I am a firm believer that all great stories stem from an unpleasant episode. That is why during my lesson opener in a writing class, I tell kids never to sweep that sad memory – a failure, a chiding, an embarrassment, an accusation, a ridicule – under the carpet. Because “you can recall it, feel it consume you and give yourself that redemption arc you didn’t think of at that moment”. Gully Boy must have originated from a world of hurt and anger, and of an ineptitude against the social injustice of the protagonists’ world, and it brims with electrifying energy.
22-year-old Murad (Ranveer Singh) hails from a ghetto in Mumbai. The young man is a wannabe rapper, and this is the story of his journey from realising his love for rap, to chasing his dream, and to inadvertently transcending his class. Hip-hop in India is a recent phenomenon and like anywhere else in the world, is rising from the streets. It is the only true political space in music right now and it’s coming from people that have nothing to lose, the colonised poor.
Zoya Akhtar’s (Dil Dhadakne Do & Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara) storytelling has gusto and Ranveer Singh anchors it superbly well. Singh’s Murad wears a permanent listless scowl, is quietly diffident and a wordsmith, but he still has to work on his tempo. The movie rests ably on his shoulders and he raps it to the finishing line with finesse. His arc is very satisfying and I nearly punched the air in victory for his emergence. Perhaps the best accolade I can give Singh’s acting is that I walked out of the cinema fully believing he is a rapper and he does it for a living.
On the other hand, Alia Bhatt who plays the love interest Safeena felt criminally under-used, but with all the scenes she is in she plays Safeena memorably. Her Safeena has spunk and she is the living embodiment of a feisty spirit. She can turn violent with jealousy but never makes the scene become trite. Heck! Any man should be proud of his woman who can fight tooth and nail for what belongs to her, and not sit there taking one for woman-kind. Watch out for Murad and Safeena’s “meet-cute” and you will understand why I put quotation marks around that when you see it.
Siddhant Chaturvedi who plays MC Sher deserves a huge mention too. I sincerely thought he is the real deal, an actual rapper from the streets added to the cast to bring authenticity to the story. A check on sources told me he is an actor. Wow!
Where the movie is strongest is with the music and rap battles, and Akhtar nails the scenes with aplomb. The scenes seethed with righteous anger and the music is infectious. Watch out for a MTV-styled vid shot in the slums that is toe-tappingly awesome.
The portrayal of the slums of Mumbai and all the injustice it brings is spot-on. I have seen these slums shot in numerous cinematographic styles, but I still get a shiver down my spine when a filmmaker can bring something different to the plate, and I got the shivers here. The slums might as well have been the prison of the poor, but occasionally we get a Phoenix rising that gives hope to everyone.
All said, Gully Boy played it too safe and it ran into cliché territory. Murad fails at his first attempt at the hurdle, he learns from a master and starts to experience success. He is constantly unhappy, not sure of what he truly wants but he knows it isn’t this crappy life. He may be not so good with love but has better luck with pals, and it all ends with him rising from the ashes of the slums. Tell me you have never seen that before. At 153 minutes, it could easily shaved off 30 minutes of the umpteenth detailing of society’s unfairness to make the story more compact.
But that said, Gully Boy has absolute conviction that keeps it from being too formulaic and it delivers as a superb entertainer that had this reviewer moving like a hip-hop rapper out of the cinema, I kid you not.
Rating: 3.5 / 5
PS – I punched this review out while Kanye West’s The College Dropout was blasting. The right music has to go with the writing process, yo!
Written by Daniel Chiam