Rap music entered the subcontinent’s musical firmament decades ago, but its essence has never been as well encapsulated as in the new Bollywood film, Gully Boy, that is in cinemas in Kathmandu this week.
Right at the outset, protagonist Murad (Ranveer Singh) points out what contemporary Indian rap sounds like: “What kind of song is this? Look, this is my car! Look, this is my girl! Look at all this gold I have!” Yes, those are the rap songs we usually see from the likes of singers like Yoyo Honey Singh in most Bollywood songs.
Gully Boy, however, takes us to the origins of rap, born from a need to express and to seek release from pain and suffering, from the need to stay honest and sane in a fake world, a need to seek your own centre in the constant glut of sensations that the world throws at you.
It starts with the eponymous Gully Boy Murad (meaning ‘wish’, cleverly named) who lives in a slum with his extended family, just as his father brings home a second wife who is closer in age to him than his father. Murad goes to college so that he does not have to become a chauffeur like his father. But disturbed by everything he sees around him, he writes poetry at night, and is touched one day when he sees a rapper perform the kind of songs he writes.
The rest of the movie is more or less predictable, but still a heartwarming tale of his eventual success as a rapper. What makes this movie watchable are the typically Indian characters, and very relatable across South Asia. The one who stands out is Shrikant aka Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi) who essays the role of Murad’s mentor with the confidence of a seasoned performer, and not the newcomer that he is.
Safeena played by Alia Bhatt is another instantly memorable character. Bhatt turns the role of a supportive girlfriend, a role that may have passed in the blink of an eye, into a fiery portrait of a millennial woman. She is studious, but also adventurous. She loves her parents, but does not hesitate to lie to them when she is going out with her boyfriend. She is smart, and keeps her own communication apps well hidden as she outs another girl who is flirting with her boyfriend. Murad and Safeena’s childhood sweethearts may seem too romanticised and unrealistic in other parts of the world. But not here in South Asia, where everyone is familiar with the game of cat and mouse with family, and sneaky ways to hang out.
Meanwhile, the movie also manages to portray what life in Mumbai’s slums actually look like. Murad lives in a cramped loft of a two-room shed, and counts among his friend people who steal cars and deal with drugs. Director Zoya Akhtar’s last movie, the glitzy Dil Dhadakne Do that lacked an engaging story, had fallen flat both commercially and critically, and she had almost been slotted into a rich-world storyteller. With Gully Boy, she proves her versatility and her ability to mine all kinds of social strata.
Ultimately, the movie succeeds in showing what rap means in India. For those who are alien to the genre and think rap is about ranting whatever comes to the mind (‘JPT’ in Nepali cyberlingo) Sher (meaning ‘couplet’, another clever name) gives a lecture about the centrality of poetry and rhythm in rap. Sher’s constant mentoring, and Murad’s incessant practicing, also break the myth that stars are born. Instead, it shows how much hard work it takes to be good at what you want to do. One of the most memorable scenes is when Murad is arguing with his father about his dreams, and breaks into rhythm naturally, as if he had internalised it with constant practice.
Such poetry fills every moment of our lives, and we only need to open our eye and ears to see and hear them. Gully Boy reminds us how each of us have stories to tell, and if we do not tell them, we may just explode. Ultimately, it is a celebration of the human need to spell out our feelings in the form of art, so that we can connect with each other.