What distinguishes Gullyboy, from other Bollywood underdog journeys in the zeitgeist, is the way it taps into a growing global hip-hop culture to break through class barriers. The film redefines traditional rich versus poor themes by using rap as a vehicle to elaborate on societal and class structures.
The film follows Murad, a boy tormented by his abusive father, and trapped by his economic status in his journey of self exploration through Dharavi’s rap battles, Safeena’s love, and above all his dream of Azadi – freedom. He finds power in this escape, pouring onto the page withheld resentment against institutional and social discrimination, ire at his father’s audacity to take another wife, and commiseration with his mother’s pain. Spurned, forgotten, and indignant, Murad’s rap is shaped by his experience growing up in the Dharavi slums. The soundtrack, masterfully written by Divine, Naezy, Dub Sharma, and Spitfire encapsulates the isolation of Mumbai’s ghettos from affluent neighborhoods, and exposes a deeper cultural inconsistency of rap as a mode of expression for the poor, and entertainment for the rich. The authenticity of this film to the Mumbai gully rap scene is only enhanced by the influence of these aforementioned artists, on whose lives the film is loosely based.
Gullyboy is reflective of a new movement in Bollywood that distances itself from stereotypical family dramas. As millennials world-wide come to value social justice over feel-good fluff, the Indian movie industry has taken on a social responsibility in illuminating economic, social and political issues that have historically plagued Indian society. From the honor killings of Dhadak, to the story of Shravan in Mukkabaaz, Gullyboy is one of a new crop of Hindi films that distinguish themselves from the mold of stereotypical Bollywood rom-coms. Requiring a higher level of skill than lip-synching to Udit Narayan songs, the production of activist movies has pushed the Hindi film industry to nurture a unique set of extremely talented actors.
Starring Ranveer Singh as a disillusioned Murad, whose silent remonstration of authority and ambitious dreams are both endearing and inspiring, Gullyboy poses a challenge as Singh’s first significant venture into a blue-collar role. Murad’s character is drastically different from the actor’s own bubbly personality, requiring Singh to assume a quieter countenance, which he does incredibly well, capturing inner conflicts with silent expressions. His delivery of the rap in this film intertwines raw emotion and conviction, affirming his reputation as a versatile performer. His teasing and comfortable rapport with Alia Bhatt as Safeena, establishes the backstory of friendship turned into love, and conjures an image of Dharavi college kids outside the screen, in evocative Zoya Akhtar fashion. Bhatt’s portrayal of Safeena matches the acting abilities of her co-star, building a strong female presence throughout the film. Given that this film plays heavily with counterculture elements, the spunky and confident character of Safeena is consistent but still refreshing. Bhatt’s distinctive and speedy style of speech is laudable in this character, as are the unabashed and witty retorts, delivered with a dimpled smirk that only she can pull off. But by far the most compelling performance in this film is seen from Siddhant Chaturvedi, as MC Sher, the encouraging mentor of the hero, Murad. Chaturvedi’s comfort in assaying this role can be understood given his accomplishment as a Bombay Times national talent winner, and his background in theater, indicative of a bright future ahead. Chaturvedi surpasses the written role of MC Sher, and embodies the characteristic swagger of rap stars. His scenes with Singh are natural, spontaneous, and empowering and remind the audience that his character is the reason for Murad’s journey. Chaturvedi shines in a role that in a weaker portrayal would have paled in comparison to Singh’s strong performance.
In a two and a half hour rags to riches story, Akhtar combines talented actors with tight direction, and a powerful playlist, all of which contribute to the undeniable success of the tale of two cities — one of a Mumbai that is modern and metropolitan, and another that struggles to make its voice heard. Gullyboy, a love-letter to the latter city is a must watch masterpiece.
Sumedha Vemulakonda is a high school student and Bollywood enthusiast. Although initially reluctant about rap music, this film has definitely expanded her music taste.