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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Vivegam

Vivegam

What is it with Siva and bad opening sequences? Vedalam started off with a dodgy assassination, and Siva tries to do something similar here with equally disastrous results. Vivegram sees Ajith’s character take out two generic bad guys in a forest somewhere in Serbia with plenty of improbable action sequences and pre-placed explosives. The dubbing is bad, the set-up too over the top to be believable and the final moments are absurd. Unlike Vedalam however, Vivegam (Prudence) doesn’t morph into a decent action film after the first act. Instead Siva continues with a series of fast-paced fight sequences, loud declarative speeches delivered through gritted teeth and incredibly loud music. Which isn’t to say that its bad, just that Vivegam is a completely mass film produced solely for Thala fans where logic and story take a very big second place to showcasing Ajith as an all-out action hero.

The plot here revolves around a secret government agency somewhere in Europe, where everyone apparently speaks Tamil. There may have been some disclaimer about this in the opening credits, but since these weren’t subtitled I can’t tell and to be honest, it’s not the most implausible part of the film. The Counter Terrorism Squad have a very flash looking control room with lots of cool holographics, but nothing that a competent 007 hasn’t achieved before with a laptop and pen drive. Bizarrely a number of agents sit around calling out incredibly obvious observations from street surveillance cameras and wireless earpieces while it seems that any basic blocking tactic shuts off their contact with the outside world. Technologically advanced they may be, but little thought seems to have gone into the HQ apart from making it look snazzy.

Ajith is Ajay Kumar (aka AK), an agent who is presumed by his bosses to be dead, but who remerges to upset the agency when he takes out the head of the Russian mafia and the chief of Europol in the action at the start of the film.

The agency thinks that AJ has gone rogue and brings in his old colleagues to help hunt him down. Chief of these is Aryan (Vivek Oberoi) who is better than expected in a role that requires him to constantly extol the praises of his nemesis as he tries to track him down. Also on AK’s old team are Sean (Aarav Chowdhary), Rachael (Amila Terzimehic) and Mike (Serge Crozon-Cazin), who join in the hunt for their old partner.

However, all is not as it seems, and a flashback sequence traces the group’s last mission where they were trying to neutralise a weapon that was used to trigger earthquakes. A top hacker Natasha (Akshara Haasan) holds the key and the team, along with almost everyone else in Eastern Europe, are attempting to find her to gain control of the weapons. The action here involves a gang fight in an apartment block, where the bad guys get flung out of windows and down stairwells, and a couple of sniper attacks where we learn how it is actually possible to shoot through bullet proof glass. But while each individual fight scene is good, they just keep coming with faceless villains that last less than a second before being shot, blown up or defenestrated depending on location.

There is also a total lack of logic – when AK is left for dead on the snow-covered mountains of Europe, it’s just plausible that he might manage to survive and keep training, but his acquisition of tons of explosives and automatic weapons is amazing given that he doesn’t appear to have any backing.  His ability to drive halfway across Europe in a few hours is just as miraculous, as his amazing talent in avoiding being shot despite being one man against literally thousands of bullets. But then, he is a suviva!

Kajal Aggarwal shows up as Yazhini, AK’s long-suffering wife who runs a restaurant and musical school somewhere in Europe. Again, the staff all speak excellent Tamil, to the extent of being able to sing Tamil songs, while Yazhini seems to have no problem with her husband vanishing for a few months on various missions. At least Siva gives his female cast something to do – Akshara Haasan is excellent as the hacker who ends up out of her depth and Yazhini is way more vengeful than expected, but there isn’t a lot of chemistry between her and Ajith which lets the romance side of the story down.

The problem I have with Vivegam is that it never comes together as a complete story. Everything is peripheral to ensuring Ajith is front and centre all the time. All the action revolves around him, the speeches are all either Ajith declaring ‘never give up’ or his opponents discussing how amazingly wonderful he is. Everything comes so fast that it’s hard to keep track of which particular group Ajith is fighting next and the loud soundtrack and frenetic pace end up leaving the audience behind.

It’s a shame as there is a lot that is good here too. Ajith is excellent and carries the weight of the film well. Vivek Oberoi gets to do plenty of strutting around and pontificating in a grand manner (which suits him well!) and both Kajal Aggarwal and Akshara Haasan are good in their respective roles. The music from Anirudh is excellent and there is a good mix of heavy and light tones, or there would have been if the volume had been just a tad lower! The fight sequences are all beautifully sequenced too, with slow-mo bullets and some clever ideas, but there is just so much of everything that the screenplay gets a bit lost in all the sound and fury.

Vivegam is what happens when Siva tries to make a Hollywood style action film, keeping a mass approach and sacrificing screenplay for effects. Sure, it’s great to see Thala dodge bullets and smash villains into the ground but a little more light and shade to his character would have made for a more approachable story. One for fans.

