Gully Boy

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While there are similarities between Zoya Aktar’s Gully Boy and the 2002 Curtis Hanson film 8 Mile, that’s probably inevitable given the subject matter. Gully Boy tells the tale of a rapper from the wrong side of the tracks who finds fame and fortune after stepping up to the mike and battling his way to the top. Overall it’s a softer and cleaner tale than 8 Mile, but Ranveer Singh is remarkably good as a struggling student from Area 17 in Dharavai, while Alia Bhatt is equally impressive as his love interest, Safeena. The film is reportedly a loose biography of Mumbai rappers Vivian Fernandes aka Divine and Naved Shaikh aka Naezy, who both appear on the soundtrack along with a host of other local rappers. Even if you’re not a fan of rap music, this is a good story that effectively shows the class/caste divide in Mumbai and the barriers that make it difficult for anyone to cross that line.

Ranveer plays Murad, aka Gully Boy, a management student who lives with his father Aftab (Vijay Raaz), mother Razia (Amruta Subhash), younger brother and grandmother in Dharavi. Into this already crowded household, Murad’s father brings a new, younger wife, and this deepens the antagonism between Aftab and Razia and ups the constraint between father and son. Zoya paints an effective picture here of a divided family and escalating tension that puts even more pressure on Murad and leads to him trying to find avenues of escape. One of these is his relationship with Safeena (Alia Bhatt), a medical student who is trying to escape her mother’s (Sheeba Chaddha) strict ideas about her daughter’s behaviour. Safeena’s father (Ikhlaque Khan) is a doctor and Safeena is therefore in a different social class than Murad, but Safeena is determined to be with her long-term boyfriend and is resourceful enough to manage brief meetings and keep their romance hidden.

Murad also hangs out with his friends, but these relationships seem likely to get him into more trouble. Moeen (Vijay Varma) involves both Murad and Salman (Nakul Sahdev) when he steals cars, but Murad draws the line when he discovers Moeen is also dealing drugs using orphaned children as the couriers. Luckily for Murad he meets MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi) after seeing him perform at a college festival. Murad becomes friends with the rapper and slowly is encouraged to put his own words to music.

Murad is shy and finds it difficult to respond with the instant come-backs needed for rap battles, so it seems as if his career may be over before it’s truly begun. However, a meeting with an overseas student Sky (Kalki Koechlin), looking to make a video in Dharavi helps boost his image and his confidence when the music video goes viral. The addition of Sky is interesting as it didn’t seem that MC Sher and Gully Boy really needed the boost, but the video is sensibly made to reflect what would be possible in this situation, and I loved the scene in Sky’s apartment where Murad paces out the bathroom which is bigger than his entire house in Dharavi. I wondered if the character of Sky was a nod to Zoya herself and her own outsider status in Dharavi given that her previous films (Dil Dhadakne Do etc) deal with the ultra-rich. Gully Boy is almost the total opposite of these films, with nearly every character having a very ‘ordinary’ background with everyday problems of how to pay the rent, or have enough money to put food on the table. The revelation here is that Zoya does this so well and with restrained empathy that lets the lives of her characters talk for them by using their living spaces, clothes and transport as part of the development of the story. There is an authenticity to the film that draws the audience in and allows the characters to develop naturally without any of the usual Bollywood theatricality.

Although the basic story is predictable, it’s the journey that is important and Gully Boy is as much about class division as it is about music and relationships. Near the start of the film, a tourist group comes into Dharavi, trampling through Murad’s house, taking pictures and making insensitive comments about their house and living arrangements as if they’re looking at animals in a zoo. I guess this is part of the reality of living in one of the most famous slum areas of the world, but Murad and his family seem totally unfazed by the invasion and it really brings home the limitations of Murad’s world. Later scenes are even more telling. When his father is injured and unable to work as a driver, Murad takes over his job driving a rich family around the city. In this role he’s essentially invisible and is treated as an extension of the car he is driving. When the daughter wants to take a break from studying, her father uses Murad as an example of where she doesn’t want to end up, even though Murad is a final year student himself. What seems most odd to my Australian eyes is Murad’s calm acceptance of the situation. When he’s moved on from trying to listen to the music outside a venue simply because he’s a driver, his acquiescence without any words or emotion is truly shocking, even though he vents his emotions in the car as he raps along to a track on the radio. Partly this is because Murad is shy, but mainly it’s an ingrained acceptance that this is the way the world is, and nothing can ever change it. As Murad’s uncle states, he comes from a family of servants, so that is what he will be too.

