Gully Boy and Its Silent Mutinies

The film Gully Boy is a subtle introduction to the sociology of everyday life in cities of the global South. It rallies home the point that one of the easiest ways to work through the contentious spaces of urban social life in the neo-liberal Indian city is jugaad (the ability to juggle/ creatively tinker with the rules of the game).

Kohl-eyed, moderately gaunt-faced, but with a dash of swagger, Murad, the protagonist of Gully Boy, played by Ranveer Singh, enters into a packed stadium that vociferously roots for him. For some, it is the rise of the subaltern slum-dweller to the status of a star rapper, who rallies through the numerous rounds of auditions, and beats contestants coming from rich families. For others, this rapping in Hindi is seen as an act of coming of age; a symbolic moment of social mobility where old-school, African-American hip-hop has been Indianised. The film takes the viewer on a parallel journey of transformation both at a personal level through self-discovery, and at a societal level portraying the salience of small, yet significant changes in the lives of people who inhabit a lower-middle class Muslim neighbourhood in a Mumbai slum. Though the film is an inspirational, reel-life adaptation of the lives of contemporary rappers Divine and Naezy, it is an allegorical smirk at the small ways in which the teeming millions living in the underbelly of glitzy cities carve a niche for themselves. 

The film keeps the viewer bemused and hooked to its meandering narrative, just as the claustrophobic yet lively serpentine gullies (lanes) of Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slum clusters in Mumbai where the film is set. Be it the machinations of talented youngsters or the ways in which the urban as a social space, despite its overlapping strands of deprivation through caste, class and religion, empowers women with to create changes in their everyday life, the film does it all without being preachy. It does not have the cushion of a complex script with the dramatic promise of a large-scale urban social movement like the Rajnikanth-starrer Kaala. Nor does it promise the adrenaline rush of Slumdog Millionaire. It does not dramatise urban resilience by squirming over the grim and gory world of juvenile crime and vice, so graphically portrayed by Majid Majidi in Beyond the Clouds. It is not hyped with the jingoist fervour of binaries—abject poor versus ultra-rich or Hindu-majority versus Muslim-minority, or for that matter the nationalist versus anti-nationalist divide—that inundate our lives and times. It does not either promise us an unrealistic chimera of change nor does it create a lofty tale of vengeance. Instead, it makes a humble effort to teach us about the subtle ways of bridging the chasm in our collective right to the city.

The film works through a menacingly bland storyline. More often than not, Bollywood films produced in the post-1990s era of liberalisation, privatisation, and globalisation, routinely portrayed the plight of urban slum dwellers as one where the economic precariousness of informal urban labourer was further vitiated by ghetto-based ethnic polarisation. Gully Boy, on its part, does not dabble into any of this. It does not sensationalise the rise of the rapper in the informal, subaltern neighbourhood as an act of serendipity or quirky success. The film in the closing frames, very cautiously, ensures that the rise of Murad is not in the least mistaken to be a flash-in-pan or a one-off affair. Instead, it is portrayed as the beginning of a silent revolution; an act of piecemeal social engineering; the coming of age of a stymied mode of production that once worked through patron-based modes of recruitment. 

Murad’s life undergoes a sea change once he bumps into Sher (played by Siddhant Chaturvedi), a local hip-hop star at a college function. Sher introduces him to the world of rap battles and urges him to repose his faith in himself. We then see Murad encounter Sky (played by Kalki Koechlin), who professionally teams up with him and helps him market his craft. Interestingly, Murad also breaks the stereotype of a macho, misogynist rapper. He is ambitious, yet diffident. He is cheeky, but not lecherous. He is passively tolerates his father’s thrashings and vehement disapproval of his rapping, but hurls a blow at him when he tries to rough up his mother. 

Those of us who often fall into the trap of judging the book by the cover are certainly in for a surprise, as the film is just a monochromatic tale about a gritty business studies undergraduate student who hesitantly decides to tread the path of towards being a rapper. The stories of all the other presumably insignificant lives and characters, who both nurture and suffocate Murad’s dreams by uncannily aligning up theirs to his, are equally powerful. For instance, Murad’s love interest is the eccentric Safeena (played by Alia Bhatt), a surgeon-in-the-making, who helplessly bellows at the behest of her orthodox middle-class parents to whom she is forced to lie about her everyday life. Murad’s childhood friend, Moeen (played by Vijay Verma), convinces us about the significance of the link between drug peddling and hapless lives of orphans in the filth and squalor of the city. The movie succeeds in making the viewer not only understand, but also sympathise with the compulsions of Murad’s father (played by Vijay Raaz), who, having worked as a driver all his life, does not dare to even dream ahead of the curve. His working-class loyalties are so compellingly ingrained into his psyche that he puts all his money in turning his son into a graduate, but one who would ultimately dream of a naukri (job) without losing the candour of being a naukar (servant). However, as soon as we tend to dismiss the film as a tale about the bruised and battered, it springs in a surprise. It seamlessly introduces us to the angst and disgust among the rich as well. The desperation and boisterous urge, displayed by rich women to vent their frustration under cover, was tantalising. It was a revelation that the urge to reclaim the city does not resonate only with the impoverished and marginalised, but also exists among the rich and privileged. We witness the adventurism that Sky and her rich urban middle class friends with extravagant lifestyles zealously undertake in the dead of the night. Although Murad, as the disciplined and coy driver, is seen cheekily driving their swanky cars through the heart of city, we find him strike a chord of empathy with their revanchist graffiti on billboards of advertisements glorifying beauty products and fetishising white skin. One clearly senses the utter disgust that they harbour for failing standards of civic governance as they blacken the posters of non-performing politicians. 

However, as a mode of engagement with the malaise, or in other words, as the way out of the rot, the film does not offer much. The way it disappointingly caricatures the Azadi jingle—which had befittingly become an anthem of social protest in urban India—fritters away the potential that the jigsaw of the narrative builds up. It could, whether one likes it or not, be read as a tactful move by the film-maker. For we live and work in an age when public opinion among youth is divided; there are those who live off the promise of an environment of entrepreneurship or others who genuinely complain about the inequalities built into our structures of education and employment. 

The film, instead, craftily chooses to impress upon us that spaces of emancipation need to be explored within the interstices or the in-between spaces that “dual-city” (belonging to both the rags and the riches) provides. All characters in the film resist the temptation to be heroic or revolutionary and instead choose to stay grounded without losing sight of their cause. Just as Murad grittily channelises his diffidence and half-baked skills into rap—a concoction of satirical prose, unconventional poetry and spirited theatrics—the movie urges us to patiently find our way through the murky world of corruption and nepotism that has eaten up into the fabric of civic life. What Gully Boy ultimately underscores is that less is more. The film frustrates you but it never ever lets you go off the radar, it simply reassures you that apna time aayega (our time will come).


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