Gully Boy and the Bollywoodisation of “Azaadi”

Social Commentary

Gully Boy and the Bollywoodisation of “Azaadi”

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

In India, the word “azaadi” has the weight of the universe tied around its neck. Azaadi, of course, means freedom, but the manifold political heft that latches onto it makes it a word that has been violently flattened and tortuously stretched, twisted, turned, and transformed into an ideological battlefield. Here, political figures from across the spectrum come together to partake in a distortion of its meaning; a collective bastardisation in whatever way they feel fit. But all of them, without exception, will sell it to the masses as the coming of an anti-establishment revolution. They all just politely disagree on who exactly the “establishment” is.

The word revealed itself to the mainstream public consciousness (anybody in Kashmir would have the words ringing in their ears from the moment they were born) a few years ago when Kanhaiya Kumar – in what is now a seminal speech in the history of this BJP regime – listed out an array of things from which he wanted azaadi: Manuvaad, Brahmanwaad, Punjiraaj, Sanghwaad, to name a few. It hit peak popularity when Delhi-based producer Dub Sharma constructed an entire track around the azaadi chant and sent all those in colleges at the time into a serious tizzy.

The resistance was here and, for once, the resistance was backed by an urbane, hip soundtrack that even the lost jocks who weren’t sure of their timetables could sing along to.

That was 2016.

It’s 2019. I’m in my room staring wide-eyed at my laptop screen. There’s a bit of a nip in the air, but what’s making me shiver is a video of the very same “Azaadi” song, tweeted from the Congress handle, now bolstered by a rap verse sung by India’s biggest hip-hop sensation Divine, with Kanhaiya’s clarion call for azaadi replaced by Modi’s speeches, and “witty” Rahul Gandhi retorts. It’s funny because it’s outright terrible — music’s bold answer to cinema’s Gunda — an error so clownish I begin to wonder what the boardroom meeting that approved this looked like.

As the saying goes, and I paraphrase, music remixes itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

But it becomes difficult to laugh when you realise this is not the first or second, but third take on the original “Azaadi” song. As the saying goes, and I paraphrase, music remixes itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. After that, it becomes morbidly depressing.

That the song went from becoming a college hit to a nationwide obsession is courtesy the upcoming release of Gully Boy, India’s first hip-hop film as they claim, one that promises to explore the difficult circumstances the new crop of rappers come from, and reveal to us a story of class and breaking class boundaries. Or at least this is what one understands from the unending barrage of marketing material the makers assault our senses with every single day.


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Simply put, the original “Azaadi” song has been damaged beyond repair. Dub Sharma’s own upload has been taken off YouTube and replaced by the sanitised Gully Boy one, where Kumar’s earnest appeals for freedom have been replaced by an unnamed protester asking azaadi from “bhedbhaav” and “pakshwaad”. For a film that has stars who claim an apolitical stance in their tone-deaf interviews, the song strangely sounds exactly like the empty rhetoric so many politicians employ to gain the favour of the sheeple.

“Azaadi” hit the doorstep of Bollywood, the ultimate alternative to the Midas Touch where everything it comes into contact with turns to absolute trash, and unsurprisingly the same happened to Dub Sharma’s track. What was once a chant calling for an ideological and foundational change, the demolition of casteist, patriarchal, and capitalist structures, has been replaced by a weak call to “end our differences” — something our school principals screamed at us every morning without having the need for a bass to drop anywhere.

Here’s the part where I make dangerous assumptions: Gully Boy is going to be a film about a boy from a low-income family who breaks past the snobbish upper-class to become a rapper who the upper class finally accepts. This is, at least, what the Bollywoodised “Azaadi” grants us — freedom from, one assumes, class and caste differences.

It does not wish to make peace with the structure, it wants the structure to collapse.

Contrast that with Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech that doesn’t ask for a freedom from difference. It asks for the end of those very ideas themselves – the end of Brahmanism, the end of capitalism, the end of the Sangh. It does not wish to make peace with the structure, it wants the structure to collapse.

Gully Boy’s song seems to exist in a universe that accepts poverty and a hierarchy as inevitable things of the natural order of the Earth, a universe where the most radical act is for the upper-classes to be nice to the help at home. This wouldn’t be vicious (even if bland) if it weren’t for the use of the song that makes it seem like an attack on the things it originally stood for. The song could have been ignored, or even just the beat used without having the Kanhaiya-replacement chant at the intro. Now it seems like a correction, like an ugly whitener pasted across the original chant, and replaced by this collection of letters and exclamation points that ultimately mean nothing.

And this “nothing” lends it to be repoliticised by the likes of BJP and Congress, who both have their own versions of the song. It’s very telling that neither changes the words of the verses attached to the Gully Boy rendition, but both are capable of using it to attack the other. It has a double-edged meaning: Both parties are essentially the same, just different symbols to vote for; and that Gully Boy has succeeded in releasing a song of rhetoric so blank, anybody can pick it up and use it to further their agenda.

Much like Mozart’s Twelve Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman”, a melody used for most of our favourite children’s songs, Gully Boy’s “Azaadi” is now a blank template, a prop for any ideology to pick up and present themselves as 21st century revolutionaries. The Congress and BJP have already used it. Ab kiska time aayega?