The film has a number of these ‘divides’. Murad and Safeena meet on a bridge that spans a sea of rubbish, and eventually it just becomes part of the background and not even noteworthy. On a smaller scale, Aftab and his new wife keep a door between the rest of the family and their relationship, ensuring Razia and her children have no ability to raise their issues or even develop any kind of relationship with Aftab’s new wife. It’s these minor character that are essential in keeping the film realistic and genuine, particularly since all of these interactions have an effect on Murad, his behaviour and ultimately, on his music. Siddhant Chaturvedi is outstanding as MC Sher, and his confidence and love of music is infectious. Both Vijay Raaz and Vijay Varma also excel in their roles, giving them depth and a reason for their actions beyond the usual ‘Bollywood villain’ trope.

Although the story is Murad’s, it’s one that has been told before, and I found the character of Safeena more interesting. While Murad dreams of making it big in the rap world, Safeena want to be a doctor and will do almost anything to make that happen. She is constrained by societal expectations that she will marry and stop her studies, which makes Safeena constantly rebellious and determined to live her life as she wishes. She is also passionately in love with Murad, to the extent to beating up her rivals, including smashing a bottle over Sky’s head when she believes that Sky and Murad are having an affair. But despite her love of Murad, her devotion for her studies is even more intense and I thought it completely reasonable that she is prepared to adhere to her mother’s rules if she can just keep studying and not get married. Alia’s Safeena has all the passion and fire that seems to be missing at times from Ranveer’s safer and more considered performance as Murad. This is an terrific performance from Alia who gives Safeena a mix of seriousness and spontaneous episodes of violence as well as a passionate devotion to Murad in an interesting mix for a young Muslim woman.

Ranveer Singh is excellent as the shy and rather self-effacing Murad, which is even more amazing when contrasted with his last film. There is none of Simmba’s brashness and Ranveer does a superb job of bringing Murad’s helplessness and vulnerability to life. His gradual transformation from shy wannabe to confident performer is perfectly nuanced and he gets the interactions between his mother and father just right. He’s also incredibly good in the songs which are arguably the best thing about the film. The music here is is powerful and effective with lyrics that burst off the screen, even through the subtitles. Vijay Maurya’s dialogues complement the songs perfectly and it’s this combination that is an essential part of the film’s authenticity. I love the soundtrack – both the songs and Karsh Kale’s background score and it’s such a relief that a film about music gets that part of the story so right.

Although Gully Boy is a Bollywoodised version of hip hop in Mumbai, the music still sounds real and true and while the language has been cleaned up, the rest of the story still has a street vibe and an edginess that’s not usually present in mainstream Hindi films. I loved this film, along with the rest of the audience in an almost full screening in Melbourne – and it’s a long time since I’ve seen that for a Hindi release. Great songs, excellent support characters and impressive performances from all make this one to catch in the cinema. Highly recommended.

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Kapoor & Sons

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Kapoor & Sons is a refreshingly ‘un-Bollywood’ look at family and family relationships from director Shakun Batra. In conjunction with co-writer Ayesha Devitre Dhillon, Batra has produced a film that delves past the superficial public face of the Kapoor family to reveal the insecurities and arguments that lie beneath. It seems that there is something for everyone to relate to in this story – whether it’s the marriage between Harsh and Sunita that is falling apart, or the sibling rivalry between brothers Rahul and Arjun, most of the film relates to family episodes that are easily recognisable and understandable. While not everything in the story works, the relationships and characterisations do, making Kapoor and Sons a film that stays with you after the end credits have rolled.

