Directed by: Zoya Akhtar; Starring: Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Kalki Koechlin, Amruta Subhash
It is always heartening when we get live examples of how the times and tastes are changing for mainstream Bollywood. Exemplifying the same is Gully Boy, Zoya Akhtar’s (member of this brave new world) best work till date. Bollywood has often been blamed for not representing many sections of society. In this regard, Kudos to Zoya Akhtar for spotting the budding real-life talent of 2 hip-hop artists who rose from very humble backgrounds and giving them a voice into the mainstream. It is not surprising that India with such rich diversity and people would be brimming with stories, and it is the onus of the filmmakers to present such stories in the mainstream rather than just shoving them under the drawer or limiting them to arthouse cinema.
The premise is pretty straight forward, loosely based on the rise to mainstream popularity of 2 underground rappers, Naezy (portrayed as Murad aka Gully Boy by Ranveer Singh) and Divine (Portrayed as MC Sher by a refreshing high on energy performance by newcomer Siddhant Chaturvedi. Naezy’s rise of an underground street rapper from the slums may seem a predictable story arc in the city of dreams, but it is told in a soulful, real manner while staying rooted to the ground.
Murad is a college student, living in a slum tenement where “ëvery inch is packed” with his abusive father (Vijay Raaz) and long suffering but supportive mother (in a beautiful understated performance by Amruta Subhash). Murad copes with balancing his college education, supporting the family with odd jobs and putting up with his father, who brings a 2nd younger wife into the fold. His only escapes are 2-fold – his exuberant, rebellious and highly possessive girlfriend Safeena, an aspiring surgeon, born of well to do but conservative parents, and music that he takes refuge in. Thankfully, the film doesn’t veer into a rich girl, poor guy with dreams love caper. It is the 2nd escape, music which gives Murad a medium to channel his inner frustrations, aspirations, hurt and anger where he dabbles in song-writing. And what better way than the medium of rap and hip-hop. A chance encounter with MC Sher in college kickstarts his unexpected journey into the underground hip-hop scene where he finds his own niche. One thing leads to another and a chance encounter with Berkley Music Student “Sky” (Kalki Koechlin) gives him a chance to compose his own music video.
Where the film stands out from the run of the mill underdog story is its subtle treatment of themes of class difference and music as a peaceful means to channelize the internal frustrations without becoming preachy. Rap and hip hop often have angry undercurrents due to its roots from the inner-city Afro Americans of the 70s who often used music as a medium to give vent to their frustrations. Zoya Akhtar uses the same medium for Murad to channelize his own anger at societal treatment and at a more personal level while coping with his own failures and family. In 1 of my favorite scenes, Murad is chauffeuring a rich girl crying while returning from a party. The scene beautifully pans out with Murad silently composing a soulful rap in his head of his own inadequacies at consoling the girl due to the obvious class divide separating them. This rap (“Doori”) ends up becoming Murad’s 1st music video as a commentary on urban poverty, going to YouTube under “Gully Boy”.
The characters in the film very real and rooted to the ground in-spite of having high aspirations. If Murad, true to his name meaning, wants to aspire and dream, his anti-thesis is Moeen (Vijay Verma), a college friend borne of the harsh realities of slum life and life hardened. While Murad still carries some of the idealistic world views, Moeen realizes that in a dog eat dog world, it’s a matter of survival where ethics takes a necessary back seat. I found their character duet to be more intriguing than Murad-Safeena. Murad and Moeen have a love-hate dynamic, Murad detests Moeen’s activities including using children for drug peddling to make ends meet, but its Moeen who provides Murad financial support in hopeless situations (though involving petty crimes). Moeen also has his small aspirations, if Murad feels frustrated at the social divide that prevents him from flying, Moeen just wishes he can occasionally hangout with the “cool people”. In the end, Moeen is the grey character in the film which keeps Gully Boy rooted to harsh reality. For all his fallacies, for every Murad to succeed, there has to be a Moeen behind him. It’s not surprising when my friend pointed out that Moeen means support.
