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.