By Sonali Kokra Feb. 18, 2019
Gully Boy’s characters — not just Murad, but all the angry, hopeful, listless, fighting, restless people that crowd his world — refuse to be silenced or ignored. They don’t speak “our” language, but by God, they’ll have their say.
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.”
Who would have thought that the words of the great Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore would be brought to life so evocatively by Vijay Maurya in Gully Boy, directed by Zoya Akhtar and starring Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt in what are, quite possibly, career-best performances so far. Singh altogether disappears within the character of Murad Sheikh, a final-year college student struggling to graduate and land a sales job just so he and his family can rise above the fate that a “naukar ka beta” will always be a naukar. So much so that in the first scene, it took me several seconds to recognise that the hesitant, worried young man who has been snookered into participating in a car heist was Singh, a man whose career has been characterised by excess and a spirit that is all about intemperate grabbing and holding of attention. Bhatt, although well-versed in playing the spunky, outspoken, career-minded young girl, kicks it up a notch as Safeena, a doctor-in-the-making who picks her battles carefully and lies artfully to balance the weight of her conservative parents’ expectations. Akhtar directs the film with controlled intensity, oscillating between the unhurried, languorous style of filmmaking she is known and admired for, and the throbbing intensity demanded by a protagonist, who every so often, has had enough.
But as much as Gully Boy is the product of the combined geniuses of Akhtar, Singh and Bhatt, it truly belongs to its dialogue writer Vijay Maurya (who also plays Murad’s uncle, Ateeq). Because even as Gully Boy is the rags-to-riches story of a rapper who feeds the flames of success by using anger, dissatisfaction, and his depressing lot in life as fuel, it is also the story of “us” — the “us” who have appointed ourselves the gatekeepers of cool, who band together to drown out the harsh, unfamiliar sounds of the Murad Sheikhs of the world. It is the story of the “us” that decides who gets to speak, and how, and how much, and in what language; and anyone who dares break rank can simply resign themselves to a lifetime of being ignored. In The Faraway Nearby, a collection of essays by Rebecca Solnit, she writes, “The tragedy of the imprisoned, the unemployed, the disenfranchised, and the marginalised is to be silenced in this great ongoing conversation, this symphony that is another way to describe the world.”
It is the story of the “us” that decides who gets to speak, and how, and how much, and in what language.
But Gully Boy’s characters — not just Murad, but all the angry, hopeful, listless, fighting, restless people that crowd his world — refuse to be silenced or ignored. They don’t speak “our” language, but by God, they’ll have their say. Maurya equips them with dialogues that rob the policing of speech by the bully that resides in all of us, of its power and sting, sharply using our lofty ideas of language against us. The embarrassment you’re forced to feel, if you’re willing to confront and engage with it, is acute, and humbling.
The realisation that you too are the problem hiding within the comfort of anonymity provided by us, steals up on you at awkward moments. It cuts you open with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, not as the blow of a butcher. In one scene, a white man attempts to explain what rap is to Murad, who he assumes knows nothing, in a faintly condescending manner, only to be quickly shut up when Murad mouths the lyrics with a bored expression. In another, Murad’s boss asks him how educated he is, only to use his answer to warn his daughter how she cannot possibly want to suffer the ignominy of being at “his level”, while Murad drives on, wordlessly. The most brutal part of the interaction is that his boss wasn’t even trying to be hurtful or mean. Murad isn’t important enough to be given that much thought. Who among us isn’t guilty of saying something thoughtlessly cruel in a language we presume can’t be understood by “them”?
“Apna time ayega,” Murad tells himself, every time he is forced to swallow his words and hurt. It’s no surprise then that the next line in Murad’s anthem goes something like, “Yehi shabdon ka jwala meri bediyan pighlayega.” The movie does a fine job of integrating the vexing socio-cultural force of class inequality and discrimination that plague boys like Murad into the musical messages of the rappers they grow up to be. After all, rap and hip hop were musical genres that were shaped by black men who used music as a form of resistance and wrote lyrics that were scathing criticisms of racism, white supremacy, police brutality, mass incarcerations, and the war on drugs.
As brilliantly made and written as it is, Gully Boy is not without some glaringly obvious flaws. The dialogues pierce, but the story misses some crucial beats. Murad Sheikh’s life is exhausting and hard, but his musical journey is far too easy for someone who started with not even wanting to sing the songs he wrote. We never truly get to understand what drives Safeena to violence when anything threatens her relationship with Murad. Her dialogues and interactions drop hints that the screenplay never quite follows up on. Perhaps Akhtar wanted us to read between the lines or form our own conclusions, but the incomplete story arcs often feel jarring — as if they simply ran out of time and will — amid making slow, sweet love to Dharavi with a camera.
The dialogues pierce, but the story misses some crucial beats.
Not to mention how doggedly Gully Boy steers clear of messy topics like Islamophobia and communal violence that a character like Murad — Muslim and poor — has got to be affected by. When a movie that revolves around rap ignores some of the most pressing political concerns of the time it is set in, it loses some credibility, no matter how well it is otherwise made.
You might not walk out of Gully Boy with an accurate understanding of just how much rap has been a genre characterised by dissent; but if you allow it, you’ll walk out of it feeling smaller and wanting to do better. For me, that was more than enough.
Sonali Kokra is a journalist, writer, editor and media consultant from Mumbai. She writes on feminism, gender rights, sexuality, relationships, and lifestyle. In her 12-year-long career, she has written for national and international magazines, newspapers and websites. She was last seen as the lifestyle editor of NDTV, and HuffPost.com, and has published a coffee table book on Shah Rukh Khan.