Q. How did you both react to the script?
Ranveer: I was in tears.
Alia: So was I. You were also in tears? Zoya and I both were in tears. I don’t know what was with us and our state of mind.
Ranveer: I am sure it was the story at the writing level itself.
Alia: Yeah at the nascent level.
Q. So, it took Zoya Akhtar no time to convince you both to get on board?
Alia: No. Actually for the first time, she said, ‘This is the first time I have gotten the cast I wanted in the first try.’ She narrated to Ranveer, he said yes and then I said yes.
Ranveer: Luck by Chance took about seven years to get a leading man.
Alia: Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara also she took a really long time to cast.
Ranveer: Zindagi, I think was supposed to have Ranbir (Kapoor) and Imran (Khan).
Alia: Yeah. Kaafi kuch hogaya.
Ranveer: But, with Gull Boy, it was boom!
Q. Were you familiar with the world of underground rappers?
Alia: I had no clue about it. In fact my sister Shaheen was the one. I think it was Divine or Naezy, one of them we were listening to when Shaheen told me, ‘You know, Zoya has met him and she wants to make a film about rappers.’ I was like, ‘Really? That’s so interesting.’ My sister was very excited because a lot of her friends are into music. So, they were very excited because it feels like you are giving back to this scene. And now I realise what a huge phenomenon it has become. The Indian rap scene is waiting for this film to come out. It’s such a big deal for them.
Ranveer: I have been listening to hip-hop ever since I was a kid. I have seen the entire evolution of rap in India from Baba Sehgal and Devang Patel to now Divine, Naezy and Bantai. But I got really hooked when Zoya came to me with this film. She called me to her place and showed me first the video of “Mere Gully Mein” and my mind was blown away. It is so authentic. These guys are real Bombay boys, street guys rapping in Bambaia. It was bursting with street flavour. I was hooked instantly and now listen to only that.
Q. How important was it for both of you to get the world of Gully Boy as authentic as possible?
Alia: Of course, it is very important because that is our job to get the world right. But first I was panicking but Zo made it really simple. We just did this three day-workshop in which I learnt the dialogues and language. I learnt how to improvise in that language, and I understood my character and I was like, ‘Oh! Done.’ It was the quickest subject that I had to learn. Then on set, it just flowed. It was like moving and it was amazing.
Ranveer: To be very honest, Zoya is one filmmaker whose homework is very strong. There are some filmmakers who work so much themselves, putting together so much material for you to absorb. They do so much of work for you that it is like they do more than half your job sometimes. Other times, you are struggling to create the character yourself. You have to do a lot of the work yourself. But in this case, the material was there for me to absorb.
Q. Alia, why were you panicking?
Alia: Because we (she and Zoya) were not in touch and we were supposed to start shooting on January 15th or 16th. And I, on Jan 3rd or 4th, hadn’t even started the workshop. In December, I was panicking because I am this goody-goody person who needs to understand what is going on. I wasn’t understanding what was happening because she was focusing on the music. She kept telling me, ‘Don’t worry, you will be fine.’
Q. I remember speaking to Divine two years ago where he said there was no one else but Ranveer who could do this role. He said you rapped so well that you could be a rapper.
Ranveer: Even I don’t think anyone else can play this role. (Laughs)
Alia: I totally agree.
Ranveer: That is coming from a place in my heart that I will not let anybody play this part. It’s too me. It’s too close to my heart.
Alia: There’s nobody else who will be able to do it this way. When I heard his first track, I told my friends, ‘You know how an actor sings a song? You give them a little leeway and say that it’s amazing.’ But it doesn’t sound like an actor’s rapping, it sounds like a rapper is rapping. I was like, ‘This is unbelievable!’
Ranveer: I remember Lulu (Alia’s nickname given by Ranveer) was in the studio and she asked me three times, ‘This is you?’
Alia: I couldn’t believe! And it’s so difficult because it’s not like you are rapping without any feeling. It’s supposed to have a lot of feeling. And I felt that particularly when I walked in and he was doing “Doori” poem. All the lights in the room were off and Ranveer was sitting like that. He was recording the poem and it’s then I realised that it’s not just one sur he caught and sang.
Ranveer: This is because there are two great loves of my life coming together as one. Mumbai and its language. I always thought as an actor, one day, I will speak in my other mother tongue which is Bambaia. It is a language in itself, and I always thought that whenever I would do it, it should be special because the city is very close to my heart. So, there’s Mumbai and its language and there’s hip-hop. These two coming together is like. It could only be me, for me as well. I would die if somebody else were to do this.
