Azadi! Hum le ke rahenge, Azadi! Tum kuch bhi kar lo, Azadi… In 2016, hours after his release from Delhi’s Tihar Jail, the then JNU Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar concluded an invigorating address with these words, impressing upon his freedom of speech. Almost three years later, rapper Vivian Fernandes aka Divine and Dub Sharma have merged these lines from that popular speech on JNU grounds and spun a rambunctious and extended breakbeat to give us a caveat for the times. It moves ahead with Desh kaise hoga saaf, inki neeyat mein hai daag… is rapped along a synth and drum machine. It’s wild, it’s irreverent and extremely catchy and is one of the finest political pieces of music one has heard in a long time.
The rap alongside drum n bass is easily protested poetry and social activism at its best and the one that Bollywood, at least in the last few decades, seemed so far away from.
Director Zoya Akhtar’s 18-track Gully Boy, created by about 54 musicians including rappers, beatboxers, producers and actor Ranveer Singh, is far far away from the lyrical ramble that often comes out of mainstream Bollywood music. Starring Singh and Alia Bhatt, the film turns the spotlight on Mumbai’s underground hip hop scene that made gully rap viral. Loosely based on the lives of rappers Divine and Naezy, an intrinsic part of the album, Gully Boy, lyrically and musically, is a triumph and makes one’s belief stronger in the fact that art can change the social and political discourse of a nation.
Of all of those genres one hears in Bollywood, hip hop—the one from the streets with a subculture of its own—hasn’t made many appearances. There was some rap, yes. Sometimes through the misogynistic lyrics of Honey Singh, at others through some interesting work from Badshah. But what was missing was any kind of political hip hop, one that speaks about tyranny and injustice alongside stylised rhythmic music.
2018 hai, Desh ko khatra hai/ Jingostan Zindabaad/ Pakdo, maaro, kaato, cheer do, Saaf suthri chamdiyon par gehre gehre neel do… Dheere dheere saare gaddar khud hi maan jayenge… one does not usually hear such directness, such impudence and such beauty. The world that Zoya Akhatar creates challenges the dominant political and social consensus in such a straight line that one wonders if Censor Board, which gets riled up even by fluff and non-issues, missed the scorn and candor that the verses so intrinsically harbour. And that’s really where all the goodness lies. And of course, in the music itself.
A mridangam, harmonium and Kannakol (art of performing percussion syllables vocally in South Indian Carnatic music) open the phenomenal India 91 (91 is the the dialling code for India and the song brings together musicians from all over the country). The beginning transports you into the world of a Carnatic classical concert and then, soon, they all let it rip. Kala meri bhaari aur kalam mere haath mein, Likha jo bhi likha in sadko pe seekha…the verses are a commentary on the lives of the musicians and the sociopolitical contexts in which they live.
Divine, Dub Sharma impress. The weakest rapper, however, is Ranveer Singh. He is quite good, yes, chants along rhythmically with much gusto and sounds exquisite in Doori along a piano, strings, drum machine and Rishi Rich. It’s a feat that many actors may not achieve. But in Gully Boy, he is in the company of very talented rappers. His acquired skill is awe-inspiring; just not as brilliant.
There are two spoken word songs — Train song and Jahan tu chala. The latter is a trademark Jasleen Royal song where she sticks to her child-like soft voice alongside cascading acoustic guitar and no percussion. It’s alright but amid the onslaught that the other songs are, nothing to write home about. Train song is sung by Raghu Dixit in his open voice and is a composition where Karsh Kale has combined forces with Midival Punditz and is the only non-hip hop song which is interesting. Then there is Meri Gully Mein, the familiar piece which had brought hip hop to the fore. Created by Divine and featuring Neazy, the piece had made the two rappers quite popular. A version of this is repeated, with Singh replacing Neazy. The latter is a tad more sophisticated in terms of the video and orchestration. We, however, loved the rawness in the old one. Gully Boy’s music is the hallmark of change in Bollywood, which is getting stuck in the rut of regularity quite easily these days. Cock your years, and listen in. For this is the change we all talk about.