January, 2019, will be remembered as the month Bollywood went out of its way to please the powers that be. Actors proudly claimed they have no ideology. A military war-cry, used in the promotions of a film, went viral. The films that released — a GI Joe-style action film about a surgical strike, a film about a meek, submissive former Prime Minister, a party-funded biopic of a venom-spewing demagogue, a historical war film — all endorse, in varying degrees, a narrative that the Government would like us to believe. The Hindi film industry has always been a bit insular, always content with maintaining status quo. But few months before the elections it was scary to be reminded how easily it can be co-opted. The arrival of the Gully Boy album in the middle of all this feels like an act of resistance.
One of the songs, "Azadi," begins with a remixed version of Kanhaiya Kumar's electric chant during the protests by the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2016. You have heard it before: The student leader appeals, his voice hoarse from shouting, and the people respond back – attacking everything that keeps us from being 'free': Bhukhmari se… Bhedbhaav se… Hum leke rahenge…Azadi… till, beats are dropped. A groovy Punjabi verse is introduced. And DIVINE – one of the two rappers the film's lead Ranveer Singh's character is based on – fires up the proceedings. He raps about nepotism, he raps about the middle class indifference. The water problems in the locality, and the claustrophobia in the cramped slums, and the hate-spreading politics in the name of religion. Nahi banna mujhe Slumdog Millionaire he declares at one point, ebbing and flowing with a style that has become so distinctive of the rapper.
It's a reworking of a pre-existing track composed by music producer Dub Sharma at the time of the protests. It uses 'Found Sound' techniques and incorporates clips of politicians' speeches. The Punjabi bit isn't random; it's a folk piece Sharma had recorded in Chandigarh a few years ago. "It was written a hundred years back, and it talks about the same thing – that we have progressed in so many ways but not in terms of freedom," he says on the phone. Sharma's approach involves manipulating beats, and he works with sampling. He looks at this DIY, Internet-empowered sub genre as a form of satire. When he is not working as a producer for other composers (as Siddharth Sharma) he moonlights as an experimental electronic musician under the name. Singer-songwriter Ankur Tewari, the music supervisor of Gully Boy, reached out to him when he was working on the soundtrack – DIVINE's portions were added later. "I was surprised I wasn't asked to make any changes in the track. Because Bollywood normally doesn't take stuff like that from the underground, or something that has some kind of an opinion in it," said Sharma.
"I was surprised I wasn't asked to make any changes in the track. Because Bollywood normally doesn't take stuff like that from the underground, or something that has some kind of an opinion in it," said Sharma.
Sharma has also composed "Jingostan" – "inspired by the trolls and jingos of India." It turns the idea of a patriotic song on its head. The words pakdo, maaro, kaato, cheer do are sputtered over a track of beatboxing. There is a line about teaching the gaddars a lesson. A voice, speaking through a megaphone not as much making an announcement as issuing a warning, says Do Hazar Athra Hai, Desh Ko Khatra Hai. It's agitprop pop. It's a chilling dystopian vision of India.
Is it bothersome that the music label Zee, a company whose owner is known to have close ties with the establishment, is going to make money out of it? Does it not commodify Kanhaiya Kumar's Azadi speech – and in doing so goes against what it stands for? We could fall into a rabbit hole of ironies and contradictions, but that's another debate.
The other songs of Gully Boy – directed by Zoya Akhtar – may not be as politically out-there as these two, but the rebellious streak runs through. The dirty, UK grunge-inspired distorted drum at the start of the anthemic Apna Time Aayega (composed by Sharma and DIVINE). The anti-police weed talk in Har Gham Mein Khushi Hai by ACE aka Mumbai's Finest (the other composer being ishQ Bector), one of the first generation rappers from the scene. The sheer crudeness of Kaam Bhaari (sung by the 20-year-old rapper, Kaam Bhaari). The garish bling of Goriye (by Prem and Hardeep), which represents everything that the film's protagonist isn't, and one that is supposed to be mocked.