I do love Rishi Kapoor and one of the drawcards of this film for me was watching him play the ageing patriarch of the Kapoor family. The prosthetics used to age him appropriately are fairly obvious and his character’s fixation on pornography quickly wears thin, but as the story progresses and Amarjeet Kapoor insists that all he wants as he approaches his ninetieth birthday is a happy family photograph, the character gains depth and intensity. The film starts with Amarjeet ‘practicing’ his death, obviously a common occurrence since his son Harsh (Rajat Kapoor) and daughter-in-law Sunita (Ratna Pathak Shah) pay no attention to his histrionics. The couple have their own problems and ignoring Amarjeet, or Daddu as the family call him, just seems to be part of their usual day. Harsh and Sunita have grown apart over the years of their marriage and there is a definite chill as they barely manage to speak civilly to each other. Sunita suspects that Harsh is having an affair with a previous work colleague Anu (Anuradha Chandan) and the two bicker and argue constantly. It’s a well written portrayal of a marriage gone sour where even the smallest comment can start a major argument and there no longer seems to be any common ground between husband and wife.

Their two grown up sons live overseas. Based in London, Rahul (Fawad Khan) has one successful book behind him but is falling behind his publisher’s deadline for the second. Arjun (Siddharth Malhotra) on the other hand is an aspiring writer, but is working as a bar-tender in New Jersey as he tries to find a publisher for his work. Both return to the family home in Coonoor when Amarjeet is hospitalised with a heart attack and the film follows the various relationships within the family as they are reunited under the one roof once more.

For me the most successful character is Sunita whose bitterness at her life flavours every word she says in the first few scenes. Her relationship with Harsh is perfectly portrayed and the hurt and resentment come through in each conversation. She has issues with her two sons too.  Arjun accuses her of always favouring her eldest son and although she denies it vociferously it’s obvious that she does have a definite preference for Rahul.  When she finally discovers the secret Rahul has been keeping from her she is devastated and Ratna Pathak Shah is superb in portraying her feelings of betrayal and loss mixed in with remorse and just a little guilt for some of the things she has said and done. She’s not just defined by the relationships with her husband and sons either, as her dreams of starting her own catering business allow her character to be more than just reactive. Rajat Kapoor too is excellent as the distant husband who wants to save his marriage but can’t seem to take the first step to making the necessary changes in his relationship. Although at times the bickering does seem to go on too long, to the point where I became uncomfortable watching Sunita and Harsh argue, it is true to life with every irrational and tit-for-tat response feeling genuine and realistic. There are moments of tenderness too and despite all the hostility there is a pervading hope that perhaps the two will manage to resolve their differences. The writing emphasizes the emotions of each character clearly and ensures the dialogue feels realistic and genuine.

The two sons have their problems with each other as well as with their parents. Arjun has always felt that he is the outcast in the family, particularly in comparison with Rahul, who always seems to be the perfect son. Returning home to find that his room has been taken over by his mother while Rahul’s has been left untouched immediately reinforces his feelings of alienation, further fuelled by his belief that Rahul stole the story of his first novel. Although Rahul can see the issues bedeviling the family and does his best to smooth things over, he has his own problems to work through.

During his visit home, Rahul wants to work on his latest book and also find a suitable place for an artists’ retreat. His search brings him into contact with Tia (Alia Bhatt) who is attracted to Rahul, but Arjun has already met Tia at a party and decided to make her the object of his attentions. This sets the two brothers up as potential rivals – an added friction that escalates the conflict between them. What makes it more believable though is that even with the issues between the two brothers, they still have typical sibling conversations. It’s not all arguments and fighting and the two share a good rapport that seems very natural. It’s typical family behaviour that adds to the authentic feel of the film and makes the characters more relatable. Both Fawad Khan and Siddharth Malhotra are at their best when dealing with each other, although otherwise Fawad Khan comes out the better of the two in terms of performance.

