan has on one other instance played a character inspired by real life. In Chak De! India (2007), he played a character fashioned on Mir Ranjan Negi, the goalkeeper of the Indian national men's hockey team when India lost to Pakistan 1-7 in the 1982 Asian Games, and who later made a comeback as a coach and guided the Indian women's hockey team to win the Gold at the 2004 Hockey Asia Cup.
In Raaes (2016), Khan plays a character that is rumoured to have been modelled on Abdul Latif, a known aide of Dawood Ibrahim and someone who was believed to be a key suspect in the 1993 Bombay blasts. Said to be politically very well connected, Latif used to wait on tables in gambling dens and started serving liquor as a teenager. From there he went on to become a small-time bootlegger and rose to become the kingpin of the illegal liquor business in Gujarat. By the time Latif was killed in an encounter, when he tried to escape from Sabarmati jail in 1997, he had 97 cases lodged against him, in which over 40 were cases of murder and almost a similar number of kidnappings.
When the film was announced, and also all through its making, it was said that Khan was playing someone inspired by a character who was a petty bootlegger in Gujarat in the 1980s. While the filmmakers may or may not have forgotten to mention Abdul Latif, the chances of many people knowing the extent of Latif's crimes were remote. The internet was not the thing when Latif died in 1997, and in this day and age two decades is akin to a lifetime when it comes to forgetting someone. Even a few weeks ago, there was hardly anything on Latif on the internet barring a Wikipedia entry, and it was only when the teaser followed by the theatrical promo appeared that the name 'Abdul Latif' came into the spotlight. There is nothing wrong with an actor playing a stylised negative character, but the manner in which Raees stylises the eponymous characters is in a sense insidious. In order to understand the subtle incendiarism that Raees seems to portray, one needs to begin with a look at a leading star at the crossroads of his career and looking to, if not, reinvent, then reestablish by shifting gears.
Raees is Khan's Ageneepath (1990) moment when Amitabh Bachchan teamed up with a younger filmmaker, the late Mukul S Anand, to reinvent himself. Bachchan has previously played the bad guy, and… well, he was the one who truly made the anti-hero come alive with films such as Parwana (1971), Namak Haraam (1973) and the often overlooked Saudagar (1973), but he indulged in a Brain De Palma's Scarface (1983) inspired gangster flick, where he could not only play his age, but also a character that seemed different from the ones that he had played until that point. More than a star, Khan has always been someone who seems to enjoy the offshoots of being a star and how something can transform from a mere moment to a point in history. He had once joked that he was happy that he got injured during the shooting of some film, and thanks to that he might have had his ‘Coolie' moment where the screen would freeze and a title card would proclaim that this is the point where Shah Rukh Khan was seriously hurt. This is perhaps also the reason why he was thrilled about reprising Amitabh Bachchan's role in the remake of Don (2006) because he simply craved the 'Amitabh Bachchan in and as Don' title. With Raees, Khan manages to check two boxes - playing a real-life criminal and his own 'Shah Rukh Khan in and as Raees' super title.
Watching the trailer of Raees, there can be no doubt that Raaes Alam (Shah Rukh Khan), the one supposed to have been modelled on Abdul Latif, is the hero of the film. A career criminal, who is also said to have harboured communal hatred, Alam might be troubled and flawed but he is the hero, nonetheless. And the reason is simply this – Shah Rukh Khan is playing him – and Khan, cannot be anything but a hero, even if he is the villain. The manner in which the trailer unravels with slow motion shots of Raees (Khan) emerging from a literal smoke screen where people are fighting each other ostensibly during a riot or a gang clash is the stuff of cinematic legends. Even the so-called dialoguebaazi, the typical Hindi film one-upmanship, where robber Raees Alam and cop ACP Ghulam Patel (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) exchange notes are centred around how the bad guy will, in the parlance of our times, kick the sh*t out of the one who has promised to uphold law.
Directed by Rahul Dholakia, who had previously made Perzania (2005), Raees needed a convincing 'supporting' actor such as Siddiqui to portray the perfect nemesis to Khan's Alam and they might have even gone out of their way to woo the actor. Every Ram needs his Ravan, and every Thakur, his own Gabbar and Siddiqui's taali-seethi ensuring one-liners, which he delivers with gusto, add more gravitas but ever wondered why Khan didn't find the cop's role as inviting? Imagine the title – 'Shah Rukh Khan in and as Ghulam' and this ghulam pips the badshah of crime.
At times every star wants to throw caution to the wind and play a character just for the heck of it. More so in the case of a star such as Shah Rukh Khan, who has been compelled to be a victim of his own image and very rarely manages to do a film that allows him to come out of a safety net. In the late 1990s, when the casting for American Psycho (2000) was underway, the original choice to play the lead, Christian Bale, was about to be replaced by Leonardo DiCaprio, who post-Titanic (1997) had become one of the biggest stars in the world. The then 20-something DiCaprio was eager to sink his teeth into a role, which could be best described as a misogynist Wall Street serial killer. The film was based on the Bret Easton Ellis book and is a tale of a yuppie psychotic killer who had a tendency to mutilate his dates and the stomach-churning tale was reviewed as a how-to manual on the torture and dismemberment of women. There was a great backlash from many social organisations that urged DiCaprio to not do a role that might somewhere make his onscreen act invited to be emulated keeping his popularity in mind. The one person who led the opposition was the film’s director Mary Harron, who believed that it was just inappropriate to cast someone with a huge fan base among 15-year-old girls. The film was ultimately made with the director’s original choice, Bale. Despite the upsetting content, it is confounding how the lead Patrick Bateman has endured being as much an idol as Wall Street’s (1987) Gordon Gekko, who was not supposed to be the hero but many young men identified with the character’s ‘greed is good’ mantra.
There is far greater fun in humanising a criminal than finding the demon that resides within some good men. The real Abdul Latif's son, Mushtaq Shaikh, however, is not as kicked as those who made the film and fans, who are eagerly awaiting the 'return' of King Khan. Shaikh insists that his father had been misrepresented in Raees, and while his father might have been a bootlegger, a terrorist booked under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), he at no point ran a brothel or used women for delivery in his bootlegging operations, which he believes are depicted in the film.
With Raees, Shah Rukh Khan in all probability would end up eulogising Abdul Latif. Irrespective of whether the end may show the triumph of the good over, what may in fact, be outright evil, Khan’s flamboyance could sow the seeds of something totally different. It could wash away the past of a man who has committed crimes that have cost lives. Ironically enough, the city of Mumbai, where Khan has a massive fan following, would in all likelihood celebrate an actor considered to be a role model playing a character who literally aided in the deaths of hundreds during the 1993 serial blasts in the same city. Irrespective of how the film fares, it would also end up becoming a reference point for the future whenever the name 'Abdul Latif' springs up in any conversation. For the enormous number of Indians under the age of 25, in other words born after Latif's time, they would see him as the character that Shah Rukh Khan played, and SRK is the man. Some might argue that such a stance could be attributing too much importance to Shah Rukh Khan or a typical Bollywood film. But it may not be too out of the way to suggest that films in India have a tendency to create truths that have changed the socio-political course. It was through their films that superstars like M G Ramachandran (MGR) or N T Rama Rao projected themselves as the messiahs who needed to be voted in to change things. It was not until the runaway success of Jai Santoshi Maa (1975) that the goddess managed to become a part of the pantheon of other deities and similarly, rituals such as Karva Chauth could not have become as popular if not for Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995).