Consider the experimental rigour in the multilingual India 91, which combines the complex rhythm patterns of Konnakol – a vocal percussion form of Carnatic classical music – with the swagger of gully rap (featuring MC Todfod, MC Altaf, 100RBH, Maharya, Noxious D & MC Mawali). The composer, Viveick Rajagopalan, gives music classes to young hip-hoppers every Sunday with the hope of expanding their horizons beyond the set of predictable Western beats. Or the pure poetry of Asli Hip Hop, which begins with not the sounds of drum machine but beatboxing (D-Cypher and BeatRAW) – and the chatter of young boys from the hood warming up a cypher session. It's classic hip hop, and yet rooted in local milieu. It's written by Nitin Mishra, aka Spitfire, a 20-year-old from Chhatarpur, Madhya Pradesh. He won a competition to rap for an apparel brand that Ranveer Singh was endorsing while in his second attempt to clear class 12 board exams. He has also written Singh's verses for the film's rap battle scenes. "I was in class 11 when my friend introduced me to Bohemia. That's when I first realised you can rap in your own language. We would sit in the class and secretly write," he said over phone from Indore. I missed Naezy, whose playful, gifted cadences cut like hot knife through butter, and who is a direct inspiration for Gully Boy.
Surely, it's a positive sign for mainstream Hindi film, which has a poor, almost laughable, record for depicting cultures that are slightly left-of-centre, and which, when it comes to music, is currently going through a prolonged bad patch. Not so long ago, Hindi film heroes played unplugged electric guitars on screen, and here we have Ranveer Singh rapping pretty convincingly.
The musicians I spoke to who have featured in the soundtrack said that their work weren't tampered with. Surely, it's a positive sign for mainstream Hindi film, which has a poor, almost laughable, record for depicting cultures that are slightly left-of-centre, and which, when it comes to music, is currently going through a prolonged bad patch. Not so long ago, Hindi film heroes played unplugged electric guitars on screen, and here we have Ranveer Singh rapping pretty convincingly. Singh plays Murad – a young poet with a hardscrabble life who discovers that he has a feel for flow.
Tewari says there was no question about the fact that this film couldn't have been made with a traditional Hindi film composer (as in, say, a Rock On!!, which incidentally is also an Excel Entertainment production). "If you make a film on rock or pop, or… disco, you can still go with anyone. But this is so genuine that you need to work with the people who are doing it, otherwise you will be a cheap imitation. And you have the resources available – it's not that you are going far and beyond. You just have to reach out to the people who are doing a great job," he said when I met him at the Excel office, in Santa Cruz. He has composed two songs, and there are contributions from Karsh Kale, Midival Punditz, Raghu Dixit, Jasleen Royal. There are two poems by Javed Akhtar. Most of these tracks are on the softer side, easy listens that break away from the hip hop sound to provide the album with some relief.
Tewari, who had a wide overview of the independent music scene thanks to his stint as the programming head of the short-lived MTV Indies, was following the underground hip hop scene closely from even before the film. There is a larger movement happening in the country for the last few years – from Delhi, to Kashmir, to the states in the South. But since Gully Boy is set in Mumbai, the film has primarily collaborated with musicians from the local scene. Nineteen-year-old MC Altaf, who worked with Singh on his rapping (along with Rahul Raahi, Kaam Bhaari and Emiway Bantai) kept a check on the authenticity of the language in the film. Dialogue writer Vijay Maurya would sometimes end up using words and phrases like khajoor or a khopdi satak gayi kya? Once a part of the parlance they've become dated now, which was rectified by Altaf and others. "Those words are a little old for us. We just say kadak, or, Teri hat gayi kya?," he said when we spoke on the phone.
Why I have meandered into dialogue in a discussion on music is because in this type of film they are inextricably linked. Rapping draws its music from phonetics – in this case, much of its attitude and flavour from the slang-filled, Urdu-rich Bambaiyya, which will make a rousing return to Hindi film after decades. In fact Tewari calls it "much more of a writer's movement than a music movement." He says he finds parallels between it and the Progressive Writers' Movement. The founders of that great cultural resistance – intellectuals from elite families – drew up the manifesto in a restaurant in London in 1935. This one began in the gullies of Asia's largest slum a few years ago. "There is an angst that I can really relate to," says Tewari.
You can listen to the album here: