Bombay 70 se Gully Boy
Despite of being an effective underdog drama, it leaves you underwhelmed
There is a song in Gully Boy. It starts with the 'infamous' chants by Kanhaiya Kumaar and the Students from JNU incident. The track is titled as ‘Azaadi’ and it starts with the slogans about freedom against poverty, inequality, casteism, patriarchy and Brahmanical oppression. The track included in the film has taken first two of these conveniently which had stirred quite a controversy. Not just that, but so-called 'apolitical' stand taken by the leads from the film was something that shown again, the two-face mentality of them. Despite that, Gully Boy became the film that made me forget all of this and invested me strongly throughout its runtime. It hardly mattered at the time, if it had flaws or clichés or compromised anything. Zoya was able to create her most emotionally resonant film to date.
At the beginning of Gully Boy, the film gives its credit where it's due. The film is inspired by the lives of rappers Naezy and DIVINE, it says. 'Bombay 70', a short film, which won the Best Short Film award at the 2014 MAMI festival, was based on Naezy, 'Naved' from real life. Considered as one of the flag-bearers of Bombay rap, he was motivated to rap mostly to impress his peers and impress girls like any guy his age. The film talks about his journey from that immaturity to a supposed consciousness he gained over time, to speak about the problems of people around him. What inspired him was a Sean Paul track that made him try to speak English faster, again, to impress his peers! But it made him fall in love with the flow, the delivery which is the basis of rap.
He wanted to express himself, his anguish from living on those streets, from the poverty and the inevitable shady deals. But all he knew was the street vernacular and Urdu language that he had known since he was a child. That was precisely what made him connect with his 'public'. That was the way they spoke. They felt represented through his tracks. We found a new language to speak out our angst, to rebel and to speak to the masses. Or rather, we found a new way 'Rap' can be used, apart from the materialistic things that the hip-hop 'stars' from India used to speak about.
Gully Boy begins with a scene of car robbery which includes Murad (Ranveer Singh). When they get in the car and start driving, a pop track comes on with the usual beats and the lyrics speaking about 'gadi, paisa, bangla, daru' (cars, money, big houses, alcohol) as if it's a thing worth celebrating. Murad gets annoyed and his friend teases him about the same. That was the introduction to what Rap meant to him.
Murad, which means desire or wishful passion, was unlike his name; hardly able to express his passion. He was yet to find his voice, his own language that would help him to convey what he felt. He was rather shy, not exactly masochistic or even 'hard' as the lyrics suggest. He used to write random poetry in his diary, which came straight from his heart. He wrote about his dreams, aspirations; where the elders from his family insisted for the path that 'they' had walked upon. There is a track 'Ek hi rasta', which silently reflected the same- his desire to break free and to walk on a path of his own and being the dreamer that he always wanted to. In a scene where one of the characters says, Agar har kisi me confidence hota to Rap kaun karta? (If everyone had confidence, who would even want to rap?) Hip-hop was his way out.
He couldn't speak against the things that he felt were wrong or unjust. In a scene where his father slaps him after his breakout video, rather for not listening to him or agreeing with him; Naved had no guts to speak for himself. He was 'soft' which we see rarely portrayed in our films. Unlike his love-interest Safeena (Alia Bhatt), who stood for herself and for her freedom, against her parents. She was smart enough to find a solution quickly for her problems. A girl who we would mistake for a soft-spoken one doesn't shy away from getting in a fight with someone who just texted Murad. Both of these characters and their shift from the usual Bollywood gender norms was indeed refreshing. Zoya, who has done this in her previous films, succeeds again.
Speaking about direction, Zoya hits the right notes with her eye for impeccable visuals to reflect the essence of the scene. There were usual tropes that come with family dramas and the inevitable cliches. But, it hardly mattered with the way she presented it. The way she uses space, whether cramped (when Ranveer and Alia kiss) or wider (a big room with a few wannabe rappers implicating the smaller groups where it all starts) is commendable. Her sense of time and the silence can be seen throughout. In a scene where Naved was a chauffeur for a girl from higher class, he listens to the beats coming from the club she was in. He gets drawn to it and walks towards. After getting denied of even standing nearby, he goes back to his car and channels his frustration by verbally shouting out some lyrics. Then we, the audience, see it from outside the window, with no audible sound; yet space was filled with his rage. We see him as the one with aspirations amongst all these dazzling lights as an insignificant one. Credit goes all to her wonderful craft.
Although there were some scenes, where it felt unintentionally breaking the tension of a scene or making it laughably obvious. A song 'Doorie' originates with the girl from the last scene, coming out from the club and sitting on the backseat, crying throughout the journey. We listen to Ranveer reciting these lines (in a voiceover), but the visual creates a bit more profound moment. The same song, while being recorded, was shown with the typical scenes of 'poor people' which speaking about them, might fit well as him thinking about them. But it looks too theatrical to sustain authenticity.
For a director with such a vision, the film felt unsatisfying for some reasons. Mainly for its writing which doesn’t have the rage enough to fulfill the lyrics. Many character arcs felt underdeveloped, even the protagonist himself. There is a line telling him to fuel his writing with all the anger or the rage he has. The film barely touches that. It feels more of overcoming obstacles than the anger bursting out. The one who says that, MC Sher, was played brilliantly by Siddhant Chaturvedi. But, his character felt underwritten for a mentor who was happy in Murad's success.
Other than that, Kalki's character 'Sky' felt severely underwritten. It was left being merely a savior, which could have been avoided altogether as well. A scene where she invites Murad to paint all over the city, there is a sweet, soulful track, composed by Mickey McCleary, which gives an idea of what her character would mean for him. Sky could have been better explained as a look into a new world that he was not aware of, being with Safeena for the most part of his life. She was the necessary element in his coming-of-age. Instead, she was left with some open-ended and vacuous scenes she was given.
The characters that deserve the praise, for both performances and the writing, are Moeen played by Vijay Varma and Safeena played by Alia. Both of them had the eccentricity that would make them stand apart from the rest. Moeen, who had his own concepts of morality, was a character that was essential to be shown in a film about the streets. In an argument with Murad, he says that he rather prefers the children selling drugs than wasting their lives for something, not worthwhile. While in lockup, he stood knowing the implications of his actions that he had no option otherwise.
The skewed sense of morality would have been antagonized in any other film. Rather we go through a roller-coaster of emotions about him that we even sympathize with him. Other than that, the character of Safeena, wouldn't have been effective without Alia. She was made for this role, if I may say! In both marriage proposals she goes through, her slight change of expressions was something that shaped the entire scene. The way she used her body language was so effortless, that it received applauds even more than the central character of rapper, whose whole identity is about that.
Now coming back to the controversy, Zoya expressed her thoughts about the exclusion of the other factors. Taking from that, there is hardly any character that would have reflected any of the factors of casteism or would have spoken against the mentality referring to the RSS. It wasn't going with the script, she said. Then there is another song called Jingoistan, which was clearly a dig at Jingoism that we see around. Even that track was cut abruptly and left just like a background score. For a film, no matter how she justifies being an underdog story, it needed to be braver to address these points. That was the point of the whole film, right?
To understand what the genre is capable of.
To be fearless and express yourself without a filter.
To be a voice for those who have not been given chance to speak to.
For a film which works as an introduction towards the genre of Hip-hop and rap, one rather feels cheated for what this film could have been. All it ends up being is a satisfying underdog tale, which we have already seen being churned out more than enough. Perhaps the consolation is Zoya's direction.