If Gully Boy is the mainstream Bollywood movie with two of the industry’s biggest actors, then one could finally say that the Indian film industry has come of age. Superstars still rule Bollywood but as is often repeated by industry insiders, nowadays, ‘the story is the king’. This Zoya Akhtar-directed film, co-written with Reema Kagti has set out to prove just that.
Gully Boy is foremost a rags-to-riches story, the kind that could be universally loved by its audience. However, there are so many layers to it that describing it in a single sentence would do no justice to the story, the actors and the filmmaking.
The short of it is that Murad Sheikh (Ranveer Singh) falls in love with hip-hop and raps about his poverty-ridden life, love for his mother and solidarity with his friends from the streets. However, without ‘telling’ the audience, the movie shows layers of a class divide, literally screams out against men’s privilege and subtly mainstreams an Indian Muslim’s life. And most of all, it is an introduction to ‘asli hip-hop’.
Gone are the days when a Muslim superstar like Shah Rukh Khan had to become ‘Raj’ or ‘Rahul’ onscreen to display India’s Hindu normality. Gully Boy challenges this and effortlessly portrays a Muslim man’s humane struggles, where he is not a terrorist nor a religious fundamentalist.
Murad lives in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood with a Muslim girlfriend, Safeena Ali (Alia Bhatt). While the skullcaps worn by Muslims are still used in Hindi movies to portray radicalism, Murad is shown several times with his skullcap, praying at a mosque like a perfectly normal human being.
The film shows how the class divide in India has now become almost criminal. Placing Mumbai’s slums and skyscrapers in the same frames, the extreme difficulties of families living in the former are brought into stark contrast. Without dramatic, chest-thumping dialogues from the bygone era like “Mein chor nahi thaa, mujhe halat ne chor banaya” (I wasn’t a thief, the environment made me one), the film shows young men turning into drug pushers just to earn a living.
Then, there is a commentary on how class reproduces itself. There is a scene wherein chauffeur Murad is asked by his condescending, rich employer about his education. Murad replies that he is in the final year of a Bachelor’s degree. Sitting beside the employer is his daughter who has also just passed his Bachelor’s. The classism in India is also bluntly shown when drivers are not even allowed to speak to their employers without being asked to. The agency of working-class people is trampled by the dominant structure as Murad’s father tells him not to dream big but to close his eyes, keep his head down and move on.
Gully Boy is also unreservedly feminist, and without claiming to be. Alia Bhatt’s character is fierce in her choices. She rebels against her traditionalist Muslim family and dates Murad. When Murad’s father marries a second wife and blames his mother for not satisfying him, the mother (Amruta Subhash) emphatically shouts at him that he never knew how to touch her lovingly. Murad and his friend MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi) are surprised to meet a female music producer, Sky, but later correct themselves.
Then, there are hip-hop songs in the movie which are ‘ek number’ (top-notch), as Mumbai slang in the movie would describe. Bollywood music lovers might be familiar with party hip-hop songs such as ‘DJ wale babu’ or Honey Singh songs, which boast of drinking four bottles of vodka. But the hip-hop in this movie is as real as it could get. This authenticity is inspired by the meteoric rise of two hip-hop artists, Divine and Naezy, from the slums of Dharavi to being respected artists of a genre recognised as ‘gully rap’. The title track ‘Mere gully mein’ (In my street) celebrates the struggles of life in the slums, while ‘Doori’ exhibits the pain felt in the streets. The movie is a mainstream launch pad for many hip-hop artists from the Mumbai slums, with a total of 18 tracks. Director Zoya Akhtar uses budding hip-hop artists like Emiway Bantai, MC Atlaf and Kambhari to give an air of authenticity straight from the streets of Mumbai. The final song in the movie, ‘Apna time aayegaa’ (My time will come), is so inspirational that one is bound to leave the theatre buzzing with fresh, new energy.
Ranveer Singh, often seen playing loud and flamboyant roles, is surprisingly calm and intense as Murad. He also rapped several of the songs himself. Alia Bhatt’s performance as Safina is likewise remarkable. Vijay Raaz, who plays the menacing father, is also credible in his role. All the other actors, including Chaturvedi as MC Sher, do a great job.
The cinematography in the movie is brilliant in showcasing the lights of the slums. There is a particular scene where chauffeur Murad is waiting alone inside his employer’s car on New Year’s Eve while the employer is partying. The decorative lights reflecting off of the black car while Murad is sitting inside, letting out his anger in a rap song, is flawlessly shot.
The film, however, is not perfect. Although the story is enjoyable, it is fairly predictable. There are no twists or turns. How quickly the breakup of Murad and Safina returns to a loving relationship is quite unbelievable. But despite a few complaints, one cannot but love the film. Zoya Akhtar has presented an inspirational film about overcoming the hurdles posed by class, religion and gender.