Gully Boy does seem to have thematic resemblances to the portrayal of Eminem’s rise from a blue-collar job in 8 Mile or the gangsta rap group NWA and their struggles coping with racist backlash in Straight Outta Compton. In fact, Zoya Akhtar in an interview has acknowledged the influences of such movies which she had re watched prior to making Gully Boy. However, in a world where such universal themes will be common, Gully Boy retains its identity and desi flavors dealing with real world struggles faced by lower classes and their aspirations.
The acting is top notch and high on energy. Zoya Akhtar provides plenty of scenes for characters to play out their full range of emotions. In Murad, Ranveer Singh gives easily his most layered performance which is a far cry from his usual more bombastic and boisterous acting. Except when he is going all out with his rapping, he is mostly emoting silently, be it suppressed anger while he watches his father bring a 2nd wife in their slum-house, listening to plentiful jibes from society and his fellow rappers, be it his happiness when he finds solace with Safeena or his music friends, or be it his helplessness when he nervously tags along with Moeen for some petty crimes just to make ends meet. Amruta Subhas as Murad’s mom delivers an understated tour de force as the long suffering but supportive mother. She was a revelation playing a widowed mother in that gem of a Marathi film Killa, and we see her seamlessly play a role many years above her age. I’m hoping to see more of her talents in both commercial and crossover cinema. Alia Bhatt as always is a breath of fresh air. Safeena’s character seems to have been written specifically for her to go all out, as she merrily oscillates between the prankster free spirited girl hanging out with her boyfriend at the pretext of delivering medicines or her clandestine escapades with Murad, the fiercely possessive girl who wouldn’t hesitate to smash a bottle at any girl doing “gulu gulu” with her guy, or the level headed determined girl who has her own career aspirations which will not be hindered by her parents’ wishes. Kalki Koechlin’s talents were probably underused in her rather stereotyped role as Shweta aka Sky, the Music rapper cum composer of rich parents but with a broad mind and a rebel streak who gives Murad and MC Sher their first big break, but in an ensemble cast, that is bound to happen. However, the biggest find in the film is Siddhant Chaturvedi in his break out performance as MC Sher. He is literally bursting from the screen, when he is rapping, jiving, pepping up Ranveer for his next performance or even that sly smile when he acknowledges that he has lost out but is glad as long as his friend has won the rap battle.
Gully Boy is a feast for the senses, not just for its energetic, humming worthy music, but for its fantastic use of the moving camera. Other than Sacred Games, Gully Boy has some of the most meticulous shots of Mumbai among recent releases, from the superbly shot Music video “Mere Gully Mein” through the narrow lanes of Dharavi to the night shots of Kalki out with her gang racing the eastern freeway painting the city with graffiti (and without any cliché shots of Marine Drive/ Sea Link).
Overall, Gully Boy is a well-made, mainstream rap musical (a unique venture in Bollywood) which will certainly keep the audience engaged with its exhilarating music and hard straight to heart emotions. Comparisons with Slumdog Millionaire might come from the west (theme-wise, though the plots are different), but while I feel that in the former film, Danny Boyle for all his acclaim, still resorted to occasional western stereotypes in its portrayal of Mumbai, this desi offering stays clear of such shortcomings. However, my only peeve is Zoya Akhtar avoids getting too uncomfortable in portraying the underbelly and urban poverty of Mumbai and tries to play it safe. Unlike Slumdog, Gully Boy is not a fairy tale amidst all odds film, it is based on real stories. While Moeen does add a much-needed dimension to keep the film real, not everything in the movie has to have a well-rounded reconciliation at the end so we can all go home contented. However, in the broader scheme of things, this shortcoming may be ignored given it is a celebration of following once’s passion in-spite of the social constraints, and as a mainstream movie, it does much better to stay true. In the Indian film industry, we lack depiction of such absorbing stories hidden from mainstream view, there is plenty of material if story tellers want to fish around. We talk of new age Mainstream Bollywood with better sensibilities; with every rejection of a Thugs of Hindustan or a Race 3 and an acceptance of such films, this statement gets vindicated.
My Rating – 4/5
Pathikrit Basu (A self-proclaimed cinephile)