Zoya Akhtar is one of the most assured voices in contemporary Hindi cinema, and she really knows how to deliver these ‘truth moments’. When Hrithik Roshan resurfaces from his deep-sea dive in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, we fully understand how insignificant/vulnerable he feels after he breaks down. Similarly, in Dil Dhadakne Do, we feel Anil Kapoor’s pure, parental rage when he sees someone mistreat his daughter in front of his eyes. Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy is peppered with 4-5 such moments during its running time of two-and-a-half hours, however, it isn’t quite ‘unplugged’ like Akhtar’s other films. From one plot-point to another, it seems like the writers (Akhtar and Reema Kagti) built the narrative using leftover LEGO blocks.
Akhtar knows a thing or two about weaving her father’s poems into the film. Hence, we get a beautiful scene where Ranveer Singh’s Murad (meaning ‘desire’), the newly-appointed driver in place of his father (played by Vijay Raaz), picks up an upset member of the family that employs them. In spite of how much he wants to, Murad cannot bring himself to console the passenger in the backseat. Akhtar serves up a striking visual of the social divide between the two, in spite of being seated barely a metre apart. Which is also a perfect metaphor for the cohabitation of the slums alongside high-rises in Mumbai. In another scene, Akhtar silently observes the perpetually-tired faces inside a Mumbai local with a poem playing in the background, a stolen moment from a Ritesh Batra film.
Inspired by Mumbai’s street-rap pioneers, Naezy & Divine, Gully Boy follows the journey of a young boy from Dharavi,who follows his passion of becoming a rap artist. About a boy channeling his inner rage into music that thrives on truth, Gully Boy‘s isn’t an entirely original premise. However, considering its local setting, the film is also oozing with possibility. Akhtar uses all this to make probably the most heavy-handed film of her career. Just watch out for that scene where the characters come up with Murad’s stage name (also the film’s title). The film comes off sounding patronising in the way it chooses to depict all ‘rich’ rappers as evil brats, while the slum kids are the go-getters. It isn’t unfair to expect nuance from Zoya Akhtar, is it? Some fine characters are reduced to plot devices, who merely exist to enable the journey of the protagonist.
Debutante Siddhant Chaturvedi (of Inside Edge fame) burns the screen as MC Sher, a mentor who carefully nurtures the ‘lava’ inside Murad. Chaturvedi is a revelation in a rap battle scene when he’s on the verge of tears, after his opponent riffs on his father’s alcoholic tendency. However, there is a sense of a missed opportunity with this character, who is devoid of any complexity apart from the odd detail about his parents. Similarly with Kalki Koechlin’s Sky, who collaborates with Murad on a track, is reduced to being a ‘distraction’ that helps Murad realise his love for long-time girlfriend Safeena (Alia Bhatt).
Gully Boy is spoiled with riches in the remainder of its supporting cast. Vijay Raaz is terrific as Murad’s hard-nosed father, who spits venom through the film only to redeem himself in a scene towards the end. Playing Murad’s mother, Amruta Subhash is a towering presence in every scene she’s a part of. Even when all she needs to do is stand in a corner of a room and look disapprovingly at her husband’s new wife. Vijay Maurya (also responsible for the film’s dialogues) is delicious as the pessimistic relative of the family, who often lends a helping hand to Murad and his mother, not before putting them in their place.
Which brings us to the highlight of the film – Vijay Varma as Moeen. Murad’s hustler friend, who moonlights as a carjacker and a drug peddler, is the most layered character in the film. He gets the best scene in the movie, where he comes up with an impromptu ‘rap’ from behind bars.
One of Gully Boy‘s most glaring failures is in the way it doesn’t quite do justice to the film’s live performances, except a preliminary rap battle. So stark is the difference between the sync-sound bits and the recorded bits, that it takes away any illusion of a live performance. While Ranveer Singh aces the lip-sync battle, the real-life rappers like Dub Sharma, Kaam Bhaari come off (ironically) looking amateurish. Most of the film’s magnum-opus soundtrack is reduced to background noise as characters speak over them.
Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt are fantastic actors when they’re fully committed. But there are frustrating bits where the commitment wobbles and the actors’ pronounced real-life mannerisms shatter the ‘characters’. It’s a shame, because Murad and Safia’s pure love story is beautifully written and the two actors perform it really well. And yet, the odd moment comes up and you ‘see them acting’ and destroys all the make-believe.
This was Bollywood’s one chance to make a definitive film on Mumbai’s street-rap culture, and they haven’t made the best possible use of this opportunity. Gully Boy has some of Luck By Chance‘s wit and the spectacle of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (credit: cinematographer Jay Oza) and a strong supporting cast. Sadly, it also has chunks of Dil Dhadakne Do‘s insipid final 20 minutes.