Q. What was the daily drill of becoming this man like? Were there a lot of sittings with Naezy and Divine?
Ranveer: Zoya, Atul Mongia and myself did acting workshops just to find the energy, the pitch of the character because this is a very different mode of performance for me and it’s not my default. It is not my DNA. My DNA is Simmba. So, this is something I have learnt after becoming an actor and now I am able to adapt to it. First, I had tackled it during Lootera and then Dil Dhadakne Do and now Gully Boy. So, just to find that differently pitched character, we did acting workshops.
And then to absorb the culture of it. It was about spending time with the boys. We had extensive workshops and we all were contributing. Somebody was writing lyrics, somebody’s dropping verses. You got to be there with the authentic people on whose lives you are basing your character, and just absorb as much as you can. On set, this process is invaluable. Zoya is so good that she ensured that there were three or four of them on set every day overlooking this whole thing. There were no false notes. Stuff like this really goes a long way. Now that I have seen the film, it’s like wow! Authenticity levels of this film are on a different level!
Q. Was it clear since the beginning that you would rap?
Ranveer: No. Zoya was unsure. For me, it was a given. The minute she narrated it, it was a bit obvious for me because that is the nature of hip-hop, right? Its nature is expression. You write down your thoughts and say them over a beat. In a film like this, I couldn’t not do the rap myself. Zoya said, ‘We will put you in a studio and if you are good enough, then only we will take it.’ She and Ankur (Tewari), who was supervising music, was there. Divine was in the booth, giving tips. It was like a screen test! They asked me to rap Naezy’s version of Mere Gully Mein. I rapped it and they were like, ‘This is great! Let’s do it!’
Q. The majority is not well-versed with the works of these underground rap stars because they are still served popular rap, which repeatedly talks about alcohol, women, drugs and party. As actors, who have seen that world from close, do you find it sad that these rappers are yet to make it big mainstream?
Alia: They haven’t gotten the more prominent platform. And there are a lot of them, it’s not just restricted to Naezy and Divine. They are huge stars on YouTube and digitally. They are the ones that are really running the live shows. We do award shows but there are a lot of gigs that are happening across the country that we aren’t aware of. So, I feel they haven’t gotten the more obvious platform, which is possibly going to happen through this film.
Ranveer: It’s a complicated answer but I will attempt. There are two different kinds of music. One is popular music, club hip-hop and then there Is underground music, street hip-hop. One doesn’t really have story embedded in it. but the other one is narrative-based. The world we are living in now, with all the noise and social media, this generation is really just hungry for authenticity, which is why right now the biggest rapper in the world is Kendrick Lamar whose rap is narrative-based.
When I signed Gully Boy two years ago, I didn’t know this scene would explode this way. And now, it’s going to be given a mainstream platform through Gully Boy. Like “Apna Time Aayega” is a legit hip-hop song and its number one on the charts and that’s significant for this kind of music and this scene.
Q. Alia, you, Taapsee and Deepika gave some of the finest films of 2018, which were also commercial successes. This year, so far, we have seen Manikarnika releasing and getting people’s acceptance. It clearly shows that the audience’s bias towards hero-centric films is going away. How do you look at it?
Alia: To be honest, it’s not that anything is wrong with your question, but I would love to not answer a female question, anything related to female-centric or attitude changing towards women. I feel the fact that this question is still coming up means there is still kind of a surprise or like, ‘Waah waah female wali film hai!’
Ranveer: Yeah, even I feel the same thing.
Alia: It is almost as if there’s a perception. Deepika (Padukone) and I were discussing it that there is this perception that we are only interested in doing only female-centric films. We are not taking a stand over here. We just want strong characters. Like male stars want strong parts in their films. It’s nothing to do with who is leading the film anymore, according to me. Right now, we are waking up to good writing. That for me has been the big revelation in 2018. It’s the way it should be. Writers should be given the most importance. Then come directors and, in the end, actors.
Q. I get that we need to reach a stage where it’s all normalised and that films are not made out to be about the gender.
Ranveer: We need to reach the stage where this question doesn’t come up!
Q. What I also meant was that 2018 has shown even audience is looking at great writing and not which gender is leading the film.
Ranveer: A good film is a good film. Queen and Raazi are the finest films of the last decade. I think for me, and I am also a Hindi film audience, that time is gone. Now, just give me a good story. The gender of the protagonist is of no consequence.
Q. Ranveer, talking about last year, what is also interesting is that the monopoly enjoyed by a few stars has given way to a more open industry, with more talented, young actors doing extremely well. How do you look at that?
Ranveer: Hero ya heroine. Koi bhi ho, give me a good story. You are very right. Last year has been a testament to that. If it’s a good story and has entertainment value, your film is going to be accepted. No matter how large you mount your film or who’s starring in it, if it’s inauthentic, it’s going to be rejected. Basically, you can’t fool the audience anymore. The audience is very particular about authenticity and entertainment value. You can’t give them anything apart from this.