FOREWORD WARNING: This isn’t a review...maybe you can call it a...reflection. It may contain spoilers, biases, analogies, perspectives, personal experiences and many more elements that would taint the seasoned film critic. There was no deadline that usually dictates the narrative of a review. That’s about enough to let you decide whether you want to read further.
January 9, 2019. After a rousing teaser that helped us get familiar with and sink into the film’s environment, the trailer of Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy drops on YouTube. Towards the end of it, a particular shot caught my eye.
It’s a beautiful, beautiful shot. And it remains so, unless viewed and felt in the context of the film.
We see this shot about 20 minutes into the movie, when Murad(Ranveer Singh), a silent poet in the not-so-silent slums of Dharavi, has to substitute his injured father as a driver in a rich household. It’s New Year’s Eve, and after dropping the memsahib at a party, he waits alone in the seat of a luxurious car, looking out at privileged boys and girls living off their parents’ wealth without much of a care in the world. Most of us have been in his place; I know I definitely have.
As a product of the middle class I’ve looked at rich kids who just get what they want, and I remember going through different emotions at different points in time: sometimes I’d be jealous of those rich kids that borders on hatred; sometimes I’d be angry with my parents for not being able to afford my wants; sometimes I’d pity myself for being born in a middle-class household. But every once in a while, I’d feel a rare kind of emotion: hope. Hope, that tells me that someday, I’ll cross over to the other side and get what I want and do what I want to do, not because anyone would give it to me but as a result of my hard work to change my supposed destiny. But everyone works hard, right? Just ‘hard work’ cannot be the answer...and Murad knows it.
Murad is inside a luxurious car that isn’t his. The shiny lights that bounce off its surface do not reach him. Even if it’s right outside, he can’t grab it. Because in order to do that, he has to find something that most people in this world go all their lives without finding: a voice.
Suddenly, a glossy shot gets a deeper meaning. Will Murad break free from the deafening silence to find his voice and get to the other side? The shot is now the crux of the entire film.
Unlike our commercial Indian films, there aren’t real villains in life. At least, people aren’t the real villains...situations are. Situations and conflicts dictate the actions and intentions of people, and nobility or cruelty of a person is highly subjective, depending on whose perspective you’re looking at a situation or conflict from. As a result, the number of conflicts in your life becomes inversely proportional to your ability to find your voice. And Murad’s life is a series of conflicts that disguise themselves as people: a polygamous, disapproving father(Vijay Raaz as Shakir), a hapless mother(Amruta Subhash as Razia), a loving yet dangerously possessive girlfriend(Alia Bhatt as Safeena), a helpless criminal of a friend(Vijay Varma as Moeen) and an abundant inheritance of poverty.
In a country where necessity, safety and security are more important concerns than passion, Murad’s desire of finding a place in India’s nascent hip-hop scene seems like a distant dream with so much weighing him down. When he expresses to his best friend Moeen that he has ‘problems at home’, Moeen simply replies, “Who has it easy?”
He goes on to explain that rap music was born out of oppressed individuals at the deep end of poverty and finding a voice to express your life in rhythm and poetry and rise above is what will differentiate Murad from the rest of the people who ‘have problems’. But the film goes on further to make us realize that situations and conflicts do not differentiate between the rich and poor. Murad drives around a memsahib knowing that he is capable of much more, because ‘poverty’ is his situation.
The memsahib is on the other side, who in a scene is being coerced by her father into studying at Harvard against her wishes, because ‘privilege’ is her situation. And in this sense, everyone is trying to find their voice in the film: Murad wanting to follow his passion, the memsahib not wanting to go the obligatory Harvard route, Safeena wanting to just enjoy life like every other girl her age, Murad’s mother trying to find the courage to break free from her polygamous husband, MC Sher wanting to amplify his voice through his mentees who are subconsciously growing the underground movement...every character has an arc, a purpose, a desire; symbolised by the protagonist’s name: Murad, which roughly translates to wish/desire. But it doesn’t stop with just that.
It seems like the underdog story, the idea of ‘finding a voice’, going in search of fulfilling an incomplete desire is reflective of a seemingly unrelated real-life narrative: that of Zoya Akhtar’s career.
Since the beginning of her career, even after the incredible Luck by Chance which was grossly overlooked, Zoya has been touted as a product of nepotism and that she makes films for rich people using rich people as its characters. While a filmmaker needn’t pay heed to naysayers who dictate his/her choice of characters as long as the film works, Gully Boy seems like a result of a necessary angst against a society that’s going to judge you for whatever you do, no matter how well you do it. The subject, the setting, the characters, their surroundings, their conflicts and their depiction are an antithesis of her earlier films.
