“ Even though you are fed up, you got to keep your head up”
Late Tupac Shakur
In one of the scenes of “Gully Boy”, actor Vijay Raaz tells his wannabe rapper son Ranveer Singh that people like ‘them are not allowed to dream and that they have to keep their ‘eyes down’ while living their lives. This is at the heart of this film by Zoya Akhtar. A call out to the world by people stuck at the bottom of the pyramid. The scene is grim and telling of what India’s lower middle class goes through on a daily basis.
Can Rap be a story palette for India? Can Rap music which originated from the African American community and its struggle create a parallel narrative in Mumbai’s slum areas? Can abject poverty stimulate the youth to voice out their “voice” to the world through Rap? It looks like an out of the box idea in the first place. And Director Zoya Akhtar with her writing team of herself, Reema Kagti and Vijay Maurya have risen up to the challenge to create a superior film with a universal appeal.
This post is aimed at exploring the world of “Gully Boy”, the story it tells and the various influences on it. It is based on the real lives of Divine and Naezy from Mumbai, the film stars Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Kalki Koechlin, Vijay Raaz, Vijay Verma, debutante Siddhant Chaturvedi and Sheeba Chaddha in pivotal roles. The film is produced by Excel Entertainment and Tiger Baby Productions.
“Gully Boy” talks about the life and times of Murad, a young lad living in the slums of Dharavi which is Mumbai’s biggest slum district who dreams of becoming a “Hindi Rapper” and dreams of making it big in the music business. But his circumstances seem to be far more powerful than him. His car driver father who regularly beats his mother and gets home a younger second wife, the paucity of money and hope, consistently being treated as a line item by the people from rich affluent communities are the highlights of his life. And yet in this insanely hopeless reality he dreams of being a ‘somebody’. Much like Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront”, Murad actively struggles with various challenges to “move up” in life. He also gets a cushion with his in your face girlfriend Safina (Alia Bhatt) who herself is from a relatively affluent family but is ultra obsessive about him. Murad meets Sher (debutante Siddhant Chaturvedi) a more established rapper on the scene who builds him and guides him on becoming a rapper. The film delves largely on the journey of Murad from being a nobody to become a darling of the crowds. “Gully Boy” is the rapper pseudonym used by Murad.
The writing of Akhtar and Kagti once again creates a very human interface of its lead characters. The only thing constant in the story is the struggle for all its main characters. Murad is fighting in every phase of his life. Safina keeps lying to her parents about her “restricted” life. Sher who also lives in a chawl, “stores his shoes” in a locker which he thinks might get stolen by someone in the family. The consistently “high” carjacker/drug peddler Moeen (Vijay Verma) who employs little children to pack his supplies. The subtle and yet powerful mother of Murad ie Razia ( Amruta Subash) who just cannot do anything about the presence of the younger wife of her husband while living in a kitchen sized slum room.
Akhtar has very beautifully has captured the various nuances of the Muslim communities and their living in Mumbai’s slums. They are shown as a deeply patriarchal society with very clear instructions for the children on “how to live and how to behave”. The film very skillfully first creates these “barriers” for its characters and then gives them the urge to be outrageously forward looking when they are away from home. For example, Safina removes her hijab when she is out partying and is effortlessly frank with men.
The film also stresses on the characters of parents and how they bring up their kids. The relationship of Murad and Safina with their mom/dad is like a consistent bout of boxing with one punch and counter punch. There is almost a cat and mouse chase between Safina and her mother who shadows her regularly.
The lyrics of the songs in the movie are written very well catching up with the various socio-economic class bias in India. These songs will define and resonate with the college going community. “Apna Time Ayega” has already hijacked the airwaves!
Cinematographer Jay Oza very clearly stays away from the “Townie” part of South Mumbai while shooting the film. The only time when one sees the affluent part of Mumbai is when Murad drives around his rich bosses and their families, and when he is chilling out with Sky (Kalki Koechlin) who also happens to be his producer of sorts. Almost 90% of the narrative happens in Dharavi and adjoining areas. There are close to half a dozen aerial shots of Dharavi in the film to keep reinforcing the viewer to drown in the world of Murad and Safina. The aesthetics of the homes, lanes and dressing style (Arjun Bhasin gets full marks) of the lead characters are spot on! For a few hours, the viewer literally lives in their homes.
The film’s central character is Mumbai. Each frame echoes the spirit, the life and the emotions of the city and it looks gorgeous.
The rapping duels in the film reminds you of time tested classics like “8 Mile”, “White Men Can’t Jump”, “Dangerous Minds”, etc. The good thing here is that Gully Boy is inspired by these films but “it does not ape or copy its narrative” from them. It’s an Indian film with Indian issues. Kudos to Akthar and Kagti for it!
The superior writing of the film integrates “Rap Music” and amplifies the narrative. Each time when Murad comes up and wants to perform, something bogs him down. Its this internal conflict of the lead of the movie that engages you to the very end of a personal journey of a slum dweller.
The work of debutante Siddhant Chaturvedi as “Sher” will go a long way. He explodes in the film as a righteous, ambitious and determined guy who wants to move up in life. His mannerisms, body language and energy create the soul of the film.
Performances of “Gully Boy”:
Ranveer has taken his acting skills into a space which he has never explored before. Akthar’s direction creates an inspiring portrayal. There is something infectious about Murad, his defiant self who treats challenges like piece meal is powerful. He might worship Eminem and the likes, but applies kajal to his eyes with confidence and makes no bones about his identity and background.
Alia Bhatt is the “chameleon “ of the film. She is headstrong to a whole new level and the hijab wearing Safina can turn into Lara Croft at the drop of a hat! Her mom played by Sheeba Chadha is very unpredictable.
Vijay Raaz as the brutal father is exceptional and can be in the run for the awards season. Vijay Verma as the “headless” Moeen is the true find of the film as he creates his own parallel space between Murad, Safina and Sher.
Honorable mentions include Razia, mom of Murad and Sky played by Kalki Koechlin.
I give “Gully Boy” 8 out of 10 as it experiments with an out of the box idea and succeeds beautifully!
- Rahul Gupta, an avid movie and TV buff who learnt movie production at New York Film Academy and worked as a talent manager at The Gotham Group in Hollywood. In addition he runs a kids brand outfit and a start up fundraising practice in New Delhi.