Director: Zoya Akhtar
Starring: Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Vijay Varma, Vijay Raaz
Plot: Inspired by the stories of rappers Divine and Naezy, Gully Boy follows the story of Muraad, a college student who lives in Dharavi, India’s largest slum. He discovers rap and his affinity for it and so begins a journey of uncovering Mumbai’s underground hip hop scene and the rise of an artist that becomes a sensation.
There were many hopes riding on Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy. A strong collective sense of belief that it could be a game-changer and serve as some sort of turning point. Whether the film achieves that is up for debate. I’m still processing much of it and the degree of its achievement despite having seen it twice so far. What is clear though, is Gully Boy offers such fine, potent storytelling from one of Hindi cinema’s strongest filmmakers in Zoya Akhtar.
Gully Boy is her biggest, most ambitious film and no one could have told this story quite like her and co-writer Reema Kagti. Their hold over the narrative is such that you feel every beat of it. There isn’t an ounce of stardom or acting, or artificialness in sight here. Everything, everyone – from the stars you recognise to the first-timers you don’t – are all so deeply seeped in character, plot and storytelling that there’s a distinct sense of reality to them. We see ourselves in them. Not many films of this scale can make that claim.
Ranveer Singh is at his best with Zoya Akhtar and the worlds she creates. She alone can hold back his unending tank of energy and extract a sensitive, restrained and keenly-observed performance. As Murad, whose journey to becoming a rap sensation the film follows, Singh lives in a sparkling quiet that reminds you that outside of his flashy excess, he truly is a fantastic performer. That said, it’s not easy to discuss Gully Boy’s most standout performances because of the impact of the entire cast. Right from the principal cast to the seemingly smallest parts, on screen for mere moments, like Murad’s brother or grandmother or a male heckler in the crowd during a college festival. Even in those fleeting moments you immediately get a sense of who they are. A fine testament to Akhtar and Kagti’s knack for – among so many other things – offering rich, well-realised characters and making each every one of them count.
Among the film’s many fine performances that remained etched in my subconscious, is Vijay Varma’s crackling Moeen, Murad’s friend who represents the world he comes from and the person he could well have become had he not discovered hip hop. As Murad’s girlfriend Safeena, Alia Bhatt leaps from the screen and steals every scene she’s in. She is his support, his rock and theirs is such a tender, heartfelt love. A silent hero without whom he could never become. Just as there is no Ved without Tara, there is no Murad without Safeena. But the real find here is newcomer Siddhant Chaturvedi as MC Sher. His electric screen presence and breakout performance, I suspect, will have excited fans barking MC Sher at him for years to come.
While Gully Boy is certainly Akhtar’s largest achievement as a filmmaker, it didn’t hit me as hard as her previous films. Her Dil Dhadakne Do is one of the finest films, I believe, we’ve made over the last few years and this film just didn’t leave the same impression. To think of the flaws in Gully Boy feels like an exercise in nit-picking. Sure, I could say some of the songs from a ground-breaking album feel like they’re force-fitted in. Or that the way they come up with Murad’s rapper name Gully Boy feels artificial. Or that after going through tough times, the way Murad and Safeena patch things up feels way too easy (but maybe on that count I’m just jealous of how easy it was for them to get back together). But again, nit-picking. Perhaps it’s because there’s just so much story here, and so much ground to cover that it’s only natural that Akhtar wouldn’t have as strong a hold over it as compared to more contained stories like Dil Dhadakne Do or Zindagi Na Milegi Dobaara.
The real challenge here for writers Akhtar and Kagti is the balancing act in showing different facets of Murad’s life to make a larger, cohesive whole. Knowing how much importance to give the specific characters which represent various aspects of his life. MC Sher is rap, Safeena is the love, his mother is his family and duty, Moeen is the world he comes from and Kalki Koechlin’s Sky is in many ways the world he aspires to. Ironic because I imagine the very balancing act is what the real Murads of the world must face every day. Of economic hardships, familial duties, studies, sticking to your means and yet aspiring to rise above them.
Still, while Gully Boy may not feel like this otherworldly game-changer, what is, however, is the music – the result of a collaboration between 54 rappers and hip-hop artists from across the country many of whom are actually from the slums. Gully Boy’s soundtrack has unleashed a new sound, new artists, and a wave of new possibilities of what could be. I could go into the specific tracks for paragraphs to come but chief among them is Apna Time Aayega (my time will come) – the war cry of a generation and also one of the film best scenes.
Like that one, Gully Boy is bursting with powerful moments and scenes. Safeena’s entrance scene on the bus leaps to mind and how those few introductory seconds tell you so much about these two people. Equally, the entire bromance of MC Sher and Murad will go down in the history books. Or there’s the look of sheer awe on Murad’s face when he sees rap up close for the first time from someone that looks like him when MC Sher performs at his college. One of my personal favourites is a scene where Safeena is caught lying by her parents for going out and meeting friends behind their back to which she tells them she doesn’t want to lie but what choice does she have? Will they ever accept the idea of her wearing lipstick and going out and having fun, she asks. Never.
In the end it’s hard to pinpoint what stays with you most about Gully Boy. There’s so much to take in and appreciate. The way it shows Bombay, as this almost dream-like city so full of possibility. Or that rousing ending and those last few moments take you somewhere else entirely, leaving you empowered, energised and ready to follow your dreams. To take over the world. Tera time aagaya. (Your time has come)