"It's been a long wait to hear rap in my first language that I feel in my bones, in a mainstream Bollywood film," writes Ishita Verma.
It is rare that a film gets critical acclaim and commercial success in equal parts, and Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy is one such film. Akhtar takes the frame of a cliched underdog story, and weaves a rich tapestry of real, vulnerable, flawed characters in impossible situations, and yet dreaming the big dreams.
If there is any form of music that embodies the spirit of the ‘underdog’, it has to be hip-hop. This film would not be anything if not for the strong musical core.
Hip-hop has always been on the streets, and in the clubs. And most of us are passably familiar with the club version, with the likes of Badshah and Honey Singh. This film has done wonders for the street scene in India, catapulting a somewhat underground movement to mass market popularity, while retaining the spirit of the genre.
Ranveer Singh shines in his most nuanced performance so far, as he plays Murad, a young Muslim from Dharavi who aspires to be a rapper – the street kind. He seeks to escape the oppressiveness of his day to day life – an angry father, who remarries leaving his first wife distraught, and the inevitability of his future as a blue-collar professional – in music. Ranveer's portrayal of Murad is finesse itself, swinging from life, to despair, to euphoria, to belief effortlessly.
The sole bright spark in his day is Safeena (Alia Bhatt), his girlfriend of nine years, who shares his childhood, music and aspirations in equal parts. She is a lioness, possessive and angry, who alternately hustles and fights to get what she wants – her career as a surgeon, and Murad – while her abusive mother pushes her to be a dutiful Muslim daughter.
Murad’s life takes an unexpected turn when he is forced to skip college and fill in for his injured father’s duties as a chauffeur. Every scene in which he interacts with his employers serves as a stinging reminder of the class divide. Music and poetry save him at this juncture, ushered in by a new friend, a successful rapper MC Sher, played by Siddhant Chaturvedi, who absolutely shines in this role. The film juxtaposes Murad’s dreams of being a successful rapper, with the seeming inevitability of his reality, ending with a heart-warming climax.
Brotherhood and loyalty are the core to this story: Moeen (Vijay Varma) is extremely aware that Murad disapproves of his lifestyle and doesn’t introduce him to his posher friends, and yet he bails him out every single time, even choosing to stay in jail for a crime that both of them committed. Sky refuses to press charges when assaulted by Murad’s girlfriend Safeena. And MC Sher stands by his protégé Murad, as he beats his teacher to get the coveted career-making spot to open a concert.
There’s a lot to love about this film. The film is a true collaboration with the Mumbai rap scene, including its poster boys, DIVINE and Naezy, the original gully boys we all love. They’ve sampled tracks from some of the best artists in the Hindi rap scene and the effort shows. According to media reports, over 50 artists were employed directly or indirectly over the course of this film.
I heard Illmatic when I was probably not even of legal rap-listening age, and it's been a decade-and-a-half long wait to hear music I feel in my bones in my first language, in a mainstream Bollywood film.
Akhtar and Reema Kagti are master storytellers, and Vijay Maurya’s dialogues are the piece de resistance of this show. Sample classics like: “Mere boyfriend se gulu gulu karengi toh usko dhoptungi na” to “Hard hai bhai” being the constant refrain post any soulful poetry. Many scenes in the film drip with meaning, showing not telling like any good art -
- Murad measuring Sky’s (Kalki Koechlin) privilege in footsteps, as he walks across the length of her bathroom
- The poverty tourists in Dharavi
- Murad glancing at, and rejecting his reflection in the chauffeur’s uniform while subbing for his dad
- When his employer is crying in the back seat and he feels powerless to comfort her, with the class divide wider than the few feet that separate them
- Where the stereotypical macho MC Sher tells off hecklers who booed a girl off stage, flipping his persona in a single line
- Murad and Safeena sharing a wordless bus ride and a single pair of earphones, so comfortable in each other's company that words aren't necessary
There’s obviously stuff that could have been better. This ain't no 8 Mile and Ranveer ain't no Eminem. His rapping skills, or lack thereof’ are the biggest let down in an otherwise stellar performance. The basic story arc does not veer an inch from a classic underdog story though it does aspire to be the best version of it.
We wish they'd sampled the original Azadi feat. Kanhaiya, and not taken the apolitical cop-out and Jingostan deserved to be more prominently featured. These small slights sting, as they go against the grain of what street music is about – the story of the underdog, speaking truth to power.
Also, the focus could have been less Hindi centric. They could have sampled some stuff from the thriving non-Hindi scene especially Tamil.
And lastly, the film focuses on the class divide and brushes the barriers of religion and caste under the carpet. In a country increasingly divided along religious lines, that seems like the lazy choice to make.
Ishita Verma an avid reader and entrepreneur based out of Bengaluru.