The first time we see Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy, he’s stealing a car. Three men head toward an SUV, Singh walking third, far behind the cocksure leader. He appears tentative and preoccupied, having sought out the least active role. His name is Murad, and that is his way. A college kid obsessed with hip-hop, he even writes songs hoping someone else will belt out his rhymes. He approaches a performer with a notebook-full of verses, but this man disagrees, advising him instead to do what feels hard. “If we get comfortable,” he asks Murad, “who the hell will rap?”
Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, an underdog story shining a light on India’s incipient hip-hop subculture, is the first great Hindi film of 2019 and a rousing celebration of spunk. The writing is enthralling, the texture fantastic, and this world is a revelation. Here are characters without room to breathe who express themselves breathlessly, through a style of music that has always belonged to the marginalised. Dissent finds a way — and a beat.
How does a rapper-to-be find another, though? The answer lies in Murad’s graffiti scrawl, where he accurately lists ‘Internet’ alongside ‘Roti, Kapda, Makaan’ as an essential. Rap battles in India used to take place on forums online before hip hop enthusiasts realised there were finally enough of them to assemble and make real noise. Murad sends a Facebook friend request to a performer, and finds a musician via comments under a YouTube video. He’s nervous asking to meet up, incredulous about suggesting it “directly.” This is the coyness with which young people approach crushes, the hesitant and gradual outreach of the romantic.
There is nothing hesitant about Murad’s girlfriend, however. Played by an electric Alia Bhatt, Safeena is an incurable hothead — he nicknames her ‘Danger Aapa’ — who tells her man to go ahead and dream. She’s going to be a doctor and so they’re going to be just fine. She’s a dynamite character, and this is reassurance Murad sorely needs, living in a tiny Dharavi flat occasionally beset by tourists who want poverty porn on their Instagram feeds. Murad and Safeena are practicing Muslims, childhood sweethearts sundered by wealth and class.
The film opens with a dedication to pioneering Indian hip-hop stars Naezy and Divine, with Akhtar and co-writer Reema Kagti borrowing background and specifics from their lives. Many local rappers show up, delightfully cameoing as themselves. Yet Gully Boys doesn’t try to explain the music itself, or what draws these hungry young men to the righteous aggression of Nas and Tupac and Jay-Z, or even what distinguishes this subculture from other rebellions. They may say “old school” a lot, but they aren’t even wearing oversized shirts and multiple chains.
Instead, the writers studiously follow the graph of a sports drama, taking as much from the Rocky template as from Eminem’s screen memoir, 8 Mile. It’s a smart move, keeping the beats basic and buoyant — if repetitive — and making sure the energy is full-tilt and familiar, instead of trying to convert audiences to rap. Besides, the prizefighter template is apropos. Who was the first rap battler in the world? Mohammad Ali.
The knockout punch comes from MC Sher. With a name that means both big cat and couplet, Sher is played by Siddhant Chaturvedi with natural, easy ferocity. It’s the film’s top performance. When he battles, he seems to be shutting down rivals for real. Sher leans hard into the verses and the artfully effortless attitude, and warmly mentors Murad, dubbing him ‘Gully Boy’ and schooling him in the all-important ways of metre.
This is where the film’s dialogues need to be applauded. Written by Vijay Maurya — who also plays Murad’s uncle — the lines are authentic from the start, allowing us a ringside view. Language varies across classes, like when Murad teases an affluent girl saying “Hindi nahin aata?” and she says “Hindi aati hai, but…”, actually using gender correctly while he is Bombay-istically wrong. The genius lies in the dialogues evolving; late in the film, when Murad is raging against his father, you can sense metre in his words. He’s internalised the iambic.
In fact, true to the spirit of a film about angry young men, Gully Boy leaves much room for Vijays: Vijay Varma is superb as a neighbourhood crook who must have grown up on Jackie Shroff movies, while Vijay Raaz — one of the finest actors we have — is haunting as Murad’s sore, unambitious father.
Cinematographer Jay Oza presents the city in wide shots, while framing faces — especially Singh and Bhatt — mercilessly close, exposing the actors at their rawest. There are some genuinely poetic compositions, one of which features Bhatt sitting alone at a bus-stop, an immediate contrast to her earliest scene, where she squeezed into what can only be described as an Alia-shaped gap in the crowded backseat of a bus, a hand-holding boyfriend on one side and a sleeping child on her other shoulder.
Bhatt is a marvel, all fury and focus and fearlessness. Safeena is strikingly self-assured and frighteningly perceptive, and Bhatt endows her with innocence and impulsiveness. She also seems genuinely capable of walloping people.
Singh spends a large part of the film silent, as Murad drinks it all in — predicaments, wishes, suddenly emergent dreams. It begins to feel one-note, particularly in comparison to the louder characters, till he locks himself in a car and turns on a song — he then explodes into a convulsive, amazing singalong. This mirrors another scene when Murad, encountering trashy rap on a car stereo, loses his head in the desperation to shut it. Murad isn’t Murad till music plays.
Armed with microphone or words, Singh is unstoppable. There is one scene that jars — when he dances too assertively during a music video — but that only stands out because the rest of his performance is so precisely calibrated. From accent to action, Singh nails it. As Murad becomes more confident, he even closes a curtain like he’s dropping a mic.
At one point, Safeena, desperate to cheer for Murad, shouts her encouragement mid-song while the rest of the crowd, aware of the style of the performance, waits for the appropriate time to applaud. Akhtar has done something special here. Gully Boy starts with a scratch sound and ends with a cut to silence, and in between holds voices that cannot be unheard. Like Safeena, applaud whenever you’re ready. It’s time.
Rating: 4 stars
First published Hindustan Times, February 14, 2019