Director: Zoya Akhtar
Cast: Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Kalki Koechlin
Zoya Akhtar's Gully Boy acknowledges its inspirations right on top: "This film is a shout-out to the original gully boys, Naezy and DIVINE." Naezy's life was briefly chronicled in Disha Noyonika Rindani's documentary Bombay 70, where the rapper explains that his given name, Naved, means "messenger of happiness." The name of Gully Boy's protagonist (played by Ranveer Singh) is significant, too. He's Murad: "desire". And his desire is to break free of his circumstances. It's not easy. When his father (Vijay Raaz) brings home a second wife, the sounds of the shehnai echo across their little pocket of Dharavi. Murad plugs in his earphones, and for a while, another music – his music – fills his world. But quickly, his father yanks the cord and the earphone slips out. It's back to the shehnai. The neighbourhood engulfs him all over again.
Even outside, at work (he's employed by his uncle), he's never allowed to forget who he is, where he's from. This uncle (Vijay Maurya, who also wrote the dialogues; the screenplay is by Zoya and Reema Kagti) reminds him that he is destined to be a servant: one who serves others, like his father, who drives around a society lady. A lot of the time, the cinematographer Jay Oza locks his camera onto Murad's face – it's as though the man is boxed in not just by fate but also by the frame. But Murad has other plans. The rather on-the -nose song Ek Hee Raasta goes: Chalte chalte kahin ek mod aata hai / Seedhe raste se bilkul alag / Koi deewana hi hota hai jo udhar jata hai. Translation: Only a madman will take the path less travelled, and Murad is that madman. He discovers he can give vent to his feelings with lyrics like these, which are tailor-made for rap. Or as Naezy's mother in Bombay 70 would put it: "English ki poetry zor zor se bol raha hai."
One way to view Gully Boy is simply as a hugely entertaining "underdog with a dream" story, dotted on the margins with a disapproving father, an on/off love interest (Safeena, played by Alia Bhatt), a brand new socio-cultural milieu, and other must-haves of this sub-genre. In other words (and at the other end of the economic spectrum), it's Wake Up Murad! Gully Boy is in its element when Murad participates in an open mic, where he meets Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi, who's just sensational). Sher's given name (which he is called at home) made me laugh. It's what he wants to escape. The rap battles come off like streetside versions of the combative qawwalis from our older films (minus the flying scarves, of course), and Murad's verses during a competition towards the end carry the charge of heady masala-movie dialogue. Gully Boy itself could be seen as an update on the Angry Young Man template. (Instead of killing the villain, he conquers his circumstances.) It's moving. It's rousing. It's everything.
But. But. But. And we come to the other way to view this movie. The very specific words in the rap battles don't register beyond the point of lyrics. They don't become a part of Murad because his is a generic story, a generic life. In 8 Mile, a white rapper struggled to break into a genre dominated by African-Americans. DIVINE and Naezy broke free from the hedonistic world (and words) of, say, Yo Yo Honey Singh – they rapped about the issues that formed and informed their lives. But with Murad, we sense the dream more than we feel the anger. He acts out a lot. But this rage feels generic. This inner life is something we know from many other movies. The complex universe that birthed DIVINE and Naezy is streamlined into an ultra-simple "you can do it if you believe in yourself" template. The easy-breezy platitudes of the director's Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara come to mind.
Ranveer Singh smoulders marvellously. He affects a slang that sounded ghetto enough to my non-Mumbai ears, and it's terrific to see him demonstrate his more "sophisticated" acting side. We caught glimpses of this underplaying in Zoya's Dil Dhadakne Do, where he was part of an ensemble, but here, he fills the film from the first frame to the last, and it's a superb showreel for his range. (The performative art in the Bhansali films, the more straightforward masala performance in Simmba, and now this.) But I wondered how much more the actor could have been had the character's arc been fresher, more forceful, had things come to him less easily, if he'd had to struggle more. Two-and-half hours is way too long for such a predictable story, and the entire episode with Sky (Kalki Koechlin) feels like it could have been axed. Murad's struggles are diminished by this US-based "White Saviour". Volcanoes don't need enablers.
Zoya continues to demonstrate that she is one of our best directors. Her eye for pacing and staging, her ability to manufacture and maintain mood and atmosphere — they're just fantastic. Note the wordless scene in the bus that introduces Safeena, or the other wordless scene where Murad takes in the size of Sky's bathroom, or the superb stretch that opens the film, with Moeen (Vijay Varma) walking purposefully, cigarette in hand, towards something we have to wait to find out about. But only in Luck By Chance and Zoya's Bombay Talkies episode has the material truly matched up to her talents. Sure, even her lesser efforts like Dil Dhadakne Do are more "watchable" than most of what's out there – but her writing could use more sweat and muscle. Sher tells Murad, "Tere andar ka lava phat ke aane de." (Let the lava inside you explode.) But it remains a line. Nothing burns, nothing stings. This film's angst is cosmetic, a far cry from the genuine rage that fuelled Zoya's father's films.
It's also the style. The rhythms in Nitin Baid's editing are at times close to those of a music video (in the non-musical portions, too). Take Doori, which comes up when Murad is filling in as a driver (his father has had an accident), and he muses on the gap that divides him and his employer in the seat behind. The camera swings around to a sideward view of the car, and the division between the vehicle's front and back looks like a real wall. And when the lines Right mein building aasmanon ko chhu ri / Left mein bachchi bhooki sadkon pe so ri come up, the images of the poor look like recreations of Dorothea Lange's Depression-era photographs. When Murad and Safeena meet on a little bridge that stands on a river of garbage, the long shot makes the squalor easier to take. This "aestheticization" creates a safe distance. It softens the emotions. When Murad takes to stealing cars, I wanted to feel his desperation, his fear. I wanted to hear his thudding heart – but instead, a seductive song plays in the background and the smooth cutting makes it all look thrilling, like a game.
We glimpse more rage in Safeena, who's brilliantly written. (She's perhaps the most interesting female Muslim character since the protagonist of Fiza, who was seen dancing in a nightclub.) Alia plays her like a firecracker that won't tell you when it's going to go off. The scene where she says yes to a prospective match brings the house down. It's partly her looks, too. When this petite woman does what she does to Sky (I cheered), we see that she's seething, too. She wants to be "normal" – wear lipstick, talk to boys. And when something this basic is denied, she rebels. But unlike Murad, she's channeling her "andar ki lava" into her education. She wants to become a doctor. This is the snap with which the other supporting characters (say, Murad's mother, played by Amruta Subhash) should have been written. I demand a sequel: Gully Girl.
The other place the rage feels real is in the lyrics. (The fabulous score is by Karsh Kale, The Salvage Audio Collective.) In Azadi, we hear: Vote milne par yeh khaas / Phir gayab poore saal. It reminded me of the anger in Gulzar's anti-Establishment anthem from Aandhi: Salaam kijiye aali janaab aaye hai / Ye paanch saalo kaa dene hisaab aaye hai. In Sher aaya Sher, we hear: Ladkiyan na gaadi / Apni alag hi aabaadi. (A fuck-you to rappers who sing about women and cars?) It continues: Tu nakli wala marad / Mardaangi pe kalank / Jitni tujhme me garmi / Usse zyada garam mera kalam. If you're looking for a good time, Gully Boy is everything you can ask for. It's just that I wanted it to be more. I wanted it to be the film its lyrics deserved.