The seething anger of India’s urban dispossessed finds its voice in the white-hot rap of Gully Boy, the story of a poor young man whose future looks as dim as everyone around him. But he has been given a great talent to write and perform in the hip hop idiom of his time, and as his faith in himself grows, it sees him through to a rousing climax after a long, two-and-a-half-hour journey.
Zoya Akhtar (Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara) directs with flair and passion and, aided by explosive performances from a right-on cast, triumphs over the familiarity of the star-is-born storyline. Her main asset is Ranveer Singh, who broke into Bollywood with the rom com Band Baajat Baaraat and who here shows a pleasingly full emotional range that extends to drama and hip hop. With his hair combed over his eyes and noticeably muscle-bound, he is heroic but mild-mannered, rarely exceeding the sphere of believability. Lending strong backup are Alia Bhatt (Raazi) as his volatile love interest Safeena and Siddhant Chaturvedi in the role of his rap guru and pal Sher.
The story is set in Dharavi, the same huge Mumbai wasteland seen in Slumdog Millionaire and Salaam Bombay! With a population of 700,000 souls living cheek by jowl, it’s a colorful if sobering reminder that the economic miracle has not eradicated abject poverty in India. Akhtar and her co-screenwriter Reema Kagti make good use of this metaphorical location to suggest stagnancy and claustrophobia. It is the swampy reality Murad struggles to break out of to follow his dream.
His first challenge is to have a dream. We meet him as a hanger-on of cocky Moeen (Vijay Varma), who involves him in stealing a car. The threat of running afoul of the law hangs over him for most of the film, despite the fact he’s scrupulously honest and law-abiding and is horrified by Moeen’s employment of little street kids for drug peddling. But the film largely shies away from these expectations to probe more deeply into his evolving psychology and bid for greatness.
Overcrowding in the slum is soon brought home when Murad’s sour father brings home a new bride, a fleshy young thing who displaces his mother in their one bedchamber, in a home the size of an SUV. (At one point the large cars of the wealthy are favorably compared to the size of slum dwellings.) His mother is crushed by this development, and when attrition in the family reaches the breaking point, Murad is forced to go to work for his uncle in a lowly white collar job. It is the disappointing reward for his hard-won undergraduate degree. He sees his future in the exhausted, empty-eyed pen-pushers returning home on the subway at the end of the day.
But as is oft repeated, Murad is an artist; he takes all the humiliations and the injustices around him and uses them to make poetry. To the film’s credit, these are not the occasional outpourings of a sensitive soul, but socially tinged verses that speak harsh truths. When he offers them to his rapper hero Sher as the lyrics for angry songs, the performer wisely tells him to own his feelings and express them himself. His first try at an open mic in front of an audience of savvy rappers shows he has a long way to go.
On the lighter side is his secret relationship with Safeena, a soap-and-water girl who wears a tight-fitting Muslim head covering and modest dress. (Murad is also seen piously attending the mosque several times.) Only Safeena is the opposite of a stereotype. Her father is a doctor and she’s in med school. She tells Murad her dream is to become a surgeon and to marry him, in that order. Her impish grin masks a violent temper and uncontrollable jealousy over potential rivals for Murad’s affections. In two scenes played more for comedy than drama, she physically assaults girls who have their eye on him.
One of the these is rich girl Sky, played with teasing openness by Kalki Koechlin, who came to festival attention in Margherita with a Straw. Every artist and musician needs his big break, and Sky is Murad’s. She turns up out of nowhere and offers to produce a rap video professionally. The song and dance number he performs with Sher is a highlight, shot on Murad’s “gully” (street) and choreographed with full backup from the locals.
Its success (it nets 400,000 youtube views, up from 204 for his homemade try) moves the action forward to a series of competitions between dazzling ghetto rappers and a chance to perform at a Nas concert in Mumbai.
The music is a high quality throughout, as confident and inventive as Jay Oza’s camera. Though most of the rappers are young men, it’s worth mentioning that the women characters stand out as strong and individual, from Murad’s furiously humiliated mom to wildcat med student Safeena and free spirit Sky, none of whom are in sexual denial, but none are sex objects for the camera, either.
Production companies: Excel Entertainment, Tiger Baby
Cast: Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Kalki Koechlin, Vijay Raaz, Amrata Subhash
Director: Zoya Akhtar
Screenwriters: Reema Kagti, Zoya Akhtar
Producers: Ritesh Sidhwanti, Zoyua Akhtar, Farhan Akhtar
Executive producer: Stuti V Ramachandra
Director of photography: Jay Oza
Production designer: Suzanne Caplan Merwanji
Costume designers: Arjun Bhasin, Poornamrita Singh
Editor: Nitin Baid
Music: Karsh Kale
Casting director: Nandini Srikent
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
World sales: C International Sales, Cinestaan Intl.