Director: Zoya Akhtar
Cast: Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Kalki Koechlin, Vijay Raaz, Vijay Varma, Amruta Subhash, Sheeba Chaddha.
Sometimes, angst has swag. And when it does, it often decides to make a song and dance about itself — in prose, poetry, painting or just by sitting at a bar and blowing smoke rings. Invariably, it draws a crowd — eager to exorcise their demons, empty their innards.
Every generation gets a cool film that speaks of and to their angst. And our desi millennials have been gifted theirs by Zoya Akhtar.
Gully Boy wears a hoodie and spits emotions angrily into the mic while flailing its arms and drawing fingers to make gang-style gestures, at times at the immediate opponent, but mostly at the world at large.
Gully Boy, based on the real life story of Mumbai-based rap stars Naezy and Divine, and written by Reema Kagti and Zoya, is pivoted on the angst and dreams of the dispossessed, and it spins on power of their sweaty resolve — Apna time ayega!
The film inhabits a world of tiny homes jostling for space in Mumbai’s Dharavi, where the frustrations, joys and irritation of one rub against another.
But it’s also a world where deep friendships sustain and save. Where lovers snatch a moment alone on a small bridge that rests just a few inches above a sea of garbage. Where late-nigh addas take place in the coupes of resting trains, where enterprise is survival.
Though Gully Boy has some clichéd bits that drag and bore a little, its screenplay — layered with gender and class politics — sets it apart from the barrage of jingoistic and terribly inept biopics we have been getting lately.
For most part Gully Boy — as directed by Zoya and inhabited and performed by Ranveer Singh — is compelling.
It’s got the groove.
It also has the furious tempo and foot-tapping high energy of a generation just coming to terms with life’s gazillion options, and their frustratingly meagre choices.
Gully Boy keeps taking flight, to the world outside Dharavi, to show us class divide and the inhumanity it breeds. And then, when it finds its moxie and a mic, it decides to say its piece. Here, its energy, its guttural rebuttal to life, seeps in, and it stirs.
We are hooked, almost as if the film were an impetuous jet ski being manoeuvred by an eager, excited novice, and we, perched on a surf board, were at the other end of a rope tied to it.
We rise when it rises, we sway along when it careens about, and we slump down when it feels beaten.
The film’s end, a kinetic, climatic sequence that jumps and stomps its feet with Ranveer Singh’s infectious high jinx is stunning, moving. But it is also a moment — mic drop by director Zoya Akhtar.
I simultaneously broke into tears and a heart-felt applause. And I wanted to say, in rap parlance, “Your movie’s so dope, girrrl!!”
Gully Boy establishes how it will tell its story right at the beginning. In a succinct, beautifully choreographed scene in a bus, using just an empty seat and a set of earphones, and without uttering a single dialogue, it lays bare not just the relationship between Safeena Ali (Alia Bhatt) and Murad Sheikh (Ranveer Singh), but also the hurdles they negotiate.
Safeena is a badass in a headscarf and is studying to be a doctor.
Murad is a student too, and he wears kurtas, short or long, a green-beige cloth backpack, and chappals. His personality is laced with diffidence and vulnerability.
Safeena is slightly satkeli, hateli and comes unhinged at the slightest provocation.
Murad mostly sits inside in his head. On the outside his body is stiff, alert to the weariness he carries. His backpack, at times, is symbolic of the burden that’s strapped on to his being. Murad smiles, but the brows remain furrowed. Inside, there’s a junoon, a desire to do something, to matter, to be someone.
Murad’s ears are often plugged with earphones. Sometimes because he wants to drown out the world around him and get in sync with the beats of his heart. At other times, especially at home, to give a different narrative, a spin to the reality, because the chatter in his house bogs him down.
In these instances we hear what he hears — his commentary on stuff happening around him, accompanied by his rant about how it should be.
Stuff happens. To his ammi, Razia (Amruta Subhash), because of his father, Aftab Sheikh (Vijay Raaz), a chauffeur. Murad watches, does what he can, and then sits on his bed and writes, pouring his heart out in rap verse. But he doesn’t rap. Not till he meets the local rap star, MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi).
In this scene and others that follow, the film conveys the joy of a lost, listless stray on finding its group, and a mentor. MC Sher adds rhythm to Murad’s poetry, turning his inner rant into a powerful chant.
As rappers gather, for rap battles or just for fun, the temperature rises. These scenes are heady, intense. A different kind of sufiyana — more a stormy, bouncy trance than a whirling, meditative one.
Before it ventures out, Gully Boy briefly invites the outside to visit Murad, and his world decides to demand a price for a dekho, some photos. And when it finally steps out of Dharavi, the price Murad has to pay is quite devastating.
Murad meets posh angst from Berkeley. It arrives in a Merc.
Sky (Kalki Koechlin), who can best be described as that stock female character who must a) be bohemian; b) flit around an underdog, male, with her heart thrust out; and, c) offer her tan, mann, dhan in return for, well, unrequited love.
These dear ladies make regular appearances in certain Bollywood films made by certain babalog directors and repeatedly drag them down.
Thankfully, Sky serves some purpose here. She wants to produce a track, and has the means to do it in style. As a result, Murad finds acceptance, fame and a gentle swag -- and his smile finally travels up, from his mouth to his eyes.
Gully Boy’s power, its mojo lies in the clashes it shows and articulates — between two worlds, two friends, two lovers, two rappers, between dreams and reality, between two worldviews.
The film is mostly written very intelligently, especially when it draws vignettes from real life, and not other films.
Its dialogue pack in street slang, especially in the rap battles where contestants quite literally get into each other’s face, showering insults and spit on each other.
The film uses songs, like Meri Gully Mein, originally sung by Divine and Naezy. These are choreographed, shot and edited in a way that captures and conveys the zeitgeist of the time, while adding intensity and a sting to it.
In between these, Gully Boy weaves in its story about about class, poverty, polygamy, but also lots of warmth and fun with Murad’s friends, Salman and Moin (Vijay Varma), and Safeena.
For more than one reason it feels almost repulsively patronising and banal to speak of the mainstreaming of Muslims here. Gully Boy is, after all, based on the life of Naezy, nee Naved Sheikh. Yet, perhaps, the fact that we notice it and need to mention it is a sign of the times we live in – in Bollywood, of course, but especially outside.
Oh! The joy of a director on finding a team that doesn’t just deliver, but makes the project their own. Everyone in Gully Boy — crew and cast — have given their best.
The cinematography, choreography, the writing, editing, costumes, and the entire ensemble of actors are quite fabulous.
Vijay Raaz is especially good, as is Vijay Varma. Kalki is a fine actress, but here she’s playing a character quite annoying and clichéd.
Alia and Ranveer have both got loveable characters — sweet, non-challenging strugglers trying to grab a small piece of life for themselves. And they both inhabit their characters with a possessive, warm embrace.
Alia’s easy charm and cute petulance encases Ranveer’s Murad, and roots him.
Like Ranveer’s character says, "Murad without Safeena is as if woh bina bachpan ke hi bada ho gaya”.
But it’s Ranveer Singh’s crazy, boisterous, all or nothing attitude that lifts and lights up the film.
The camera gently stalks Murad. Like a smitten stranger, it follows and watches him.
Ranveer Singh he is restrained, and his Murad lives more within than outside. Mostly using just his eyes and body, he is able to do what very few actors can — make the film live in his head, and keep us in conversation with it throughout.