It all started with the gully,” says rapper DIVINE in a recent documentary titled Gully Life by 27-year-old Mumbai-based filmmaker and entrepreneur Akshat Gupt. “This is where I grew up… this is where I smoked and sold pot… this is where I learned everything, this is also where I wrote the rap that changed everything,” he adds.
Meri gully mein, a collaborative rap by DIVINE aka Vivian Fernandes and Naezy aka Naved Sheikh, which found much attention on the internet in 2015, can easily be termed as the rap of DIVINE’s life. Not only because the viral YouTube video caught filmmaker Zoya Akhtar’s attention and inspired her to adapt the rapper’s life into a fine film starring Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, but also because here was a musician telling us the genuine story of his life. No masks.
Just strands of his life woven into words and rhythms.
What was interesting, however, was that this was not the usual Punjabi hip hop that spoke of girls, alcohol and bikes. The song from the “gully” spoke of police brutality, family apathy, missing one’s mother who was trying to make ends meet, struggles of daily life while living in the largest slum in the world. It represented a subculture that India was missing, the kind that once began in Bronx and Harlem in the ’70s and took over the world. DIVINE brought the street into the house. This was unlike anything anyone had heard before. It was genuine, original, and in the vernacular. The fact that the rap was in colloquial Hindi, helped propel the cause further.
As of now, DIVINE is a star who has packed shows all over the country, a Bollywood film on his life, a music festival and production house under his belt and the world to conquer. Gupt’s documentary, produced by Red Bull Media House, takes one through the journey of the real gully boy, who has rapped his way to success, who once rhymed Ishq Bector with “fruit nectar” in a battle rap with the Indo-Canadian rapper.
Vivian Fernandes wrote a few gospel songs and became DIVINE. Then came Meri gully, and songs with Sony Music. Akhtar’s film got him recognition he hadn’t ever factored in. “Suddenly it doesn’t matter where you came from and who you were. You just immediately transcend all barriers that society puts in front of you. Only art does that,” says Akhtar, in the documentary.
“When I started studying his life, I realised how interesting it was. It was not just about being from the slums, it was about revolutionising the whole hip hop movement in India,” says Gupt. But what goaded him to make this documentary was the fact that DIVINE’s sole aim in life was to bring his mother back. She was working in Doha while he and his brother were in school. They were often beaten up by their father who had a drinking problem. “Bringing back his mother was the single goal he had. That’s what makes it a very human story. You will find people who are revolutionising music or sports, but this guy’s main goal was to work his way up to be with his mother. This was unique yet universal,” says Gupt.
He began to shoot in January 2018, just around the time when Akhtar was finalising the idea of the film. He decided to follow the rapper’s life for a year and waited till the release of Gully Boy to see what happens post the film. He followed him through his shoots and gigs — in India and abroad — places where he spent his time as a child and at home. The documentary includes interviews with Akhtar, Singh, Indian electronic music producer Nucleya, DIVINE’s best friend and filmmaker DJ Joel D’Souza, and Goa-based music producer Phenom aka Pinaki R. The 50-minute documentary is narrated by DIVINE himself as he takes one through the trials and tribulations of his life.
Gupt has used moving animations to describe the rapper’s past life. “Availability of archival footage in a documentary makes you feel like a part of it. We had some (a few sepia-tinted photos) but a lot of his moments hadn’t been captured. It was my way of recreating them,” says Gupt, who runs a production house, Supari Studios, and studied filmmaking at Prague Film School. His earlier projects include a short film, Mary Had a Little Lamb, which was showcased at Cannes. It was “an insignificant project”, a murder mystery that “allowed me to learn a lot about filmmaking”.
Two years after he began shooting Gully Life, the rise of DIVINE has convinced Gupt of the culture supremacy Indian hip hop is capable of. “(He is) our own OG (original gangster). The mac daddy of the hip hop game,” says Singh, in the film.
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