Synopsis – A coming-of-age story based on the lives of street rappers in Mumbai.
My Take – Biopics based on Hip-Hop artists usually tend make a strong statement about life and end up leaving you emotionally drained as we follow their journey to fame. Films like 8 Mile, Notorious and Straight Outta Compton are perfect examples of this. But then there are films like All Eyez on Me and Get Rich or Die Tryin’ that force everything down you so much, it make you think otherwise.
Last weekend saw the release of this Hip-Hop based film in India, a rare idea, considering how rap based Hollywood films deal mainly with the social stigma surrounding the art form, while people in India have a lot more issues to deal with. But I assure you in director Zoya Akhtar we can trust! As a filmmaker Zoya over the years has gained immense praise for creating some insanely well-crafted stories with gigantic ensemble casts and a singular theme – the bitter-sweet nature of relationships.
But this time around gone are posh worldly photographic locations, instead right from the first scene we are shoved into the flourishing underground rap scene of Dharavi, the most densely populated slum in Mumbai, and hooked on to a ride that talks about class divide and peer pressure, all while managing to be fabulously inspiring. Premiering at the Berlin Film Festival, and inspired by the lives of rappers Divine and Naezy, director Zoya Akhtar‘s latest is a sensational film that not just looks brilliant but also manages to treat the typical rise of the underdog story in a very rooted way by exploring all the minute nuances that could have made a Indian rapper.
With the plot not getting confined to one person’s dream, the film is highly political, immersive, and hard-hitting and most importantly is highly entertaining. Yes, this is one of the best films to come out of Bollywood in recent times and you don’t have to be a fan of hip-hop to like this film (I know I am not). Moreover, watch it for its dazzling performances.
The story follows Murad Sheikh (Ranveer Singh), a college-going, weed-smoking, shy youngster who shares a cube-like home with his large family in the slums of Dharavi and lives quite a derivative life. Things get more complicated when his abusive father (Vijay Raaz), a driver, brings home a second wife, not much older than Murad, hence forcing his mother (Amruta Subhash) to sleep in the kitchen.
While he tries to distract his mind by hanging with Moeen Arif (Vijay Varma), his drug deal buddy, his only ray of light comes from Safeena (Alia Bhatt), his girlfriend for nine years, who is equally perky and madly-possessive of Murad, whose support keeps him afloat as he bobs along trying to figure out his next step and a calling. Which comes in the form of hip hop as he stumbles into a rap battle squad led by MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi) aka Shrikant Bisht, which comes us a call to arms for him as he takes to sound and the words, using his pain as a weapon. Finding himself a mentor in Shrikant, the two together literally own the underground music scene in no time, as Murad transforms into the sensation named Gully Boy.
Here, director Zoya Akhtar and her whole team bring life to their craft and it absolutely pays off. The story is rich in texture, every character realized and necessary to the world Zoya Akhtar and writing partner Reema Kagti have created in the gullies of Dharavi. The screenplay and story is abundant with layers; a musical, a love story, a class struggle, a coming of age narrative, a family drama, a tale of friendship and of discovering your passion. It also talks about gender equality, it criticizes women who endorse patriarchy, it shows the vulnerable sides of its characters, it shows the harsh reality that destroys the lives of people from the slums, and it criticizes the attitude of a section of adults who adamantly supports the concept of staying ordinary. All these things are bypassed into the content very neatly and smartly.
At the forefront, the film may seem like a film about the underground rappers but actually, it is much more than that. As it is mainly about human relations, connections, emotions and dynamics. There is no filmmaker better than Zoya Akhtar who can portray and handle human complexities in such a brilliant way. For example, Safeena is much more than a supportive girlfriend who steals kisses when nobody is looking and knocks sense into Murad at all times.
Here, director Zoya Akhtar brings a distinctly feminine touch to the macho posturing that characterizes hip-hop, making Safeena a vital part of Murad’s experience and giving room to her own ambitions and desires. She fights for Murad, tells sweet white lies to get her way, and holds back when she feels that Murad has gone too far. The romance between Murad and Safeena, which benefits from immense chemistry between Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, has a pleasingly old-fashioned feel.
While the structure of the story wouldn’t have made much of an impact as we are familiar with it, but by adding a relatable and real set of hurdles and conflicts in front of our hero, director Zoya Akhtar manages to give that rebellious tone to this film. In subtle ways, they are even saying the story of the helpless people of the slum. There is one scene where a tourist tries to tell about a rapper and Murad stops him and sings the whole rap to him. Through that scene, Zoya Akhtar establishes the hero’s love for rap and also shows how much the outer world underestimates the people from the slum.
But the film’s main accomplishment remains in crafting moments and astute observations: It’s been a while since a mainstream film made the lead a Muslim as prominent, as here especially in a year as divisive as 2019. Here, the film spends a considerable amount of time lingering on Murad offering prayers in the mosque he frequents with his father, and the Surma in his eyes.
Without a doubt, Rap defines the film. The scenes of Murad writing his first rhymes, recording into his iPad and finding his voice in his early rap battles feel quite authentic. The battles themselves are hilarious, with a combination of memorized and improvised burns. The music uplifts the film and creates a narrative of its own as the film picks up more energy post-Mere Gully Mein, one of the major hits of the rapper duo Divine and Naezy that was featured in the film, as the film gets to become more celebratory about the streets of Mumbai. Any amount of praise for the soundtrack ends up being an understatement as it salvages the film’s predictable rich vs poor narrative.
My only minor quibble with this film is in the ways it plays safe. For example, the father who is so against his son coming improbably around feels like squaring the circle to keep us happy, and some of the sub plots also head towards predictable routes. With a running time of 153 minutes, the film stretches a little long, yet every single moment felt worth it, as each character is deserving of completing their story, and the film doesn’t play favorites.
And thankfully, Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Sidhant Chaturvedi and other actors compliment the film with their fabulous performances. Ranveer Singh is brilliant here. Here, he sheds his superstar persona and slip into Murad’s skin. He lives the role as if the camera is not watching, letting his silence and facial work do all of the heavy lifting for him. He is sensitive, credible, and simmering under the surface. The eruption is a slow build and blast, but even under it, Singh manages to hold onto Murad’s vulnerability. As Murad becomes Gully Boy, advancing in skill and stature, Singh’s eyes betray Murad’s disbelief and vulnerability.
Alia Bhatt, is once again the scene stealer. Every scene she appears in is a riot. She is endearing, to say the least. This is one of her best performances and her character is a crash course in women empowerment. I am sure everyone’s going to fall in love with her. Debutante Siddhanth Chaturvedi as MC Sher gets the attitude of the character perfectly and delivers a memorable performance in his debut outing. While Kalki Koechlin doesn’t have much to do here, she is still likable. In supporting roles, Vijay Varma, Vijay Raaz, Amruta Subhash, Iqhlaque Khan and Sheeba Chadda are also memorable. On the whole, ‘Gully Boy’ is a crowd pleasing experience that leaves you thinking, dreaming, and pursuing.
Directed – Zoya Akhtar
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 153 minutes