Rags To Riches, Feminism, Class: Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy Has It All

Hip-hop music gained cultural capital due to a mainstream Bollywood film featuring two of the most popular actors of the current times - Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt
Rags To Riches, Feminism, Class: Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy Has It All

The phenomenon of hip-hop is not a homogeneous entity but an umbrella term used for four very distinct art forms – DJ-ing, Graffiti art, break dancing and rapping. Hip-hop was born as a response to the class exclusivity of the growing gang culture inner-city New York. It provided a cultural and recreational space for the poor and working class black and Latino youth. A similar trend can be seen in the rapping culture that flourished in the underground scenes of Mumbai. Major chunk of rappers in Mumbai come from Dharavi, Asia's second largest slum. Thus, these underground scenes and rap battles have not just been recreational spaces but also served the purpose of raising voice of contempt for the living conditions of the economically marginalized youth. Due to a democratic medium like the internet, street rappers like Naezy and Divine gained popularity through YouTube videos. Rapping gave the young boys of Dharavi a space to create an agency in the extreme economic structure of the city.

It is interesting to see how a sub-culture or low-culture art form like street rap gets legitimized and recognized only through a mainstream and a relatively high culture art form like Zoya Akhtar's Gully Boy. Hence, for an art form to be popular, it must be acknowledged by an already existing form of pop culture. In this case study, street rap is the low culture art form. The low culture connotation comes from the place of its inception being Dharavi and its people with less economic, social and cultural capital. The film Gully Boy, here is pop culture as well as high culture due to the economic and social capital of the industry and here particularly, the filmmaker, Akhtar, who is known for making what one would refer to as intellectual cinema with a purpose and a social commentary.

The catchphrase 'Apna Time Aayega' used by the film has played a big role in its success. Before the release of the film this catchphrase was publicised to grab attention of the people of all classes but especially the common man. The phrase gave people a sense of hope and aspiration for being successful in life and overcoming the economic and social problems that they face. Murad's story of rags to riches, from being a poor young boy in Dharavi to a famous rap star provides millions of Indian youth, especially the working class a satisfaction of seeing their life portrayed in mainstream cinema and a hope to change their living circumstances.The film portrays class dynamics in a city like Mumbai through the characters of Murad, a working-class boy; Safeena, a middle -class girl and Sky, an upper middle -class girl. Murad belongs to a poor family and is a victim of other social issues like his father's second marriage. For him, Safeena becomes a form of an escape who comes from a stable family with sufficient economic and social capital as a result of education. Cultural capital of both these characters with respect to their religion, community and language holds them together.

The film portrays class and capital playing a role in our romantic relationships as well. Sky, coming from an upper middle-class background, with a degree in music from the US and her collaboration with Murad for her college project results in their relation being embedded with class hegemony. In the film, both the lead female characters are shown to have open expression of their sexuality. Safeena's middle class upbringing gives her a freedom to express her sexuality but in a close romantic relationship. On the other hand, Sky has the class privilege of having sexual freedom without a serious relationship with Murad and to even think about 'no strings attached'. On the other hand, Murad's mother, a working class married woman whose husband has a second wife is shown to have no sexual freedom at all. But Murad and his father do have sexual freedom irrespective of their class. Hence, the film engages with how gender, class and sexuality correlate.

Even if the main narrative revolves around a male rapper, Safeena and Sky convey women empowerment and feminism through their strong characters. Through the dominant western lens of feminism, one would consider Sky as a symbol of feminism and not Safeena due to their family backgrounds, Sky coming from a liberal one and Safeena from a relatively conservative one. Sky wears western casuals while Safeena is seen in western and Indian casuals with a hijab. However, feminism is a subjective and a dynamic concept. Both the characters are shown to be empowered and have the  courage to do what they want and rebel against injustice. This can be seen when Sky goes around the city doing graffiti as an expression of protest and when Safeena goes against her house rules to go out late in the night with her boyfriend. Both these incidents show the character's claiming their agency and rights.

Popular culture is criticized by the Frankfurt school as providing the masses a fantasy world as an escape from their hard life and in turn making them accept that their living conditions are unchangeable. (Adorno, Horkheimer: 1944). This film, unlike other pop culture artifacts portrays realities of working-class life without romanticizing and gives them an agency through hip-hop to make a change in their lives. Hip-hop is represented with its class baggage but in a positive light. Street rap or rap music which was initially looked down upon gained popularity for having a potential to bring about a political and social change.

Female rappers like Dee MC, Deane Siqueira and MC Manmeet Kaur are big names in the Mumbai rap scene. However, the film does not adequately represent female rappers and their presence in the hip-hop industry.

Street rap culture in India uses the regional language, in case of Mumbai, it is Bombaiya Hindi. The film's portrayal of Mumbai rap scene has also impacted language and power. In Mumbai, English being the colonial language holds more power and in turn English speakers have more cultural capital than regional language speakers. As a result, Indian rap was not a genre consumed by an English-speaking elite society.  But, after the film, the language and the music were much more accepted.  The language and the culture got legitimization especially due to the lead actors. Thus, hip-hop music gained cultural capital due to a mainstream Bollywood film.

Ranveer Singh, along with his co-actor Siddharth Chaturvedi and famous street rapper Naezy performed rap songs from their film at The Lakme Fashion Week, 2019. After the film, MTV started India's first ever reality show for rappers. The film has played certain role in detaching low culture status of hip-hop by allowing to access elite spaces and thus break the status quo. In this way,popular culture, be it hip-hop or Bollywood films act as carriers of symbolic capital.

Gully Boy thus has the potential to reverse the narrative of the mainstream and give voice to the marginalized groups with its brilliant intermingling of feminism, class and capital.

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