Iru Mugan

Iru Mugan.png

Vikram is on fine form playing a dual role in Anand Shankar’s latest action thriller, but the film is hampered by oddly placed songs, gaping plot holes and a meandering screenplay. There are some plus points – the action sequences are good, Nayanthara looks stunning and plays an interesting character, but none of it is quite enough to overcome the lack of suspense and surprising dullness of the storyline. Iru Mugan is a thriller without many thrills despite the best efforts of the cast, make-up department and stunt crew.

At least the start of the film is excellent. We see an old man queuing for a visa in the Indian Embassy in Malaysia, but rather than wait his turn, instead he uses a rather unique way of demanding attention. The result is classed as a terrorist attack against India and when the link is made between the pharmaceutically enhanced actions of the terrorist and über-villain Love, ex-RAW agent Akhilan Vinod (Vikram) is called back into service to discover exactly what is going on in Malaysia. Akhilan’s last action before he left RAW was to kill an illegal drug manufacturer by the name of Love (also Vikram), however Love is the chef suspect behind these latest attacks and Akhilan has a personal reason to find out if Love is really dead or not. Love was the man behind the death of Akhilan’s wife Meera (Nayanthara), although Akhilan has systematically slaughtered anyone else who was involved – hence the ‘retirement’ from active service.

Vikram’s Akhilan is a dour and haunted man with major anger management issues. He believes that violence is the answer to any problem no matter – whether he’s dealing with a suspect, a fellow agent or his boss. However, Malik (Nasser), head of RAW decides that his best option is to send Akhilan to Malaysia along with rookie agent Aayushi (Nithya Menen). So far so good, but Akhilan is the stereotypical ‘lone-wolf’ agent and displays every single hackneyed characteristic possible. Even worse, Aayushi is just as clichéd as a young inexperienced female agent. Her main role is to dress as a prostitute in order to get into a drug manufacturing lab. Really? That was the best option they could come up with? It’s trite, unoriginal and basically a complete waste of Nithya Menon’s acting skills.

Along with the frustration of watching a good actress in a badly written part, the first half suffers from a never-ending plague of flashbacks to Akhilan’s happier time with his wife. Unfortunately, these mainly occur as songs which act as effective speed breakers for the plot and completely destroy any tension that Anand Shankar has finally managed to build. The switch from drug labs and chemically enhanced violence to sundrenched beaches and Nayanthara in skimpy outfits is awkward and makes the film feel dated. Adding to this general late 90’s vibe is Thambi Ramaiah as a bumbling and inept Malaysian police officer and Riythvika as an exploited sex slave.

Vikram also plays the villain Love, a gay/transgender pharmacist who has managed to create a drug that gives superhuman strength and reaction time, but only for 5 minutes. Love is flamboyant and frequently feminine while maintaining his ruthless attitude and determination to cause mayhem with his invention. Although at the end of the day it’s the money that matters, selling the drug to terrorist organisations who will use it to attack governments worldwide is a bonus Love can’t pass up.

Despite all the clichés, it’s Vikram’s performance here as the two separate characters that makes Iru Mugan worth watching. The contrast between surly Akhilan and extravagantly ostentatious Love is excellent and although the two characters are somewhat extreme stereotypes, once both are together on-screen the deficiencies of each seems lessened. Perhaps this is where the ‘two faces’ of the titles comes in, since each character is ruthless in their own way and both are equally quick to jump to a lethal solution for any perceived problem. Nayanthara also makes an impression with her role as another RAW agent and does a good job with both her romantic and more action-orientated scenes, although her character would have better with just a little more depth. But then again Akhilan has very little backstory and Love even less, all of which adds to the scrappiness of the plot. It would have helped to have some idea how Love became such a genius pharmacist and why he decided to fuel international terrorism rather than turn his skills to more altruistic uses since there is a reason given for Akhilan’s excessive use of violence.

There are some more positives; the film looks slick and R.D. Rajasekhar makes the most of the Malaysian backdrop, both in the songs and for the chases through the city. Vikram’s transformation into Love is well done, and the fight choreography is impressive although it does get somewhat repetitive after a while. And although the placement could have been better and the picturisations a less abrupt change of pace, Harris Jayaraj’s songs are catchy and generally the soundtrack is good.

Overall Iru Mugan isn’t a terrible film, it’s just a lot duller than expected given the potential in the storyline. A drug that makes ordinary people into super-soldiers for 5 minutes should have made for a more exciting film than Anand Shankar ends up with here. Worth watching for Vikram, Nayanthara and the Malaysian backdrop, but go in prepared for the slow exposition and numerous plot holes.