Director: Zoya Akhtar
Cast: Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Kalki Koechlin, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Vijay Varma, Vijay Raaz
Do your dreams have to match your reality? Gully Boy answers that question with a resounding no. In a terrific scene, Murad, a rapper from Dharavi, tells his father, a driver, that he will not downsize his destiny because of his circumstances. Instead he will alter his reality to match his dreams.
It’s one of the many rousing moments in Zoya Akhtar’s superb new film. Gully Boy is loosely based on the lives of real life rappers Naezy and DIVINE, who rose from slums to stardom. Hip hop, modern day protest music, which came out of the streets of New York, has inspired a flourishing music scene in Mumbai. But the beauty of Gully Boy is that even if you are entirely unfamiliar with this world, like I was, the film will still stir your soul.
Because Zoya and her A-list team – co-writer Reema Kagti, dialogue writer Vijay Maurya, DOP Jay Oza, editor Nitin Baid, production designer Suzanne Caplan Merwanji and costume designers Arjun Bhasin and Poornamrita Singh – tackle the material with great skill. The music scene might be foreign but the world it’s set in is authentic and lived-in. Most of Gully Boy has been shot in Dharavi and at no point does Oza try to give the surroundings a gritty glamour. The film is a love letter to unbowed spirit of Mumbai. Gully Boy celebrates that truly anything is possible in this maddening and magical city but we don’t see the trademark shots of the sea or Marine Drive or the Gateway of India. That city isn’t a part of Murad’s world. Instead you get naturalistic textures, the winding gullies and an overwhelming sense of the claustrophobia of too many people squeezed into narrow spaces. Murad’s father speaks of the ‘jag mag’ of the city. But these bright lights are out of Murad’s reach – you see them outside the window or reflecting on the car while he, the driver’s son filling in for his father, is trapped inside. Only in the end do they shine on him. This is not a spoiler.
Zoya and Reema also make the music scene accessible by packaging it in familiar beats. So Gully Boy is a coming of age story, in which the underdog comes up as a winner. We know what will happen but the magic is in the telling.
Zoya’s superpower is her attention to detail and her ability to compress an abundance of information into each scene. So when Murad uses the bathroom in a posh flat, he makes sure to fold the towels back exactly how he found them so he doesn’t disrupt the expensive perfection. And the first time we see him and his girlfriend Safeena together on a local bus, they don’t exchange a word. Instead they go through a series of motions that establish the comfort of their relationship and the long years they’ve spent together.
Ranveer is equally brilliant. There is no sign here of the flashy star in flamboyant clothes you might know from interviews or Instagram. Murad is unsure and diffident.
Safeena is one of the best characters that Alia Bhatt has played. She’s spirited, ambitious and a ‘gundi’ in the best sense of the word. She’s a girl from a conservative Muslim family who is determined to forge her own destiny. She charts the course of their relationship. Alia beautifully captures Safeena’s exquisite eccentricity. There is an endearing unpredictability about her. You genuinely have no idea what she will do next.
Ranveer is equally brilliant. There is no sign here of the flashy star in flamboyant clothes you might know from interviews or Instagram. Murad is unsure and diffident. He doesn’t know his place in the world. But he finds his voice as a rapper and channels his rage into poetry. There is such longing and wistfulness in Ranveer’s eyes. He resists the temptation to play Murad as heroic. There is no swagger or posturing. Instead Ranveer imbues him with vulnerability and ache. The romantic scenes between Murad and Safeena have a delightful tenderness.
What serves the film is that Zoya doesn’t treat either of them as more special than the rest of her cast. The film begins with Vijay Varma who plays Murad’s friend Moeen, walking down a Mumbai street in the dead of the night. Ranveer slips in behind him with zero build-up. Murad is just another character in a film filled with flesh and blood people. Even the minor players are memorable like a relative who helpfully suggests to Murad that if he must be a singer, perhaps he could try ghazals. Varma, Siddhant Chaturvedi as the rapper MC Sher who mentors Murad and Vijay Raaz as his cruel father are all terrific. It’s a testament to the skills of casting directors Karan Mally and Nandini Shrikent that every actor feels like he or she belongs in the frame.
And then of course there is the music, which functions as another character in the film. The 18-track soundtrack created by 54 contributors and supervised by singer-songwriter Ankur Tewari is a thing of power and beauty. Tewari had aptly described rap as ‘much more of a writer’s movement than a music movement.’ The words hit home like a sledgehammer. This is poetry of dissent that will shift something inside of you.
Be warned – some of rap battles go on for much too long. Gully Boy has a measured pace with a 2 hour 36 minute-running time and you will get restless. The weakest link is the rich, US-based, white savior Sky, played by Kalki Koechlin. It’s an underwritten character and Kalki does with it what she can. But each time you are tempted to check out of the film, Zoya bungs in an emotionally wrenching scene and brings you right back in.
By the end, I was wiping tears and cheering furiously not just for Murad but for each one of these characters to find happiness. Even his abusive father.
That’s the magic of this film. I’m going with four stars.