There are several instances in the film that involve Murad but might actually be talking about Zoya’s career:
- After choking in his first rap battle, Murad tells MC Sher that he doesn’t have these material things; he isn’t a rich kid like the rappers who insulted him earlier and therefore, can’t rap about those things, to which MC Sher says, “What do YOU like? What moves YOU? What’s YOUR story?”
- MC Sher loves Murad’s words and predicts that he’ll be a huge success. He explains that ‘rap’ is nothing but ‘rhythm and poetry’ and that Murad’s got his poetry right...all that remains is to fall into rhythm.
- Murad gets a job at his uncle’s establishment, and his uncle taunts him saying that usually a servant’s son will always remain a servant, but this is an opportunity that Murad must make use of and rise above his state of poverty.
- Towards the final moments in the film, Murad has a showdown with his father at their new house wherein his father tells Murad that as a product of this class, he can’t be...more. He reminds Murad about the above point featuring his uncle, and that it’s true and that he has to accept his fate and make the best of it. But Murad, in this new setting, with a newfound confidence and ‘voice’ says, “Will someone else tell me who I am and what I can be?"
Looking at the subtext in each point, we can understand that it’s actually Zoya questioning herself, and her finding the answers to those questions through the journey of the film that we get to witness.
Point 1 is about the assumption that ‘people like Zoya’ have no clue about the real world, real people and their problems, and that to understand a people and their problems, you have to be one among them. But in reality, all it takes is an urge to tell a story and a world you’ve come to love, and the empathy to tell that story with honesty.
Point 2 is a rather technical analogy: Murad’s poetry symbolizes Zoya’s film language, and the ‘rhythm’ in this equation is telling that story with uninhibited, unapologetic passion.
Point 3 is a clear dig at the nepotism angle. Murad is the son of a driver but that’s just his situation, not a destination or an end. The memsahib we spoke about earlier is probably the daughter of a rich industrialist and that’s her situation. Similarly, Zoya being the daughter of a celebrated writer and lyricist is her situation, and perhaps an opportunity. In their own ways, Murad, the memsahib and Zoya have to work against or beyond their legacies to find their voice and establish their own identities.
Point 4 is related to nepotism but pushes the envelope a little further towards the point of class discrimination. Society loves to box others based on their situations and surroundings, and funnily, this boxing and bracketing happens both for the poor and the rich. Everyone tells Murad that he cannot be anything beyond a driver or a sales executive to feed his family. Everyone tells Zoya that she can’t make movies that are not about rich people in exotic locations. And by the time Murad musters the confidence to counter-question his father, Zoya arrives to question the society too: “Who are YOU to tell me what I can make?”
But as much as we’d like to think that an underdog story is one individual’s journey, it is and isn’t. The main focus is on the protagonist and his/her series of conflicts and its resolution, and the person he/she becomes at the end of the journey. But how does he/she get there? I remember watching this ad from the initial seasons of Indian Idol and it serves as a perfect analogy to this simple truth that lies ahead.
It isn’t too difficult to understand that as an audience, we see one person’s victory and talk about his/her own hard work, but we happen to overlook the catalysts that contributed to that journey. Murad’s road to becoming a rapper is full of obstacles and diversions, symbolised by the people in his life: his father and his hypocrisy, her mother and her helplessness, Safeena’s support mixed with possessiveness, MC Sher’s mentorship, Moin’s belief in his talent and Sky’s financial support, her non-discriminative worldview as well as being the forbidden fruit that makes Murad falter in his footsteps and realize his mistakes. Hell, even the bouncer outside the club who gestures to Murad to move away is a contributor to his journey that sees him perform at the same club at the end of the film.
Similarly, while Zoya’s vision and conviction to create Gully Boy completely belongs to her, it takes a stupendous performance by Ranveer(watch this video to know why he’s so awesome at what he does), Alia Bhatt and every member of the supporting cast, authentic and provocative dialogues by Vijay Maurya, writing support from the extremely gifted Reema Kagti, stellar cinematography by Jay Oza and the contributions of each and every newbie and established rap artiste in creating not just the music, but the entire world of Gully Boy. And there’s one thing that Murad and Zoya share as a common contributor to their respective journeys: the city of Bombay that seems like a curse with all the noise but is actually a playground, a muse, a teacher and a gift that keeps on giving.
Films like Gully Boy go beyond being a product to consume at the theaters or streaming platforms, and it doesn’t matter whether they do 70+ cr in the opening weekend or go on to win an Oscar: they serve as little life lessons that change your worldview little by little, and help you reclaim control of your life that seems to be dictated by everything and everyone else except your own voice. Which is why to the shot I was talking about initially makes sense: yes, Murad is in someone else’s car and drives people around and seems limited by that situation. The lights that reflect on the surface of the car or even the uniform he wears doesn’t belong to him. But he’s the driver, and he’s the only one who has access to the Central Lock system.
And above everything else, he’s the one with the keys.
Written by Raunaq Mangottil