With his hands in his pocket, Vijay Varma’s Moeen walks purposefully in the very first frame of Gully Boy. The camera is determinedly focused on him, the other two in the frame, Salman (Nakul Sahdev)and Murad (Ranveer Singh), almost seem like incidental inclusions. Owner of an automobile workshop by day, he moonlights as a carjacker and a drug peddler. In many ways, Moeen, the hustler, seems like the very manifestation of Mumbai city. Generous, kind, unforgiving… all in the span of a few seconds, Varma’s character represents the unadulterated hunger of someone who has spent too much time in the city’s underbelly.
For many, Varma’s Moeen is arguably the best character in a cast boasting of names like Vijay Raaz, Amruta Subhash, Vijay Maurya and Kalki Koechlin.
Like many around him, Moeen isn’t staying in Dharavi by choice and is looking for a way out. So he wanders around desolate streets, and employs children to peddle drugs for him. He isn’t an entirely ‘terrible’ human being, and we know this from a scene where he reminds Murad about feeding the homeless children bunking in his garage. He doesn’t see himself as a saint, but he also knows that employing these children, is still safer than leaving them to scavenge on the streets.
We also see another side to him in the way he tells Murad how he’s proud of the new rap video. “I watched it two times in a row”, the excitement is clearly audible in his voice. Also the low-key betrayal in his eyes, when he tells Murad that he knows all about his jhols – how Murad doesn’t invite him to the evenings spent with his fancy friends. Moeen isn’t petty enough to begrudge his friend’s success, but he also has low tolerance for moral science lessons. He won’t think twice before becoming your reality check.
There’s just so much possibility with a character so well-rounded. When Murad comes to Moeen for help after he’s quit his job, he asks if he can work at the workshop until he finds some ‘good work’. “So this isn’t good enough for you?”, Moeen shoots back. He’s proud of the blood and sweat that goes into making ends meet, and he’s completely unapologetic for the ways he chooses to go about it. Director Zoya Akhtar possibly gives Varma the acting highlight in a scene, where Moeen talks to Murad from behind bars. Ranveer Singh’s Murad can’t look him in the eye because of just how powerless he feels, and Moeen replies with a smile on his face “I was going to end up here any way. You have something going for you, make something of it and get me out of here.”
People like Moeen have their own skewed sense of right and wrong, and they’re trying to make the best of their unfair circumstances. That’s what makes Vijay Varma’s performance so beautifully fractured. He can’t be boxed into one ‘type’ (unlike Murad), and it’s fascinating to watch him unravel like a real human being. Varma plays the character with a smartness that is typical to Mumbai. Just listen to him when he says, “chal chhote, idhar se kamti hote hai” before fleeing a crime scene.
Vijay Varma has been a great value-addition actor in films like Pink, while also shouldering the weight of films like Chittagong and Monsoon Shootout. With Gully Boy, here’s hoping that this fine actor breaks through into mainstream consciousness. The Moeens of the world will always be around, the least we can do is do justice to the talent of the actor who brought him to life.