In Zoya Akhtar’s latest directorial venture GULLY BOY, we have a scene which involves foreign tourists being brought into the congested slums of Dharavi by a local guide on probably their ‘slumdog millionaire’ sightseeing trip. “Wow,” one of the tourists exclaim when they are shown a house, “Look…every inch has been used!”
It seems the case with director Zoya herself, who makes sure that every inch of the script of her desi hip-hop musical Gully Boy is effectively used to put across a wide range of topics – of class issues, religious bias, female empowerment, freedom of choice, etc. Indeed, not even an inch is spared. But the brilliance is in how it is all done subtly without shoving them down the viewer’s throats.
Which is good …because therefore the movie has sufficient fuel to take the one-line underdog story go the distance.
The plot is straightforward and is the tale of a young man from Dharavi who has to rise above the challenges and social prejudices to pursue his dreams, even if means having to break the shackles of reality.
That young man is Murad (played brilliantly by Ranveer Singh). He starts off as this helpless young soul who watches silently as his father (Vijay Raaz) marries a second wife and bring the new bride to their house. He observes how his mother burns in humiliation and pain in the given situation. He gets miffed of being told what his social stature is by strangers he meets in walks of life. Even with his own friends, he is silenced and asked to look the other way when he questions their ethics and morality.
It is all feelings, bottled up and confined to his diaries and notebook scribbles. The only relief in his life comes in the form of Safeena (Alia Bhatt), the feisty girl that he has been dating for the past nine years.
Safeena too is also a barrel of frustration. The young Muslim woman is an ambitious medical student but must sacrifice the pleasures of the youth for the sake of her parents and religion. But unlike Murad, there is no repressing up of any emotions as she gets to explode now and then. But she is a character that has her priorities right.
Unfortunately, Murad never gets it that easy. At least not until he runs into a rapper MC Sher during one of the college fests and discovers the thrills of the local rap scene. He soon realizes that this could be an outlet for all his thoughts. So he jots down some lines and takes to Sher and asks him to use it. But Sher tells him that his story is not for others but for Murad himself to express and encourages him to take center stage. He soon realizes the magic of it all, and from thereon, with the help of his new found mentor, he takes on his dreams and uses his talent to create a splash as ‘Gully Boy’!
Inspired from the real rap sensations Neazy the Baa(Naved Sheikh) and Divine (Vivian Fernandes), the story introduces Bollywood to the underground rap scene in Mumbai that has a strong ‘fan base of its own’.
Zoya Akhtar and partner in crime Reema Kagti join hands in bringing their stories and their music to a more broader audience who has been subjected to the Bollywood brand of music that has been just looping around the tunes of ‘Yo-Yo Honey Singh’ and ‘Baadshah.’ “Do you call this rap?” asks Murad in the opening scene as he is irate over popular rap songs that go on about the latest cars, hot girls and booze. We are exposed to a more hard-core rap scene where poetry meets the beat of the streets, where tongues lash hard with the most brutal of words, belting the truths of the worlds and lives they inhabit. And Ranveer inhabits the world splendidly. He morphs into the character of Murad and leaves all his flamboyant trademarks for the offscreen. Onscreen, he nails everything that Murad demands and betters on the restrained performances of his in movies like Lootera, or Zoya’s own Dil Dhadekno Do. Even with a camera tightly fixed just on his face, Ranveer draws in the audience to the emotional core of his character. And the fact that he sings all those tracks makes it even more special.
Alia Bhatt provides the perfect foil as the spunky Safeena. She shows that as one of the best in the field, there is little that she can do wrong at this point. She is adorably tender as she pleads to her father, while equally fierce as she goes all ‘thod-phod’ with another woman over her boyfriend. She brings such volatility to her character of Safeena that you know even the fast rapping Murad stand no chance against Safeena’s motor-mouth. Their relationship is very well-established right in the cute opening sequence when Safeena slides into the back seat of the bus with Murad, sharing the headphones, with no words spoken.
And things could have sailed just fine with just these two lead performances. But the real substance and depth are created in the way Zoya writes all the other characters and the space she creates for them to shine. So be it Vijay Raaz as the abusive father, or Vijay Verma as buddy Moeen, or National award winner Amruta Subhash, the whole cast breathes life to their characters. It is surprisingly Kalki Koechlin, as the US-based music student Sky, who ends up though with the underwritten role in the movie. The real trump card though is newcomer Siddhant Chaturvedi as MC Sher who holds his ground with utmost confidence as the mentor and never does the novice get overshadowed by the lead man.
The technical team brings the right amount of energy to this hip-hop musical tale. Jay Oza’s vibrant work behind the camera is aptly supported by the editing of Nitin Baid. It is not merely the crowd-pleasing ciphers or the rap battles, but equally shining through are the quieter moments. Some of, the best moments, strangely, are ones in closed spaces, like that of a car. One such scene is the one where ‘Doori poem’ plays out, as we have the driver Murad wanting to reach out to the pain of his rich mistress. Or when you have Murad in the lets out his frustration verbally exploding in the closed confines of his car. Or the one where the rich father berates his daughter and compares her to the standards of a driver. Zoya uses these closed spaces to show the tight pressure spots these characters have to force themselves out of.
And then you have the ‘Both Hard’ soundtrack of the movie which is essentially the backbone. All of it would have been pointless had it not been for this beast of a soundtrack. This enormous work of 18 tracks and 54 artists, including the now-popular rap anthem ‘Apna Time aayega’ is put together by Ankur Tiwari, and the results are fabulous. The writing here is so powerful that one at times do feel that the subtle nature of the movie does not entirely match the intensity and rawness that the lyrical word provides. Also commendable is the work on the dialogues by Vijay Maurya ( who plays Murad’s uncle here) as it manages to capture the lingo and the attitude of this sub-culture perfectly.
The movie does come with a few negatives too, but none that strong to ruin your overall experience. As far as the look and treatment goes, one can say things are a little ‘too’ polished and not essentially as raw as it should be. The video of ‘Meri Gully Mein’ is a fine example to show the difference between the real vs. the Bollywood-ized version. There is also the predictability factor of the tale where structure wise no major risk is taken, but the writing and sensitive approach stands out as strengths that overcome these limitations. Yes, the quest to complete all the character’s arc does stretch the run-time in the process, but I guess ‘when you have something so good, one should just lap it up with no further questions!’ However, one must admit, the whole ‘Sky’ track does stick out like a sore thumb.
But it is also the character of Sky who comes with one of the most important messages of the film when she tells Murad that she likes him because he is an artist and where he comes from does not matter. Gully Boy is that ode to the artists out there who desire to be. Be it a rap artist, or a B-Boy dancer from the hoods, or a taxi driver penning down lyrics in his free time…it a call out to them to un(w)rap their dreams and take it out to the world. For an artist can cross over to a level playing field, one that looks straight at their talents and beyond their caste, color or creed.
As the pioneers and voices of this rap scene make their cameos and presence felt, we can only salute to their will that dared them to dream. And kudos to the team of making this effort in taking the ‘asli hip hop’ and giving it a mainstream recognition that these talents genuinely deserve.
Rating : 3.5/ 5
Cast: Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Kalki Koechlin, Vijay Raaz, Vijay Sharma, , Vijay Maurya, Amruta Subash, Sheeba Chadda
Directed by Zoya Akhtar
Written by Reema Kagti -Zoya Akhtar
Music supervised by Ankur Tewari
Produced by Excel Entertainment and Tiger Baby Productions