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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Dil Dhadakne Do (2015)

Dil Dhadakne Do

Zoya Aktar’s third film follows the members of a dysfunctional, wealthy, Punjabi family as they celebrate the 30th wedding anniversary of Kamal (Anil Kapoor) and Neelam Mehra (Shefali Shah) on a 10 day cruise around Greece and Turkey. Along with their son and daughter, Kamal and Neelam have invited friends and business associates on a voyage that soon hits very choppy water indeed. This is a road trip movie on a grand scale, but despite the luxurious setting the problems are fairly standard for an Indian family drama – unhappy marriages, a failing business and parents interfering in their children’s lives. Soap opera stuff, but beautifully done with some unexpected plot threads for good measure. While the story could really be set anywhere and have the same effect, the gorgeous locations and all-star cast ensure Dil Dhadakne Do is an entertaining, although rather overlong watch.

The film is narrated by the family dog Pluto, voiced by Aamir Khan, which surprisingly isn’t as irritating as it sounds, despite a tendency for Pluto to state the obvious. Pluto’s commentary on the inability of his humans to communicate effectively and the overall irrationality of the human species generally, ensures he’s the most sensible Mehra of the lot – and the cutest!

The Mehras are not a happy family. Kamal’s business is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy while Neelam binge eats as compensation for silently enduring her husband’s frequent affairs. Their children have issues too. Son and heir to the family business Kabir (Ranveer Singh) has no desire to step into his father’s shoes, and little aptitude for the job either, while daughter Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra) struggles to hang on to her own successful business as her chauvinistic husband Manav (Rahul Bose) and interfering mother-in-law (Zarina Wahab) pressure her to start a family. Putting them all together for ten days seems like a recipe for disaster, particularly since each is determined to keep up appearances and pretend to the rest of the party that everything is fine.

Zoya and co-writer Reema Kagti don’t stop there either. Every other person on the cruise has their own issues too, from Neelam’s circle of toxic friends and their unceasing gossip about each other to Kamal’s best friend Vinod Khanna (Manoj Pahwa) who hates fellow guest Lalit Sood (Parmeet Sethi) and is dismayed that Kamal has invited him along. Each character has a part to play in the unfolding drama and every thread is carefully woven into the story to provide colour and texture to the plot.

Every moment is perfectly portrayed too, from the fake teeth-baring ‘smiles’ on the faces of rival wives Vandana Khanna and Naina Sood as they greet each other, to Ayesha’s reaction to her ex Sunny (Farhan Aktar) when he joins the cruise.

The Sood’s have been invited as possible investors in Kamal’s company, but they have the additional advantage of an unmarried daughter Noori (Riddhima Sud) who might be persuaded into an alliance with Kabir.  Not that Kabir has any inkling of his parents’ plan and instead falls deeply and most unsuitably in love with one of the dancers on board the ship. Farah Ali (Anushka Sharma) is a Muslim who is estranged from her family and has to work for her living, which means that the ships policy of non-fraternizing with patrons could cost her her job.  She’s understandably more cautious, while Kabir rushes into the relationship without any further thought. Ranveer and Anushka have fantastic chemistry together and their developing relationship is beautifully portrayed in the song Pehli Baar.

Ranveer Singh is also excellent in his role as Ayesha’s brother and shares an easy camaraderie with Priyanka that really does make them seem like brother and sister. Ayesha looks out for Kabir and tries to help him stand up to their father, even as she fights her own battles without any family support. Ranveer keeps it cool and laid back in the scenes with his family but is full of his usual energy in the songs and his performance is one of the highlights in the movie. Priyanka is just as good, and she pulls off another stunning performance, using her eyes and facial expressions to excellent effect and making her Ayesha one of the most relatable characters I’ve seen recently.

The rest of the cast are also well cast and complement the lead actors. Gallan Goodiyaan sees most of them dancing in classic ‘everyone knows the choreography’ style, but it’s made even better by the sheer number of aunties and uncles joining in. I’ve always been cautious approaching any film with Anil Kapoor after the trauma of seeing him shirtless in many of his Eighties films, but he is a fine actor and is superb here in a role that lets him show vulnerability as well as the more usual autocratic  behaviour expected from a Bollywood father. Shefali Shah too is very good in her portrayal of a betrayed wife who puts up with her husband’s infidelities because that is simply just what you do. Everyone seems perfectly cast, although initially Rahul Bose seems out of place as Ayesha’s husband, but after a memorable tennis match I cannot imagine anyone else reacting so perfectly to the barrage of vicious volleys Ayesha sends his way.

The family dynamic is well written into the screenplay with many small touches that consolidate the relationships and illustrate the friction bubbling away under the surface. Despite their differences Neelam and Ayesha are more similar than they realise, nicely demonstrated by the way they both react with their hands to their mouths when shocked by Kamal’s behaviour. The theme of equal rights for women is also well integrated into the narrative without becoming too preachy or sanctimonious, while the generation divide provides yet more opportunities to explore the different approaches to love and marriage.

I love this film, even with it’s overly melodramatic conclusion and cheesy method of tying up the few the loose ends. My only complaint is that the music from Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy isn’t as catchy as expected and a few of the songs don’t fit well into the screenplay. However the leads are all fabulous, the support cast equally excellent and the story a perfect mix of comedy, drama and social commentary. Maybe it’s my love of soap opera from the nineties coming back to haunt me, but the characters in Dil Dhadakne are engaging and the story more relatable than expected considering the amount of overt wealth on display. Well worth watching for Ranveer and Priyanka, and light-hearted character-driven drama that gives everyone a chance to shine.  4½ stars.

Bombay Talkies (2013)

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Apologies – this post is brimful of spoilers. Mind you, no one who edited the trailer or the geeks writing for Wiki or reviewers for some major papers seems to give a toss about giving away details.

Bombay Talkies sounded like an odd but potentially brilliant project. Four directors, four stories with the only connection being an homage to the Indian film industry. And I liked it a lot. Not all the stories are equally strong but they each have something that has stuck with me since seeing the film last week.

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