Director: Zoya Akhtar
Cast: Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Kalki Koechlin, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Vijay Raaz, Amruta Subhash, Vijay Varma
A fleeting moment early on in Gully Boy hints at why Mumbai – or in the spirit of rap and defiance and anti-establishment fury: Bombay – is the beating heart of the country's burgeoning underground hip-hop scene. Murad (Ranveer Singh), an aspiring young poet from Dharavi's slums, waits outside a posh nightclub. He is a chauffeur for a wealthy family; the daughter is drinking, partying, or whatever rich folks do in obscenely expensive places (or, effectively, other Zoya Akhtar films). As he reluctantly hangs out with other drivers, we hear one of them, an older chap, earnestly explain to a colleague how he has learned to chop vegetables in an efficient manner. The faded beats of a global hip-hop hit from inside the club inadvertently score his ramblings. His accent is indecipherable – a mix of native tongue, slang, attitude, urgency, almost as if he were trying to express himself in the quickest possible way to capture the attention of the young driver. There is an audible rhythm to the "composition" of these disparate sounds. The man is rapping, and he doesn't even know it.
In another perceptive scene, Murad plugs in his earphones and observes how the angst of a faraway American rap song strangely fits the strained emotional dynamic of his domestic space. The sound of hypocrisy, he realizes, is universal; it is just anger remixed over a cheap backing track. It is here that we realize how the city, if one listens and watches closely, is a giant rap video yet to recognize the identity of its own medium. People raging, battling, winning, losing, bantering, living, thinking about living – with a silent rhyme whose frequency can only be picked up by those who want to hear the music, rather than those who wait for the day it stops. Which is why Murad, here, is the one who goes back to the car and aggressively lip-syncs till he is virtually screaming out the lyrics. Now he knows who he is.
It's here that he ceases to be solely a poet, on a night where every narrative emblematic of a multi-dimensional city – class politics (bouncers turn away drivers), economic barriers (he wants to move his long-suffering mother into a new home), generational discord (his polygamous father is from hell), shackled love-lives (girlfriend is territorial), desperate equations (his best friend is a criminal) and, most importantly, opportunity (the singers he idolizes are African-American) – combines to make him a musician. A voice.
And it's here that Gully Boy goes from chorus to lead, from cultural snapshot to personal fable, and from hip-hop origin tale to simply… an origin tale. You could argue that the first Hindi film about a particular genre of music inherits the "responsibility" of informing, before indulging in the musicality of its characters. But there are so many things happening, so much noise in Murad's head, that what he does and how he does it becomes secondary to why he does it. He does it because his circumstances leave him no choice but to embrace the art of voicing those circumstances; rap, after all, is nothing but the sociocultural embodiment of averting disaster at the very last minute and living to talk (in tempo) about it. This is what makes Gully Boy an electric and masterfully performed movie about personality being the necessary consequence of an artist breaking free, rather than vice versa. And it does feel like a movie, in the best way possible, because rappers literally march to their own beat; they dress like several different people together, talk from a custom-made mental dictionary, parody the concept of normalcy, walk with swag and exaggerated style, almost as if an audience were always watching them. They are cinema, even without the cameras.
Akhtar is now the country's most gifted mainstream filmmaker. After two consecutive movies about dysfunctional rich people, and a personal debut that was more of a nod to her own industry upbringing, there is a genuine sense of childlike wonder about her gaze here.
The film, too, jumps from friend to girlfriend to family to abrasive open mics to problem after problem after conflict, essentially reflecting the frenzied small-worldness of its environment only so that the explosion – the "performance" – feels worth the journey. So that the jack-in-the-box energy feels charted and earned. For a film with Ranveer Singh as a show-stopper, this is important. No other director earns his persona. He can bounce off the walls as Gully Boy with gusto, because the walls of those gullies are always closing in. The actor is mostly superb, not just because he goes from meek to enthusiastic on a scale of 1 to Ranveer Singh, but also because he plays Murad like a writer that discovers he can (and must) sing, instead of the other way around. The screenplay constantly places him in criss-crossing states of crisis, so that every time he needs to escape, he is forced to find a stage and carve the rubble of trash-talk into a rousing, brick-cemented artform.
The people in his life drive him by both irking and inspiring him. His girlfriend of nine years, Safeena (a mercurial Alia Bhatt), drives him insane with her jealousy and love; his mentor and collaborator MC Sher (a fantastic debut by Siddhant Chaturvedi) drives him forth with his egoless guidance; his best friend Moeen (a scene-stealing Vijay Varma) drives him self-righteous with his drug-dealing ways; his father (Vijay Raaz) drives him berserk with his archaic masculinity; an upper-class music student (Kalki Koechlin) drives him wayward with her exotic gaze ("You're an artist, of course I find you fascinating," she replies, eyes wide with the kind of excitement white tourists have when they visit his room on a "Dharavi tour").
At times, Murad even looks like he sets about creating his own conflict to authenticate the ferocity of his rants; at other times, he is so caught between which arc to internalize that you understand his proclivity towards broader lyrics of self-doubt and underdog fortitude. Perhaps the only flaw of this film is the way Murad's "character" is designed. He is a hero – woke and politically correct to begin with, and a reflection of the filmmaker's interpretation of what he should be as a film protagonist than what he is as a disillusioned slum-dweller. This does make for the movie's most crowd-pleasing moments, especially when he defends his mother's dignity. But you sense this is mostly because it is Singh, and not a homegrown rapper, playing the inherent hero, and not Murad being Murad Ahmed living in a loft of smoky desolation.
That being said, perhaps the most striking aspect about Gully Boy is director Zoya Akhtar's willingness to check her own (and the generally accepted) aesthetic. For example, Alia Bhatt plays a character who uses our perception of the actress' on-screen reputation – that of stunning breakdowns and outbursts – to become a manipulative but self-aware girlfriend. She fakes tears, strings along her parents, gets into hysterical cat-fights and wins Murad's attention by exhibiting the kind of behaviour that would be considered tragic in most movies. Another example is how there are no real villains in the film, but perhaps the most hollow people are the privileged ones. Kalki essentially portrays a character that Zoya's "first-world" movies are usually accused of being – rich, ignorant but well-intentioned. The man Murad works for as a driver is not shown but only heard in the car at one point, uttering snooty things to his daughter – almost a nod to the director's palette having to be (visually) sidelined for this film. It's normal to be weary about filmy folks telling stories about a section far removed from their existence.
But Akhtar is now the country's most gifted mainstream filmmaker. After two consecutive movies about dysfunctional rich people, and a personal debut that was more of a nod to her own industry upbringing, there is a genuine sense of childlike wonder about her gaze here. The beginnings of this were visible in her fine short starring Bhumi Pednekar as a Mumbai housemaid, for Lust Stories.
She sticks to the theme of dysfunctionality, but this time at the opposite end of the spectrum. Which makes her come across as a flamboyant investigative journalist reporting on a world that must reflect the individualism and psychological vibe of a movement more than its physical accuracy. This turns her film into an outstanding departure from convention as well as an equally pulsating animal within its own orthodox space. Murad's key line in the film deals with the balance between reality and dreams – which, translated to moviemaking parlance, amounts to the elusive balance between relevance and execution. Gully Boy finds that promised land. It becomes the reality that most storytellers here can only dream of, and the dream that most artists yearn to realize.