Rahul Dholakia. Photo: Getty Images
Rahul Dholakia. Photo: Getty Images

Actors want to play gangsters because of the characters’ sex appeal: Rahul Dholakia

Rahul Dholakia on his new film 'Raees', and his fondness for the gangster genre

Rahul Dholakia read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather when he was in school. After finishing the book, he wanted to become a gangster. The fascination with the world of dons continued as he devoured films made by Martin Scorsese. It was simply a matter of time before a larger-than-life don took the spotlight in one of his scripts. Dholakia’s Raees, which releases on 25 January, is set in the Gujarat of the 1970s and 1980s and follows the life of a powerful bootlegger Raees, played by Shah Rukh Khan.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What drew you to this genre?

While finishing the script of Lamhaa, I was living in America, and many of my (New) Jersey friends had liquor stores or dealerships. They suggested that if I did something on prohibition or alcohol, they would get me the financing. Around the same time, the TV series Boardwalk Empire was coming out, which is also about prohibition, and it got me thinking about doing something like this. But if it’s about prohibition and set in India, then it had to be Gujarat. Since I am a Gujarati, I said, let’s try it.

I began the research with some journalist friends. In the initial draft there was no gangster. It was about prohibition, and at one point it was more like a social drama. But when you talk about bootlegging it means gangsters and the nexus between politics and the police.

Also read: Gangs of Bollywood

How did the character played by Shah Rukh Khan, Raees, come about?

Al Capone is a great inspiration as far as any film on prohibition or gangsters is concerned—also Lucky Luciano. So we thought we would try to make Raees something like that. We wrote a lot of drafts—from the cop’s point of view, one very serious draft from the prohibition point of view, one which was more of a spoof, called “Car-O-Bar". Yet, somehow, the gangster attracted me more. We had also met a lot of interesting cops during our research, so I decided to do a cop and gangster story with prohibition as the backdrop.

Which gangster-themed films have you enjoyed?

I am a big Martin Scorsese fan; I love his work. And I am also a huge fan of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. In my adult life the only person whose autograph I have waited to take is Pacino’s. I had just seen his play on Broadway (Hughie) and after the show I stood outside the door with the play’s poster and got it signed.

The Untouchables, Casino, Goodfellas, The Godfather, Scarface are some of the classics I grew up with. I also loved watching Heat, Carlito’s Way, Jean-Luc Godard films such as Breathless—so somewhere down the line I have had a fascination with the bad guy. From the Indian film industry, Deewaar, Sholay, Company, Satya, Gangs Of Wasseypur and Mukul Anand’s Agneepath come to mind. Also, more recently, Narcos.

Rahul Dholakia (left) directing Nawazuddin Siddiqui on the set of ‘Raees’.
Rahul Dholakia (left) directing Nawazuddin Siddiqui on the set of ‘Raees’.

How do you build sympathy for a gangster character?

Gangsters do a lot of good in their community because they need people on their side. They become popular because politicians support them as they need the vote bank and the goons to do stuff for them. Also, the world of the gangster has mystery, which cinema has glamourized. As a viewer, you don’t want to only see goody-goody characters. It’s a rags-to-riches story. Most people are common and helpless and when they see someone taking on a system and defying it, these people become their heroes. You have to have shades of Robin Hood in the character. Gangsters are unpredictable. And for a writer, it’s superb, because you can do whatever you want with the character. You create a whole imagined world and that’s the fun of writing.

Does a romantic track help build sympathy for the character?

Gangster films usually have a moll, but in our film there is no Mona darling. We have a wife. It’s not important to have a romantic track but the nicer, lighter, human side comes out through the woman, which helps keep the audience connected. Also, gangster films are very macho, so you need elements to balance it out.

Besides writing and casting, what other elements are intrinsic to bringing the underworld to the screen?

Production design plays a big part. We have to create Raees’ world, which is set in the 1970s and 1980s. The costumes are important to give a particular texture. The background music and sound design are crucial. And while the dialogues are flowery, they have been played very normally and realistically, within the requirements of a commercial film. And, of course, there’s the cinematography—the way it’s shot, the lensing, lighting and style of shooting.

Why do actors want to play gangsters?

They are sexy, no? Men want to be them; women love them. All dons beat up a bad guy only, someone worse than them. In school we would say all the good-looking girls go to the bad guys, even if they were ugly as hell.

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