By Poulomi Das
There’s an intimate, wordless sequence in Gully Boy that reiterates the rewards of Zoya Akhtar’s tight direction: Safeena (Alia Bhatt), a young hijab-wearing Muslim girl gets on a packed bus with her mother. As her mother takes a seat, Safeena looks back at where Murad (Ranveer Singh) is sitting. At first, when the duo keep stealing glances at each other, making their interest evident, it seems like the stock girl-meets-boy-on-public transport set-up. That is until Akhtar exposes the ruse: The bus stops and as the seat next to Murad gets vacant, Safeena immediately walks back, sits next to him, plugs one end of his earphones to her ear so that they listen to music together and then holds his hand.
It’s a moment so neatly crafted that it is only after Safeena takes the seat does one realise that their encounter isn’t merely a meet-cute but a permanent dating ritual. This scene reveals how deftly Akhtar unspools the influence of space – or the lack of it – on a courtship typical to Mumbai. Murad and Safeena meet each other on a desolate bridge over a dumpyard, kiss on deserted trains, and have a nightly call ritual in which they talk while she looks at him sitting on the stairs outside her bathroom window.
In fact, the central premise of Gully Boy – a fictionalised tribute to the rags-to-riches story of Mumbai’s streets rappers Divine and Naezy – is space itself. On a broad level, the film concerns itself with the space of the Indian gully rap scene and also sees itself as a vehicle that could help reserve a place in the mainstream for gully rappers (the soundtrack features songs by over 50 grassroot musicians). Its angsty lead, Murad – loosely inspired by Naezy – lives in Dharavi in a rickety chawl that houses six people. Naturally, he craves space – at home, from his father’s stubbornness; on the stage, as an artist who is embraced without his baggage; and from the predestined and dispiriting trajectory of life. And yet, the bloated Gully Boy underwhelms in delving deep into that very space.
For the most part, Gully Boy suffers from the curse of empty writing: It’s neither charged, nor consistently emotionally rousing. Instead, it gives us a hero, who wants to be an angry young man the same way all writers want to be award-winning authors. For some inexplicable reason, the stakes are very low: Everything seems to come easy to Murad and rarely does he face any daunting challenge, which makes it difficult to emotionally invest in him. The film’s female leads are as pointless: Sky (Kalki Koechlin), a NRI music producer who ends up hooking up with Murad, is wasted in a cameo that could go down in history as one of the most useless reasons to not edit a film down from 148 minutes. On the other hand, Safeena is bestowed with the archetypal story of oppression that doesn’t even pretend to have an arc: She’s essentially Dharavi’s Rumi (Manmarziyaan). She is a rebel, beats up women who show the slightest interest in Murad, and has Muslim parents who want her to either get married or be under house arrest. The silver lining, however, is that it’s a crowd-pleasing role saddled with witty one-liners and boisterousness that Bhatt exploits to the hilt. Even Ranveer, as Murad, is sensational, mining his altered physicality and relying on voice modulation to convincingly play someone who could have belonged to Dharavi.
But performances can account for very little when a film becomes predictable: Gully Boy seems stubborn in only playing out like a primer to life in the Indian slum. As a result, even after 18 songs, you come out of the theatre learning as much about gully rap in India as you did going into it. Even worse, the film manages to reduce it into a frivolous college competition. The writers (Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar) pack every stereotypical subplot possible – from domestic abuse and second marriage to drug dealing and a myopic and confused comment on class structures – as if they’re merely ticking off boxes. Even some of the shots that intend to capture the milieu of life in Dharavi pander to a specific Western gaze. The movie’s narrative, as well as its editing, is so severely disjointed that it feels like one giant music video that just jumps from one situation to another instead of being a cohesive origin story.
Even some of the shots that intend to capture the milieu of life in Dharavi pander to a specific Western gaze.
But Gully Boy’s accomplishment remains in crafting moments and astute observations: It’s been a while since a mainstream movie made the Muslimness of its leads as prominent, especially in a year as divisive as 2019. In Gully Boy, the camera spends a considerable amount of time lingering on Murad offering namaz, the mosque he frequents with his father, and the surma in his eyes.
I suspect, just like Veere Di Wedding and Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, Gully Boy is essentially the kind of movie that will become indispensable because of what it stands for – not for what it actually is. The wait for a film that tenderly recreates a musical subculture like gully rap instead of co-opting it, might still be slightly longer, but the wait for a perfect rap soundtrack is over.
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