Gully Boy movie cast: Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Vijay Raaz, Vijay Varma, Kalki Koechlin, Amruta Subhash, Sheeba Chaddha
Gully Boy movie director: Zoya Akhtar
Gully Boy movie rating: Three and a half stars
Gully Boy is the story of a young man breaking free through street rap. Zoya Akhtar, working off a script she has written with Reema Kagti, stuffed with pulsating dialogue by Vijay Maurya and four young rappers, takes this one-line premise and runs with it, and gives us a film which shines a light on those who have, over the years, been made invisible in mainstream Bollywood: the minorities, the underclass, the dispossessed, people who have no access to the fancy arcades of wealthy India.
Murad (Singh) lives in a match-box size Mumbai tenement, with his young brother, a put-upon, put-aside mother (Subhash), and a grandmother. His abusive father (Raaz), a driver, has brought home a second wife, not much older than Murad. The only ray of light in his life is the perky, madly-possessive Safeena (Bhatt) whose support keeps him afloat as he bobs along, doing the odd dodgy job for his pal (Varma), trying to figure out the next step. A few of these elements may seem familiar (Eminem’s 8 Mile swims to mind), but Gully Boy, based loosely on the life of two rap-artists, Naezy and Divine, is rooted in the Mumbai idiom, and is its own film.
Rap comes to Murad’s rescue. A chance encounter with a performer named MC Sher (Chaturvedi) is like a call to arms: Murad takes to the sound, and the words, and starts writing his own, channeling his pain as a weapon. This is a predictable arc, but Singh brings a restrained swagger to the part: there is a gentleness to his anger. His Murad shows that Singh can tamp down on his characteristic boisterousness to create something of value, even though sometimes you can see the effort, and a bit of brownface, show.
Bhatt, as the spirited Safeena, is terrific. She’s had a lot of practice being a manic pixie. Last year’s Raazi gave her a chance to spread her wings. In this, she really gets the girl-who-wants-to-be-someone-through-education, the lingo (‘mere boy friend ke saath gulu gulu karegi’) and is all sparkle, all-feisty gully girl.
Koechlin, as the US-returned music scholar gives the film a chance to go over to the other side for a few minutes: her swanky bathroom is bigger than Murad’s imagination. But I wish she had more to do. Subhash, as Singh’s mother, plays older than she is, but what a treasure this actress is. Good to see the talented Varma getting bigger parts; Raaz is, as always, wonderful.
But the one who takes this film a notch higher is new face Sidhhant Chaturvedi. He is fresh, alive to the moment, and in places he takes it away from Singh.
My minor quibble with this film is in the familiar ways Akhtar plays safe: the father who is so against his son, coming improbably around feels like squaring the circle to keep us happy. Some of the other predictable arcs, are, well, predictable: the underdog making good being the biggest of them all. Akhtar’s outsider status is at odds with the insider story she’s telling, and in a few places, that distance shows.
But, ultimately, this is a film to enjoy, both in the seeing, and in the hearing: the soundtrack and the ‘songs’ leap off the screen. In today’s India, to bring a Murad and Safeena, their Muslim-ness a matter-of-fact statement, into centre-stage, to give traction to those who live on the wrong side of the tracks, is an act of bravery. I’ll take them any day over an overused Raj-and-Raveena. ‘Inka time aa gaya’. Rap along.