While Alia Bhatt is fine as Tia, her manic pixie-girl act is occasionally too OTT when added in to all the general angst of the Kapoor family. However, I like that Batra gives her character more depth using her friendship with Bunkoo (Aakriti Dobhal) and her dealings with cook/general handyman Kishore (Pradeep Pradhan) to bring out different aspects of her character. The romance between Arjun and Tia is also fairly standard stuff but does provide some welcome relief from all the squabbling between family members. Sukant Goel as Wasim and Fahim Shaikh as his brother Boobly also ensure there is some lightness amid all the doom and gloom as the rest of the ‘comedy’ is rather more hit and miss. Tia’s ‘jokes’ are not funny at all (although that I presume is the whole point!) while Daddu’s antics at the hospital appear too forced and falling just on the wrong side of offensive to raise anything more than the occasional smile.

Another plus for the film is the soundtrack which maybe works so well due to the number of different composers and lyricists involved. The background score by Sameer Uddin is lovely and the various songs include music from Amaal Mallik, Badshah, Arko and Tanishk Bagchi that give a good mix of different styles that each suit the flavour of the film. My favourite is Kar Gaya Chul above, but each is well placed in the narrative and complements the action. The scenery and beautiful house also give an authentic home-like atmosphere that adds to the overall realism of the film.

Although the film pacing is occasionally uneven and at times the arguments threaten to veer a little too close to farce, for the most part this is a realistic look at middle class family life. The arguments, petty disagreements and relationship flaws within the family are all explored, firstly among the family and then further secrets revealed when private disagreements are suddenly open to public view. The writing is excellent, the characters beautifully  developed and the story flows well from one excruciating argument to the next, with all the angst and self-recrimination that goes along with family fights. I thoroughly enjoyed Kapoor and Sons and recommend it for the wonderful performances, realistic dialogue, plausible situations and overall thoughtfulness that make this one of the better films from last year. 4 ½ stars.

Dear Zindagi

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Gauri Shinde follows up English Vinglish with another heroine-centric film. The amazing Alia Bhatt is ably supported by a very fanciable Shah Rukh Khan, and I loved seeing some more realistic modern relationships in the story. But it’s a bit heavy-handed and there are a few things that left me vaguely dissatisfied.

This is Alia’s movie. She is Kaira, an up and coming cinematographer who lives alone in Mumbai, and pretty much does as she pleases. Kaira takes herself and her work very seriously, but she is fun in a bratty way. She has a closeknit group of friends – the smart one, the ditsy one, the chubby guy and the gay one. And that’s one of the issues. Her friends mean so much to her and yet we barely get to know them. Her relationship with her maid Alka is better developed. Kaira has issues with emotional intimacy and trust, and is destructive in her romantic relationships. That holding back may be why her friends are so shadowy, and there is a question about how much attention she really pays them. Her life is thrown into chaos when building management decide they will only let married couples and families live in the complex, and she is evicted for being single. She breaks up with nice but boring Sid (Angad Bedi), is jilted by not so nice but not boring Raghuvendra (Kunal Kapoor), and lands up at her family home in Goa where she meets Rumi (Ali Zafar). She’s in a bad place emotionally and career-wise; stressed, cranky, and not sleeping, she is a ball of nervous energy. Alia delivers the rapid play of emotions with honesty and commitment to Kaira in all her messiness.

