Mumbai is learning to rap. Counterculture has always been about what lies in—and between—the lines, and Sher, an MC with the ability to rouse an entire audience into submission, is the ringleader of a rag-tag bunch of hip-hop aspirants. These men might not know what the University of Berkeley is (or the fact that music schools exist), but when it comes to, well, cleaning out one’s closets, they choose to rhyme their way to catharsis. Rap leads to rapture, but in the case of people like Ranveer Singh’s Murad, it can lead to a few ruptures as well.
Singh has never been better. The actor is renowned for his bouts of boisterousness, so effectively channeled by Sanjay Leela Bhansali in Padmaavat and by Rohit Shetty in the dud that was Simmba, but director Zoya Akhtar knows how to tap into a quieter, more subdued side of him. The results are there for all to see, and in playing the unwilling resident of a chawl where life is measured in square inches, one who uses a kitchen sieve as a makeshift mic, his is a performance to rave about.
Alia Bhatt plays his lady love, a girl so territorial about the man she shares earphones with that when she finally hears talk of a studio-standard track in the making, her focus is more on the stree-ling in the sentence. It’s an explosive turn by all accounts, but Bhatt makes it all the more impressive because of how unpredictably unrestrained she is here.
A word, then, for a man named Siddhant Chaturvedi, an actor I daresay many of us were relatively unacquainted with before this film, but who will now deservedly be catapulted on to greater things in life. Chaturvedi plays MC Sher, a tattooed rap enthusiast who likes silver chains and not-so-silvery words. It’s a performance for the ages, this one, and when the young man sings, “Sher ki zubaani sun yeh Sher ki kahaani, yahaan rap nahi hota tere wehem ko bhagaadi,” we head-bang along in silent awe. A lion cannot be denied his right to roar.
The soundtrack is a work of staggering beauty. Each song is tailored to its own specific circumstance. It’s the events in Murad’s life that shape his lyrics, and by extension, the music that he creates, and this is an album that deserves to be played over and over again in all its conflagrative, raggedy glory. It’s nigh impossible to single out one favourite track for praise, but there’s one particular scene from a song—aptly named Doori—that I’ve been unable to shake off since seeing it for the first time: five residents of Dharavi sit cheek by jowl, their faces so hauntingly gaunt that you would imagine any remnants of a will to survive had been sucked right out of them. Smoking would probably quicken their transition to a sightlier world, and so we see pearly white wisps of air embrace the chill of the night sky. They stare wordlessly at the camera, as does a dog, as if eager to not miss out on an opportunity to pose for the shutter reel. The message here is clear but still hits home with the ferocity of a knockout punch: in this living hell, it’s hard to wager who leads the less decrepit existence of the two.
Akhtar’s latest film—hands down her best—might follow a predictable underdog template, but it’s also a multilayered marvel that ties together seemingly disparate themes with a deftness worth gushing over. Gully Boy is many things all at once: a tale of friendship, family, love, aspiration and discontent; an ode to freedom of expression, Mumbai’s famed resilience, the impressionability of youth and having the will to rise above one’s upbringing; an examination of the intersection between dreams and reality and what constitutes “respectable” work; a juxtaposition of both the old and the modern as seen through the lens of the zeitgeist; and a simmering, scathing indictment of gender stereotypes, penury, patriarchy, cultural suppression and the way things are run in our country.
Ek number, Akhtar, ek number. Bahut hard indeed. With this film, you’ve reminded us that ‘slumdogs’ can be divine as well. Long live the revolution. Some street fighters don’t need fists to pack a punch.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Shreehari H is a lover of films and an even greater lover of writing.