A young driver watches the owner’s daughter rush into the back seat of the plush car, her eyes streaming with tears. He shuts the door and drives the long drive back home in the silent night, craving to ask what happened and provide some sort of solace to the young lady. But he knows his place. Despite being seated so near each other, he knows the distance between them is a chasm. Doori. Distances. Divides.
Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy is all about distances. Shot in the slums of Dharavi, with no effort at glossing over the claustrophobic crampedness, the film is a visual masterpiece which silently shows us the incongruous divides that exist in our midst. The skyscrapers loom large over the confined gullies of Dharavi. Groups of foreign tourists pay to click selfies in cramped shanties. In the spacious bathroom of a privileged friend, a boy from a slum folds a napkin as neatly as he can, and then quietly proceeds to measure the space through his paces. And then there are distances— between what people desire and what they are allowed to do.
Murad (Ranveer Singh), is a young man pursuing his graduation, but whose heart is into music. His father is a driver who has invested in educating his son with the hope that he will find a steady job. Murad’s childhood friend Safeena (Alia Bhat) is studying to be a doctor. Despite very different circumstances at their homes, Murad and Safeena are both struggling to achieve what they really want. And the way they tackle the obstacles in their path are drastically different. Murad is introvertish, restrained and gives in to domination for most of the film. Safeena is in your face, and goes off like a fire-cracker, confronting everyone violently.
Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti are storytellers who excel in handling ensemble casts. You can experience this in Luck by Chance, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Dil Dhadakne Do. Here in Gully Boy too, Murad and Safeena’s family members and friends are all fleshed out very well. Vijay Raaz (Murad’s father), Vijay Varma (Moeen), Kalki Koechlin (Sky), and debutant Siddhant Chaturvedi (MC Sher) all have well-etched characters and they are played really well. Vijay Maurya (who plays Murad’s mother’s brother) has understood the nuances of language while writing the dialogues for the film. Safeena, for instance, speaks Bambaiyya lingo (dhoptoongi!) when speaking to Murad and his friends, while her tehzeeb wali Urdu surfaces when speaking to her parents.
To be honest, I simply do not understand rap or hip-hop music. Any ‘noise’ featuring Honey Singh and his bottles of vodka and cuss words make me cringe instantly. So I was not at all keen to watch a film about the making of a rapper. But everyone around me egged me on to watch the film. And suddenly I discovered that real rap was perhaps different. It could be a sort of rhythmic poetry reflecting the angst of youth. I am listening to the eighteen tracks as I write this. There is rage in the lyrics, there is violence in the tempo, and there is anger in the beat. Suddenly words have become a rebellion against unfairness.
And yet nothing about Ranveer Singh’s manner suggests rage. Gone is the energy of Bajirao or Khilji that captivated you. He is subdued, very reined in and doesn’t even have the swagger of a rapper. In one scene, he arrives at a rap contest wearing a sweaty white shirt straight from office. And that is his mastery of the craft of acting. He slips into the skin of the unsure young man, whose only wings are his big dreams. Even when success arrives, he approaches her gingerly. The hugely talented Alia Bhat, on the other hand, is fiesty and full of fire. She serves as the perfect foil to Ranveer— expressing her needs and likes clearly. The hijaab notwithstanding, she knows what she wants, spells it out clearly and will go all out to get it. She has the best lines in the film and provides all the laughs.
There are 18 tracks in the film, and if I counted correctly, there are around 21 composers and 22 singers and together this constitutes almost 46 minutes of the film. Ranveer Singh has done the rap in several tracks. In its attempt to lend authenticity, give space to all the composers and singers, and elaborate the lives of its ensemble cast, the film is 153 minutes long. The film could do well with some trimming of its length.
While the story is predictable, the director’s intent is to capture the tumultuous journey and not the destination. Gully Boy succeeds because of Zoya Akhtar’s attention to detail. Each landscape is carefully pieced together and tells a story. A cursory look in a bus, a secret romantic rendezvous amidst piles of filth, a lad asking for boti in the biryani, the hijaab which goes missing once the girl reaches college, the juxtaposition of sparkling lights on the surface of a car, the difference in writing graffiti by two characters— everything has meaning and a purpose. I chuckled when one of the characters tells Ranveer that it would be more acceptable if he sang ghazals instead of rap.
Gully Boy is a film that makes you question the boxes that confine your dreams. Are you really free to follow your passion, stepping away from the queue of white collar jobs? How easy is it to rise above the straitjackets enforced by families and environments? The violence inflicted by families is not just physical, it is mental as well. And not many can successfully rise above those imposed shackles. And so, when you applaud someone rising above all these constraints, somewhere you are cheering for yourself.