An eye-opening rap on politics

Why the ‘Chaiwala’ and ‘Chowkidar’ myth-making cannot capture the political ferment on the margins

Politics today is not merely a ritual of decision-making but a dynamics of myth-making. Myths provide the rationale, the ecological perspectives, the tacit frameworks and the symbols within which politics is located. Today one of the great myths and icons of politics is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The media and the ideological apparatus are focussed on creating new myths around him, while in turn Mr. Modi is re-mythicising politics around proverbs, slogans and fragments of history.

The outsider

He has presented himself as the outsider, the man who stormed Lutyens’ Delhi. As an attempt to present himself to the common man as a fellow common man, he has created fictions of himself as “Chaiwala” and “Chowkidar”. These two everyday archetypes have worked efficiently for him, banalising his demagoguery and populism. These fictions create for him a groundswell of sympathy, a framework where the Prime Minister is immediately perceived “as one of us”.

The communication industry has tried to go one up by devoting TV channels to him, and Vivek Oberoi produced a film, a biopic, which is doggedly waiting for clearance. However there is a snag here. While politics and the politics of democracy create one set of myths, Bollywood is another great myth-maker. In fact, Bollywood has captured the myths, the contradictions of modernity in a spate of stellar films, from Deewaar, Sholay, Mother India to Seeta aur Geeta. Many of the basic tensions between law and family, integrity and loyalty, town and country, foreign and indigenous have been articulated by Bollywood. Bollywood is not only the first great creator of the modern Indian myth but also the finest tuning fork and testing ground for myth.

‘Gully Boy’ challenge

Given this, one is tempted to ask how Bollywood would respond to Mr. Modi’s myth-making in politics. Do the archetypes of chowkidar and chaiwala stand the test of Bollywood? Viewed through the lens of a popular film such as Gully Boy, the answer is a definite no. One has to confront why Gully Boy is one of the most creative and effortless answers to Mr. Modi’s understanding of poverty and the urban margins. It talks of freedom beyond the shakha-imposed panopticons of today, ready to dream even beyond state and market, yet sensitive to the neoliberal dream.

Gully Boy is a story of life, survival and creativity in a slum. It focusses on a set of Muslim families. Yet what is insightful is that while these people are rooted in community, the characters do not stereotype identity. When the hero is asked where he comes from, he replies it could be any of the seven Muslim slums around there. He is conscious of the slum and the limits of poverty. Yet he never gets bogged down in his minoritarian identity or his poverty. The slum in Gully Boy, unlike in Mr. Modi’s politics, is not over-sociologised. For all its roots in minoritarianism and poverty, the slum is a cosmopolitan creation, open to the world while rooted in the locality. In fact, if one watches closely, its language of politics is remote from Mr. Modi’s. He repeats the rhetoric of equality and communalism. However, the slum recognises inequality but articulates a language of dignity, of a sense of individuality without being individualistic. The slum is a society where you do not deny what you are, but refuse to be confined or restricted by it.

There is an un-sentimentality about life, which looks pain in the eye, but does not believe in the lottery of luck. The slum citizen wants an open-rule game. They are also on the lookout for perceptions beyond caste and class. When the hero asks his friend where he met his girlfriend, a foreigner, the man answers, “We found each other by looking into each other’s eyes. Outside they do it differently, here when we see, we only see caste and class.” The message of the slum is clear. Love and life need a freedom beyond the confines of status. Gully Boy recognises inequality but spends more time talking about the phenomenology of distance, between two people juxtaposed to each other, but continents apart in mindsets.

Different dialect

The most brilliant and intriguing part of Gully Boy is that it is a film that centres around rap, and the radicalism of rap. Rap is a poor man’s song and poetry, capturing a protean sense of the body and an inventive sense of language. The lyrics are built around everyday issues of inequality, poverty, race and the individual’s attempt to transcend them. The lyrics in the film become little classics of sociology, parables of the struggles of everyday life. Every performance becomes, in that sense, a choreography of sociology, especially of slum life. This is understandable as rap traces its origins to the housing projects of New York City.


Rap captures the sense of being, the new ontology of slum life. The traditional stereotypes, the conventional language of the first half an hour gets reworked through rap. The film faces up to the violence of patriarchy, the effete nature of fathers who bully their sons and wives but feel powerless against the outside world. The hero’s father beats him for dreaming about music. He adds that the slum is not a place for dreams and aspirations. One survives by keeping one’s face down and sticking to the ground. The older generation worn down by life becomes a wet blanket to the dreams of the new. But it is this sociology of differing generations that makes the slum as a sociological fragment fascinating. The older generations blend poverty and patriarchy to create the authoritarianism of the slum. Rap provides the language of protest and agency, adding to the new cosmopolitanism of the slum. It emphasises desire, not mere aspiration, freedom and not the civics of success, and is able to clothe it all in irony and humour. It is the new costume ball of sociology for a slum, capturing both the dreams and the rage within.

Rap as dream is a potent alternative to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, where dreams have to be collective and march in a shakha. Rap is a battle against Jingostan, seeking a cosmopolitanism of friendship and openness. Rap is a dream of freedom, a celebration of language, an invention which sees the slum as a drama of possibilities.

In indigenising rap as language and dialect of the slum, director Zoya Akhtar creates a new piece of political sociology which goes beyond current isms and their faded dreams of liberation. Singing rap is dreaming society afresh and in that sense the film is deeply liberating. In emphasising the power and creativity of art, it shows how great literature and the politics of freedom emerge from great suffering. All one has to do is to listen to the depth of the hunger in you. Without mentioning Mr. Modi or referring to any other ism, Gully Boy becomes a dream of alternative possibilities, of dreams beyond the dated aspiration of Chaiwala and Chowkidar. Instead of sticking to the sycophantic mindset of the two, it shows that the margins of India are exploding with creativity beyond the confines of the bureaucratic and the governmental. The city acquires a new poetics without being less grimy or less violent. There is a new creativity, a dream of freedom which goes beyond shakha, the Chaiwala and the Chowkidar, where the city is a form of freedom and the right to be free includes the right to dream beyond status and slum. Gully Boy is Bollywood’s fable that Mr. Modi has not got India right, that his India is not musical or free enough. In Gully Boy, dreams, language and body overleap the Modi world to dream a different India, differently.

Shiv Visvanathan is an academic associated with the Compost Heap, a group in pursuit of alternative ideas and imagination


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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 9:59:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/an-eye-opening-rap-on-politics/article27119995.ece

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