The film is a compelling watch because it offers something never seen before: an insider’s view of the independent rap and hip-hop movement that has come of age in Mumbai. With strong roots in poetry, social commentary, and rhythm, gully rap is like no other form of music.
Ranveer Singh’s Murad is a beautiful, gentle soul. He is a poet, and verse is his passion. Every time life throws a curveball – and staying in a slum in Dharavi, it is often – he turns to his phone or his book to write words that channel his angst. He is unsure of his work, aching for a nod of approval from his peers. But he also breaks the law. He may cheat on his loyal girlfriend. And bully his bully of a father back. Zoya carefully explores the character of the protagonist of Gully Boy. No hasty judgement is passed on his behaviour. No gloating admiration is shown for his precocious talent. The film is a simmering journey of the underdog who’s talent, finally, lets out. The pace is measured, and the grip is tight. It never loses sight of how this story has to be told. When it explodes at the end with an unforgettable musical sequence where Murad finally lives his dreams, her expertise in building the story is evident. The emotions burst through like brilliant sunlight dispelling dark clouds and bringing forth the rainbow. It is a marvellous, uplifting release of the quiet, often internalized story that she has set you up with.
As always, she shows remarkable control over the narrative as it unfolds on screen.
The film is shot in Dharavi, but the really wonderful thing is that a set was erected to re-create Dharavi within Dharavi. It’s a terrific decision. In the company of production designer Suzanne Caplan Merwanji, Zoya and cinematographer Jay Oza create a bleak setting with the house and the gullies of Dharavi that is Murad’s home. The sheer lack of space, resources, and opportunities living in the poorest part of the city is not easy to watch. The lack of light, even more so. There are repeated aerial shots that show him walking back home, engulfed by the sprawling, dark slum settlement, becoming a nobody once again. But every time Murad is rapping, you see the setting change to open spaces, lights, and colour. The production design plays a strong, silent role in mirroring Murad’s perennial struggle to succeed.
For a film-maker who’s previous stories have lived in extremely privileged worlds, Gully Boy is a complete break from the norm for Zoya Akhtar. Almost all the characters in Murad’s story – including Murad himself – are good people who sometimes do bad things. Their extreme fight for basic survival every day leaves little in their armoury to also fight for their morals. His friends – Vijay Varma’s Moeen in particular – add to it. You see no hope for them, such is the stark truth of the marginalised in Mumbai. Moin’s story is harsh – he too has grown up in the same environs as Murad. They both break the law together. But when it comes to it, he is the one to pay the price, sentenced to a lifetime’s struggle trying to escape either the law of his own poverty. It could very well have been Murad or any of their other friends.
Given this setting, it is a powerful moment when Murad makes a statement about his identity. For a man who has every reason to stay in the confines he was born into, it is his talent and his belief in it that navigate him to his goal. Vijay Raaz plays his father. He is a driver, and his belief is to ‘keep one’s head down and do your work’. Dreaming of a better future is not part of his upbringing, and he expects the same from Murad. He is repeatedly shown opposing his son’s passion for rap and forcing him to follow in his footsteps. He is the villain of the piece. When the final stand-off between father and son happens, the moment is expected. But the writers do a terrific job in how it is delivered. In one scene, Raaz’s character goes from an embittered and egoistic man to a father who genuinely worried that his son’s decision is a bad idea for him. By switching the character’s motivation, Murad’s response becomes a statement of honesty and not an expression of defiance. It roots his character’s motivation into a positive idea – that he wants to be a musician because he has the talent for it. His decision is free of every other idea – his trying circumstances, his anger against his father, his need to survive. It is not an escape route, it is the goal that he is following.
A big part of all the things that make Gully Boy work is Ranveer Singh. He is cognisant of Murad’s character, where he comes from, and what drives him. There are no obvious hooks to latch on for a mainstream actor playing a role like this because it is rooted in reality all the way through. He stays committed to the portrayal. It is a quiet performance, building up his character slowly for most of the film’s runtime. He explodes in the last 20 minutes when the time for redemption comes, establishing the true nature of Murad, and finally making him the hero of the film. It is a performance with a lot of gratification for the audience.
The film is a compelling watch because it offers something never seen before: the insider’s view of the independent rap and hip-hop movement that has come of age in Mumbai. With strong roots in poetry, social commentary, and rhythm, gully rap is like no other form of music. Based in large parts on the lives of Divine and Naezy (who are popularly referred to as the ‘founders’ of this movement), the gully rappers bring the swag, angst, and ferocity of street rap in tremendous style to the screen. The film gives legitimacy to a fast-rising musical culture. For a lot of people who have not seen or heard this music, it is a revelation.
From the many grounds the film covers, there is one powerful idea you are left with in the end. Talent is not burdened by circumstances of a person. It is only limited by the belief they have in it. Great artists often seem to have dramatic stories about their journey to create great art. But most of that drama is for the outsiders. For the artist, it is simply the journey of creating and holding on to the inner belief until the rest of the world catches up to acknowledge their art. For those who make it to the end of this journey, the world’s a stage.
Hindi, Drama, Color