Spoiler Alert: This article discusses ‘Gully Boy’ in great detail. So, if you want to go into the movie completely blind, please read this article after watching the movie.
Zoya Akhtar has created insanely well-crafted stories with gigantic ensemble casts throughout her career. On the surface, ‘Luck By Chance’ criticised Bollywood’s machinations, but its prime focus was a struggling actor and his girlfriend. ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’ and ‘Dil Dhadakne Do’ does look like an advert for Spain and Turkey, respectively, but ultimately it was about the bitter-sweet nature of relationships.
And through her shorts (‘Lust Stories’ and ‘Bombay Talkies’) she has hinted at her ability to show the various complexities of a character by doing so little. So, I was intrigued when Zoya announced that she’s going to take on the diverse world of gully rap through the eyes of an underdog. But did that intrigue last till the credits rolled?
Zoya Akhtar’s ‘Gully Boy’ is about a college-going, weed-smoking, shy boy named Murad who lives in the slums of Dharavi with his family. He has a pretty solid relationship with Safina and shares a strong bond with his friends. But the mundanity of his life is broken by rap.
The movie opens with Murad reluctantly accompanying his friends, Moeen and Salman to steal a car. And a brief conversation later, it’s clear who Murad is. He’s righteous but isn’t very vocal about it. And he’s into the kind of rap that has a sense of identity. However, while his ethics come into play very often, the rap takes a backseat as Zoya dives into his abusive household and the impoverished circumstances that he’s in.
The other highlight of the film is Safina, who is a feisty girl, aspiring to be a doctor and the future wife of Murad (particularly in that order). She’s very protective and is ready to go to any lengths to keep Murad on the right track. And when MC Sher comes into his life, she supports his dream to become a rapper by cutely giving away her iPad. However, while these story beats are being put into place, the cracks start to appear.
‘Gully Boy’ features strong performances from Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt and the rest of the cast. The cramped streets of Dharavi and the neon-lit highways of Mumbai are beautifully brought to life by Jay Oza. But it’s the combined efforts of Zoya, Reema Kagti, Vasundhara Koshy and Vijay Maurya on the writing table that hurts the overall story.
Ranveer, who’s last two roles in ‘Padmaavat’ and ‘Simmba’ have been quite boisterous, gives a restrained performance. And, in what might be my favourite moment from the entire movie, he shows how much he has grown as an actor by slowly switching gears to let out all that internalised pain while waiting for his maalkin in a car. And that’s why it’s sad to see that none of that is palpable during his rap sequences. That andar ka jwala never fully erupts as the movie keeps moving from one soundtrack to another.
When Murad stares into the audience’s soul during ‘Doori’ and talks about how his mother is a fauji and a fighter, it’s supposed to stir your soul. But then you remember that his mother has hardly been featured in the first half of the movie to warrant that kind of a reaction. And although the exposition from Siddhant Chaturvedi hammers in the fact that a rapper needs to put his reality into his rap, that hunger is somehow missing from the narrative and the rap battles.
The screenplay is obsessed with the secondary and tertiary factors in Murad’s life. However, it completely forgets that it has to affect the character in some way so that the audience can organically empathise with him.
At a certain point in Murad’s life, he takes on his father’s job and Zoya uses that plot point to showcase the class divide in our life visually and through his rap. But then she brings in Kalki’s Sky literally out of nowhere to spend time in a love triangle which only stretches the run-time. Where the movie should’ve shown Murad’s growth as a rapper (which is relegated to Bollywood-ised montages and a whole lot of empty boasting), we get a ton of meaningless “main shaadhi nahi karungi” and “are you cheating on me?”
The meaninglessness of these moments is further emphasised by the lack of consequences in Murad’s life. We get a ton of conflict from his father, but that’s eventually tied in a neat bow. Safina literally breaks a bottle on Sky (who’s supposed to be the propagator of Murad’s big break), but that doesn’t hinder his journey in any way. Additionally, even after Murad hits rock-bottom and resorts to stealing cars, he walks away unharmed while his friend gets beaten to a pulp, which again doesn’t affect his rap life. And that’s why the film feels very convenient, thereby contradicting the message that the characters keep alluding to about how unforgiving life really is.
So, while I can laud Zoya’s attempt to shine some light on the indigenous rap scene of India, with heartfelt performances from the cast and the rappers penning the songs, I can’t help but grimace at the commercial stench that the movie gives off. And it’s even sadder because ‘Gully Boy’ looked like a revolution that’ll tear through the superficiality of our life while blaring ‘Sher Aaya’ on the speakers. But instead, it just comes off as a de-fanged tiger.