In an early scene in Gully Boy, starring Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, some foreigners are on a slum tour in Dharavi. They enter Murad’s (Singh) house. “Wow, it’s amazing!” says one. “Every inch has been used,” says the other. It’s a funny scene, as the ones indulging in exoticizing look clueless and superficial. But since this is a movie by Zoya Akhtar, a deceptively meta filmmaker, you also wonder whether this is self-referential, some sort of a semi-serious apology?
Because like those tourists, Akhtar is an outsider too, and her last two films, centered on the mega-rich, literally belonged to a different world. So did her debut, Luck By Chance, set in Bollywood. But Gully Boy poses a formidable challenge: to become a part of a world she has not seen before.
Gully Boy opens to Murad, a final year college student. He lives with his parents, grandmother, and younger brother in a small house, in Dharavi. His father, Aftab Sheikh (Vijay Raaz), a driver, frequently discourages and rebukes him; he’s also gotten home a second-wife. But not all is bleak for Murad: He has Safeena (Bhatt), his girlfriend from high school, and hip-hop, a music genre, with foreign roots, that acquires momentous meanings: distraction, escape, home.
Murad’s music has voice — or at least that is the intention. At one point, he takes a jibe at the mainstream rappers, saying, “Isko rap bolte hain? Yeh dekh meri gaadi, mere joote, yeh dekh daaru, chhokri.” Mumbai street rap — raw, irreverent, restless — melds the personal and the political. The context is local and so is the setting. Even the language — the darting, colliding verses in ‘Bambaiyya’ Hindi — is homegrown.
This form, so original and fresh, demands similar storytelling. But Akhtar doesn’t consider this world through the lens of her protagonist — or the rappers that inspired this film, Divine and Naezy — as it feels flattened out, devoid of complex, penetrating specifics and, consequently, a unique identity. It’s a world that Bollywood recognises, and sympathises with, easily: one solely marked by class divide, oblivious to other forms of inequities. The result then looks only party real — an imagination of a milieu, rather than the milieu itself.
Gully Boy’s hook — a Dharavi rapper using music to collapse the economic, social, and cultural barriers — is at odds with its devices, which take refuge in banal tropes: marital discord, domineering father, domestic violence, parental pressure. These realities of course exist, but Akhtar reduces them to inanimate generalities, evoking formulaic Bollywood pathos: a fleeting sense of empathy emerging from looking at a milieu, and its people, from afar. Good directors elevate their stories through original observation and imagination. Akhtar brings imposition, desperately force fitting an inchoate mess into a recognisable mould.
This is reflected in the film’s politics as well. Gully Boy’s eclectic album has two charged numbers — Jingostan and Azadi (a diluted version of the JNU protest song that contains no references to capitalism, casteism, or Brahmanical supremacy) — that pop in the film without a convincing context or reason. The songs of the original Mumbai rappers don’t exist in a vacuum, but Gully Boy surveys and selects on its convenience, shortchanging the people and place providing it artistic mileage.
A local rapper, for instance, bursts into Jingostan at a jamming session; the track ends, and the film moves on , approximating, what can only be called as, a ‘revolutionary’ item song. In another scene, Murad and his friends deface several billboards late in the night, presumably protesting a consumer culture that props up the haves and silences the have-nots. This scene is impressively materialised — wonderfully shot and charmingly performed by Kalki Koechlin (Murad’s friend) — but, fundamentally disconnected from the movie, it primarily exists to look ‘cool’.
Akhtar nails some crucial details though. She accurately captures the free-flowing, rhythmic street verse, peppered with stray English words — “rap-beep”, “art-beat”, “hard, bhai” — lending the film an authentic facade. The film’s blessed with a stunning ensemble: Singh and Bhatt, comfortably switching from pathos to tomfoolery to violence, are ably helped by a great supporting cast, most notably Siddhant Chaturvedi who, playing the rapper MC Sher, delivers a stunning debut performance, distilling the exasperation and ruthlessness of a street toughie with remarkable preciseness. There are enough hints about the abyss, too — that it is either rap or a life worse than nothing for Murad: enduring the humiliation of a day job, peddling drugs, stealing cars.
There’s enough in Gully Boy that will keep you hooked. Akhtar knows the filmmaking beats — the conflicts, the comical diversions, the brute resolutions — but they, quite disappointingly, service a world whose patrons are too smug and self-contained, too disconnected to broach a real conversation. A film making fun of slum tourism, no matter how polished or self-aware, should have known better.
Originally published at The Wire.