There’s an unlikely word attached to a Zoya Akhtar film: blockbuster. Gully Boy, having grossed Rs 72.45 crore in its 4-day weekend, is all set to annihilate the benchmarks set by Akhtar’s earlier successful films, Dil Dhadakne Do (Rs 77 crore) and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (Rs 90.27 crore). And within the first week at that.
Akhtar, who made one of the most exceptional Hindi films (since 2000) in her very first outing, has finally been certified ‘mainstream’ by the box office. For someone who saw Luck By Chance, and was shattered by its box-office failure, this is a moment to sit back and marvel at the seeming ‘evolution’ of Akhtar.
Luck By Chance‘s subtle tone was established in the film’s very first scene, starring Alyy Khan and Konkona Sen Sharma. Riffing on Bollywood’s infamous casting couch incidents, Akhtar maintains a steely grasp over her characters. It is made clear that the characters play a ‘lecherous producer’ and a ‘gullible, desperate newcomer’, but their relationship is implied with none of the cheap titillation a situation like this could offer. With lust in his eyes and discomfort in hers, both Alyy Khan and Konkona Sen Sharma rarely break eye-contact as the audience is made privy to this sticky conversation. The word ‘compromise’ doesn’t come up like in those Madhur Bhandarkar & Ram Gopal Varma films, with a similar tackier version of this scene. We’re trusted to read between the lines and pick up on the ‘commentary’. Released in 2009, there was little surprise that only a handful from the audience chose to engage with the film.
Akhtar chose to deal with the commercial failure of her first film, by moving to her first lip-sync song sequence (in her second film). One gets a feeling that she made Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara more palatable for the masses, by choosing to cast Katrina Kaif alongside the collective talents of Hrithik Roshan, Abhay Deol, Farhan Akhtar and Kalki Koechlin. What we do get, in the end, is Kaif spouting lines like a Paulo Coelho book – “seize the day, my friend” et al. It’s a clunky portion in an otherwise likeable film. But the trade-off might have been worth it, considering how the film’s box office was tangibly affected by Kaif’s presence.
Similarly with Dil Dhadakne Do, Akhtar served up a delicious ensemble cast in the first-world milieu of a gorgeous Mediterranean cruise. Some felt that the style diluted the substance of Akhtar’s core premise – the ugly tipping point in a family that hasn’t been entirely honest with each other. We’re force-fed love stories between Ranveer Singh-Anushka Sharma and Farhan Akhtar-Priyanka Chopra, taking attention away from the family and adding to the film’s already-bloated screenplay. What pushes the film over the railing is its tedious climax, hell-bent on tying the umpteen loose ends and delivering that customary ‘happy ending’. But it all seemed to be working at the box office. It is Dil Dhadakne Do‘s success, that enabled Zoya’s deep-dive into street rap culture.
There’s a throwaway moment in Zoya Akhtar’s first film, where Saurabh Shukla’s character stresses upon being ‘at the right time, at the right place’. Looking at Gully Boy‘s monstrous success, one gets the feeling that the stars were aligned for this one. Mumbai’s subculture of gully rap was ripe for the picking, where many had a vague idea of what it was, and yet the music wasn’t entirely mainstream. Both Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt had ascended to the ‘big star’ table with hits like Simmba and Raazi, respectively. And Akhtar’s strong grip over her craft to tell even the most generic underdog story, peppered with her classic ‘truth moments’, is finally reaping rewards.
Gully Boy has its own share of ‘blockbuster’ choices, that it specifically made to possibly witness the success that it is being showered with today. The many, many contrivances in the film like the introduction of Kalki Koechlin’s Sky via the the YouTube comments’ section. Or how they become collaborators, all in the span of a few minutes. The generic obstacle of ‘class’ that hardly lends a distinct flavour to Murad’s underdog journey, Gully Boy is implicitly designed as simple & safe. Film lovers and critics can begrudge Zoya Akhtar for taking the easy way out, but the choice again reflects in the box office numbers. It doesn’t have Luck By Chance‘s consistent cinematic brilliance, but that also perhaps means it doesn’t have to deal with commercial failure.
Gully Boy is a ‘mainstream’ Hindi film, with its fair share of minutely-observed moments. It isn’t the seminal film it could have been, but it is a ‘success’. Further bridging the gap between the ‘mainstream’ and ‘good taste’, Zoya Akhtar lives to fight another day.