In the current lot of mainstream Hindi directors, only Shakun Batra, Ayan Mukerjee and Zoya Akhtar know the art of balancing mainstream movies with a nuanced craft of film-making. With Ranveer Singh-Alia Bhatt starrer ‘Gully Boy’, director Zoya Akhtar takes her craft forward and shuts her detractors who slander her for movies about the urban rich. Not stopping at just that, in a movie centered around a male-rapper, she brilliantly questions a lot of social issues, especially for women.
The movie opens with a glimpse into the life of a Dharavi-bred undergrad student, Murad Sheikh (Ranveer Singh). His tiny house is in the infamous slums of Mumbai, which also doubles up as a tourist attraction for the foreigners. He lives with an overbearing father, a submissive mother, a bickering grandmother and a younger brother on one hand, and a bunch of thick friends and a smart & supportive girlfriend of 9 years, Safeena Ali (Alia Bhatt). What begins as a refuge from his unhappy life, soon turns into a passion for writing lyrics to rap on. The plot seems like any musical underdog story – which we have seen from Rock On to Rockstar – but Gully boy stands out for its beautiful subtext and authenticity. Writers Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti and Vijay Maurya (dialogues), create an authentic world set in Dharavi and get the aesthetics and dialect correct. Also, in a movie set around the journey of a rapper, it is pleasant to see it address issues ranging from misogyny, polygamy, patriarchy to something as obscure as the Indian love for fair skin – it touches them all! And the beauty lies in the subtle references to these issues, without being preachy or over-the-top. The world constructed around Murad explains the dichotomy in his life – a confident brat in the slum, who is awed yet intimidated by the glitzy Mumbai. His gradual transition from an under-confident underdog to a determined rapper, is also brilliantly explained by breaking the divide between both the worlds.
With standards of Bollywood music falling by every passing day, thanks to the incessant raps and remixes, it is refreshing to see a movie introducing us to ‘asli hip-hop’! As Murad aptly puts it, rap does not mean a bunch of random rhyming words like ‘Teri chokri, meri gaadi, mera paisa’ put together. And the movie drives this point home, with the brilliantly written rap by a group of 52 artists, headlined by Divine and Naezy. All the songs and rap have been written colloquially and perfectly apt for the situation it is set to. Not sure if Ranveer Singh acquired this talent for the movie, but his rap is completely on-point, arising naturally from his character’s circumstances and experiences. The language has an authentic flavor of Mumbai – filled with punter log, kya bolreli hai public and hard hai bhaaaaiii.
One of the strongest points of a Zoya-Akhtar-film is her casting and she does not let us down here. While every actor plays their part well, Amruta Subhash as Murad’s mother Razia Sheikh, is a scene-stealer. One of the best scenes in the movie is when she goes from a submissive wife to an agitated woman against her husband. Another character that particularly stands out is that of Murad’s mentor-turned-friend MC Sher, played by Siddhanth Chaturvedi. Playing a young rapper who supports his family and counters misogyny with his rap, he makes a very strong debut. Alia Bhatt almost plays a dual role as the demure and feisty student of medicine, Safeena. As Murad refers to her, she is an unpredictable ‘Hateli’, reminiscent of the firecracker Sweety Bhope played by Priyanka Chopra in Kaminey. She is Murad’s backbone, that pounces on other women for her man, with no regret. While she supports him emotionally through his troubles, she also silently battles her conservative family for what she calls her ‘freedom’ (again, one of the social issues the movie touches upon). When he sings, she embodies his nervousness. Alia Bhatt, a gem of an actor, is lovely and draws your heart to her character.
From a whacky and energetic personality, Ranveer Singh transforms into a reclusive and restrained Murad. He does complete justice to his well-written character that evolves from an under-confident son of a driver, to a confident rapper on the block! He plays his role with conviction, even in scenes where he is not central to the narrative. Not skipping a single beat, he shines the brightest, without over-shadowing the other characters. Again, the credit also goes to the writers and director, for giving every character a well-defined arc, which makes them stand out, not relegating them to the background.
The movie is technically very sound and keeps you invested, especially in the first half. The second half loses a bit of steam and could have been shorter by writing certain subplots better, like the ones with Kalki Koechlin. At two hours and thirty minutes, it feels long, but the writers let the plot simmer till it reaches its zenith in the climax, giving the viewers a major high!
In an industry where movie about the underdogs only aim to glorify him, it is a refreshing change to see how the movie lets its supporting cast gain prominence and, subtly nudge various issues that we see in our society. Kudos to the makers for this. As the rappers in the movie say, ‘yeh movie hard hai bhai’!
My Rating: 4/5