‘Gully Boy’ review: a feel-good movie for the underdog in each of us

There is something incredibly nuanced about Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy. He is Murad Sheikh, trapped in a limited and limiting world. There is the physical space itself—a narrow lane leading in to a sprawling basti that ironically for him is like “andha kuan” (a slum cluster akin to a bottomless pit). There is his own hemmed-in persona—reconciled to the circumstances and restricted by a dysfunctional family and lack of choices. Singh does a powerful turn in conveying the persistent hurt and humiliation, the lack of confidence and the contained rebellion; all through his vacant and pained eyes, the restive body language and the words that well up from within, to become purveyors of his concealed angst and simmering rage. Singh’s is an internalised act, like a monologue or Murad’s soliloquy.

Shabdon ka jwala meri bediyan pighlayega (The flame of my words shall melt away my fetters and unchain me)” raps Murad and Gully Boy is born. The film charts out a perfect, often improbable and ideal arc of deliverance for its protagonist, found in songs. Singh lives out the transformation on screen, word by word, beat by beat, moving from discomfort to a confidence that rhythm brings to him, sporting a hoodie on stage with as much ease as a skullcap during namaaz.  

Even as there is Murad at the centre, there is the larger world around him, peopled by actors just as compelling as Singh himself. Alia Bhatt, likeable as always as the sweet, vulnerable yet plucky girlfriend Safeena, prone to being on a short fuse and taking up cudgels for what she feels strongly about. She will wear the hijab but wrestle with her parents for her right to wear lipstick. Siddhant Chaturvedi in a standout debut as Murad’s new-found friend MC Sher and Vijay Varma as the basti pal who can’t rise above his destiny yet tries to make the most of what he has. There’s Vijay Raaz as the father from hell who is fighting his own demons and Amruta Subhash as his wife berating him for not knowing how to touch her the right way.

Gully Boy
  • Director: Zoya Akhtar
  • Starring: Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Vijay Raaz, Amruta Subhash, Kalki Koechlin, Vijay Varma
  • Run time: 155.48 minutes
  • Storyline: Dharavi boy Murad Sheikh rises above his limited and limiting world to find deliverance in rap as MC Gully Boy

Whether it draws from 8 Mile or not, in the tradition of good mainstream Hindi cinema, Gully Boy portrays the Mumbai social milieu in a simple and straightforward manner, laying bare the disparities without getting into deeper complications. There are young friends in a slum who span across the spectrum—from a carjacker to a would-be manager. Young, subaltern Mumbai is united across communal and religious divides—there is not much of a difference between the lives of a Muslim and a Marathi, read Hindu, rapper. There are wide class chasms (Murad measuring the bathroom of musician Sky—Kalki Koechlin—with his footsteps, perhaps it’s bigger than his entire home) that appear to dissolve in a kiss only to get reiterated in other ways.

Then there are the powerful vignettes of the poor and the disempowered, almost like installations of inequities, within the song ‘Doori’. Gully Boy embraces the quotidian, often layering it with humour. There are little throwaway moments, like Mumbai romance on a BEST bus ride with songs shared through one pair of earphones. The “slum tourist” asking for a picture on hearing Murad talk rap even as he covers his face, seizing his dignity and self respect from a spectator, intent on turning him into a curio of sorts.

The overt statement making of the “brown and beautiful” kinds, the earnest cause-mongering, the protracted length and easy resolutions might throw a spanner in the works but Zoya Akhtar’s story-telling skills hold unmistakable sway with the on-the-move camera conveying the essential urgency and energy.

The film questions “remixes” and “fake rap”, posits rap as a way to deal with one’s discomfort with self, society and the world, giving us a ringside view of the rough battle of rappers, takes it from the margins to the mainstream and is a “shout-out to the original Gully Boys”, Bombay hip-hop artists – Naezy and Divine. But most of all, Gully Boy is a classic, empathetic underdog story with a crowd pleasing, feel-good finale about turning your imperfect reality into a long-cherished and impossible fantasy. Awaaz uthaneka (raise your voice), says its protagonist and we listen. After all, there is an underdog of some sort in each one of us.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2021 10:31:54 PM |

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