In a clunky filmi coincidence, Kaira happens to be shooting a promo video at a hotel hosting a mental health awareness event. Dr Jehangir “Jug” Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) is the only speaker that makes sense to Kaira. He says that people are always prepared to talk about a physical ailment, but not their mental health, and surely the brain is just another part of the body.  She decides to go see him because she can’t sleep and no medicine has been able to help her. Jug does sometimes sound like an inspirational quote calendar (and I suspect Gauri Shinde watches too much Doctor Phil), but he gets through to Kaira largely by allowing her to discover her own answers. When Jug hears the opening he needs to set the next stage up he does it through conversation and prompting Kaira to articulate her feelings, not by telling her what to think. Shah Rukh gives the appearance of being present and spontaneous, and he and Alia have great chemistry. The inevitable transference scene was handled gracefully and was true to both Kaira and Jug’s characters. And who wouldn’t succumb to transference with Shah Rukh as their therapist?

I loved that the big name star didn’t show up until late in the first half and that he simply disappeared when his work was done, leaving to Kaira to continue on her way. It’s a gutsy move by Gauri Shinde and also by Shah Rukh to trust the story. Frankly I could watch Shah Rukh play kabaddi with the ocean for 2 ½ hours and would listen to him read the phone book (there’s an app idea for the insomniacs!) but I really do think he delivers a good and generous performance here.

It’s unusual to see a mainstream Indian film that doesn’t portray mothers as saints. When Kaira finally blows her top at the family and declares she is in therapy because of them, it’s the catalyst for some self-reflection for everyone. Except her little brother Kiddo (Rohit Saraf), a golden boy who has his own style of managing the parentals. It’s big, when you start to see your parents as human beings. She also struggles with her inner voice judging her for past dalliances. She calls herself a slut (some of the movie audience agreed, sadly) but Jug says as long as you understand yourself and know why you do what you do, then baseless judgement by others is irrelevant. How refreshing to have the nominal hero really not give a rats about who a young lady may have slept with, instead caring that she was able to articulate what she was looking for in a potential partner. And I like that Kaira does this without becoming sweet or saintly – she is still herself, just a bit more resilient and positive. So ladies, try those chairs out and make sure you get one that’s right for you!

I feel I should be able to say more about the support cast but they had little to do and even less material to work with. The romantic interests played by Angad Bedi, Kunal Kapoor and Ali Zafar are all OK-ish guys who Kaira liked for a time, but there is nothing to any of their characters. Her relationship with Rumi (Ali Zafar) is a little more interesting because she starts to ask for what she wants. Rohit Saraf looked and sounded perfect as Kaira’s little brother but he only got a couple of lines so I half wondered why the character was there. Ira Dubey and Yashaswini Dayama play the sensible friend and the ditsy friend, and Raj Bhansali is the gay friend who inadvertently plants the idea of seeing a therapist. They’re all good, but Gauri Shinde doesn’t develop their characters or give them scope to do it themselves.

I liked the visual design for Kaira and Jug’s worlds. Hers is full of colour and movement and herself while his is more restful and neutral, although both live in a state of work in progress. I felt that they actually inhabited these rooms and the spaces were shaped by the character, not just by the set dressers.

Amit Trivedi does what he always does. And seriously – stop with the banjoes. They do not make the music of love. I did laugh a lot at the cheesefest that is the title song. Alia got sent to take her inner Manic Pixie Dream Girl for a good run in the park, hugging trees, flying kites, marvelling at the ocean. The only things missing were a puppy and a mime.

Dear Zindagi is well worth seeing, but you may find your patience is tested…by the audience*! I loved Alia and Shah Rukh, and they rescue the film from some underdone writing and heavy handed message moments.

 

*A note on the audience. Judging by the fidgeting and volume of conversations it seems the desi boys of Melbourne were not so comfortable when they had to listen to a woman talking about herself, but were all rapt attention when it was Shah Rukh’s turn. A mate in London said some of the dialogues set off the homophobes in the crowd, and there was a little of that here too. A line about a character coming out was greeted with a bit of muttering and shushing while a tired old joke confusing Lebanese/Lesbian had most of the audience in stitches as they kind of missed the point of why that line was being trotted out. And a special shoutout to the lady who sat near me, texting for the whole film and then reading the messages to her husband.