Big-ticket Bollywood premieres are unusual for Berlinale, so it’s not every year that the film festival witnesses the feistiness and glamour of Bollywood on the red carpet. The last was Imtiaz Ali’s Highway in 2014 that screened in the Panorama section. Coincidentally, Alia Bhatt was around then too. In her second outing at the Berlinale, Bhatt came along with director Zoya Akhtar and Ranveer Singh and brought Gully Boy to show the Berliners Bollywood’s first hip-hop musical.
Two days prior at the press screening at the Berlinale, straight-laced journalists, otherwise expressionless, watched the movie and punched their reviews into their backlit keyboards, but offered no initial impressions about the movie’s critical outcome.
But the status quo changed when the team comprising Akhtar with Singh and Bhatt in tow arrived for the photocall and met the press before the premiere. Singh was effusive, Akhtar was accommodating, and Bhatt lightened up the room. The mood grew progressively upbeat and mildly rowdy at the premiere night a little later at Friedrichstadt-Palast, one of the city’s iconic venues that played host to the movie.
In short, Gully Boy has arrived.
A fictionalised retelling of the lives of Mumbai rappers Naezy and Divine, Gully Boy is as much a portrait of a struggling artist as it is about a study of the lives of Mumbai’s disenfranchised. It is also the story of people on the sidelines of the city who, nevertheless, keep the city well-oiled and running with their hard labour.
In telling the story of an aspiring rapper, Akhtar trains her lenses into the soot laden single-roomed houses, trash-filled sewer canals and the narrow streets and cul-de-sacs of Mumbai’s Dharavi. Yet, here the anger and frustration of the protagonist are personal and not directed towards some corrupt political actors or a state.
Gully Boy is a grand, Bollywood-sized film that pulls out all the stops to emotionally connect with you. What it’s not is a simplistic rag-to-riches story where the rag-to-riches part is glossed over by hit-song montages and hence the trajectory of the story is squished into a single song. Akthar doesn’t take shortcuts and at 148 minutes, the length weighs heavily down on the movie.
Gully Boy follows the college-going Murad (Ranveer Singh) whose life revolves around his med school student secret girlfriend Safeena (Alia Bhatt) and his friend Vijay Varma. When Murad is forced to take up his father’s chauffer position temporarily to support the family, he feels trapped and stumbles upon Sher, a rapper played by Siddhant Chaturvedi. While his personal struggles bear him down, Murad is forced to take up a sales job at his maternal uncle’s business but continues to pursue rap despite hostility from his family. Gully Boy traces Murad’s journey from Dharavi’s streets to open mic stages and finally to perform as an opening act for a major rap star.
It’s easy to say Ranveer Singh is a revelation but Gully Boy brings out the side of him that is quiet yet gutsy, responsible yet adventurous, morally upright yet considerate. With unkept hair, unvarnished complexion and kajal in his eyes, he is utterly convincing as the soft-spoken Murad with fire in the belly. Even his anger feels muted and calculated in a way only a sensibly self-aware young man growing up with hardships, inheriting familial burden and responsibilities, can be prone to. His quiet resilience boils over into livid retaliation when he witnesses domestic abuse in his own family.
The movie has all the trappings of a poverty-porn-tearjerker meets romance-story pigeonholing, but Akhtar stays cautiously unbeguiled by that temptation. Fleshing out the remarkable nuances she attributes to her characters, she manages to extract some of the most reliable performances from every single one of her actors.
Alia’s hijab wearing, unafraid to be a foul-mouth, Safeena is an unpredictable firecracker whose anger often breaches her medical-school-topper sanity, yet she’s utterly believable. “Baat karna hai tere ko?” she asks casually while simultaneously breaking a beer bottle on Kalki’s head.
No single character is painted with a single brush stroke. For instance, Vijay Raaz’s Aftab, Murad’s father, doesn’t remain as a monstrous wife beating polygamist but redeems himself when he beseeches his son to consider a serious career and quit pursuing rap music. Despite exploiting Murad’s sexual needs, Kalki’s liberal and free-spirited Sky quietly recedes after understanding his resolute love for Safeena. The understated subtexts of the movie are unmissably feminist.
Through Jay Oza’s lens, Gully Boy’s Mumbai looks characteristically unglamorous, perhaps that’s why it’s also immensely relatable. Nothing more could be said about Gully Boy’s soundtrack whose songs have by now become essential anthems, inescapable earworms as they are. The raw energy of the songs and the rap lyrics serve to fuel the momentum of the movie.
The natural trajectory of the movie suffers when the focus starts meandering midway with events driving it away from the main narrative. Besides, the movie’s predictable climax culminates in a music competition with no prizes for guessing who takes the trophy home.
Gully Boy feels grandiose in a way ambitious Bollywood projects are but it also has its feet placed firmly on the ground. Akhtar and Reema Kagti’s story doesn’t fall into the trap of pedestrian stereotypes, often peddled by mainstream Bollywood. Which is just as well because these are times of change. As a believable Bollywood drama that plays to the crowd, yet without giving up its ambitions to dress up as a somewhat impressive piece of art, Gully Boy works on many levels. Only it could’ve been shorter.
This is a first impression review of Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy. Firstpost’s movie review by Anna Vetticad will be published closer to its Indian release, on 14 February.