Gully Boy

poster

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.

Advertisements

Department

Someone needs to take all of Ram Gopal Varma’s gadgets, lock them in the toy box and hide the key. A potentially interesting thriller, Department was swamped by RGV’s ‘rogue’ methodology. My guess is ROGUE stands for Ridiculously Overindulgent Gimmickry Undermines Everything. The nauseating (literally) camerawork and a dearth of story and character development made this a disappointing experience. But there were a few positives including an excellent effort by the wardrobe department and a handful of quite good performances.

Had the gimmick of cameras mounted on actors and props been used with restraint it could have been really striking.  For example, a chase around the Crawford market area – it looked great as the camerawork enhanced the sense of speed and confusion of the pursuit. But it is hard to appreciate someone’s acting when the camera crawls up one nostril and emerges from their ear, or is spinning around the bottom of a tea cup. The background score is what I’ve come to expect from RGV – loud, intrusive and annoying so combine that with the dizzying visuals and it is unpleasant.

The story is a standard of the cop genre: a young, slightly idealistic officer is teamed up with a shady older legend on the force. Sanjay Dutt and Rana Daggubati had a good dynamic between their characters and they played off each other well. Sanjay has a brooding reserve that suited Mahadev’s moral ambiguity, and he was world weary and cynical to the core. Mahadev has his own agenda, which is revealed all too slowly. Shivnarayan was no young ratbag to be easily distracted or lead astray– he was focussed on his career and working towards his goals. But he is realising there are many more shades of grey than he expected. Rana is a competent actor, and he certainly looks right for this role. He seemed more at ease in the second half when the action ramps up.

Mind you some of the dialogue is so stilted no one could make it work. There are great insights along the lines of “A mistake done intentionally is not a mistake”. If only I had been in charge of the Cliche Department, I would have found a much more inspirational desk calendar to pinch quotes from. A subtitle that spelled gangrene ‘gang-grin’ was another highlight.

The underworld aspect is less successful. Sawatya (wildly overacted by Vijay Raaz), and his opposition – a mysterious voice on the phone – are at war. But they didn’t provide adequate tension for the machinations of the plot to make sense or be interesting. Sawatya’s deputy DK (Abhimanyu Singh) is ridiculous, stupid, and not at all convincing. People keep banging on about Abhimanyu Singh’s intensity but I think he is just a really bad actor. Even as a corpse, he hams it up.

Amitabh as Sarjay Rao spent the first half chewing the scenery and the second being enigmatic. It wasn’t the performance I was hoping for although he was an interesting character. Excessive exposition drained the potential drama and made the characters less interesting as they did little thinking for themselves. The police would get news of their target’s whereabouts apparently out of thin air. There is no consistent internal logic, too many contradictions, and the story just doesn’t hold up. RGV seems to think he has discovered the concept of moral ambiguity and the idea is pounded home. It’s clumsy and tedious.

Lakshmi Manchu was quite good as Mahadev’s wife. Satya was from a police family so she had already worked through any moral issues she may have had about her husband’s activities. Shivnarayan’s fiancée, Doctor Bharti (Anjana Sukhani) made less sense. She seemed to have few concerns about her intended being an ‘encounter king’, and no thought about what it might mean to be married to someone who was pissing off gangsters at a rate of knots. Madhu Shalini as Naseer had a potentially interesting role – a female gangster who was as tough as nails. But her motivations weren’t clear or consistent, the relationship with DK was not believable and her acting ranged from terrible to mediocre. However I don’t think anyone would have fared well in the scene where she basically fellated a kulfi as she and DK fantasised about taking over and killing everyone. It was gross.

Nathalia Kaur got a lot of (RGV generated) publicity for her debut. Her assets are obvious and just in case you missed anything that camera gets right in there (the gold undies were unexpected and I am so glad she was wearing them). But for an item girl she lacks sensuality and relies on making what I can only describe as ‘porno face’.  Even with the minimal demands of the choreo, her ‘dancing’ was terrible. I don’t usually have a problem with the skanky item, and appearances by the likes of Mumaith Khan, Malaika Arora Khan, Rambha and others are often a highlight. This made me uncomfortable as between Nathalia’s performance and the dirty old man camera gaze creeping all over her body, it is just nasty.

Luckily someone in wardrobe realised the movie was off the rails and took a bold step that almost saved the day. Nasia and DK form their own gang – we dubbed them the Fashion Gang.

 

They dress really badly, over accessorise and spend too long fussing over their clothes when they should be running away from Rana. Meanwhile Shivnarayan has had an epiphany. He had temporarily lost his mojo once he was out of uniform and in civvies. There was some unfortunate double (acid wash) denim, and a regrettable lurex bandanna incident. But by the second half he had developed a signature style and was teaming jeans and a simple (very snug across the shoulders) linen shirt or a (so tight it looked painted on) polo shirt with minimal accessories – watch, shoes, belt and gun.

 

Classic and classy. He became the Fashion Police! He pursues and kills members of DK’s Fashion Gang – the guy in the green and purple stripy shirt, the guy in the gingham bandanna, the bedraggled beardy man, finally the leaders themselves. So when Sanjay Dutt turned up wearing double acid wash….well. It was riveting. Not enough to make this a film worth seeing, but it did keep me entertained just when I was giving up.

I feel bad for the actors in Department, especially Sanjay Dutt, Rana, Deepak Tijori and Lakshmi Manchu who I think gave solid performances. It’s a shame they have been undermined by RGV’s self indulgent antics and the lack of quality story and dialogue. Honestly I can’t recommend this is worth seeing. Unless you enjoy seeing those Crimes  of Fashion soundly punished!