“Kalakaar main, kal ko aakaar doon…
Yehi hai mera dharm.. Meri doosri koi jaat na…”
Nothing else can possibly better describe Zoya Akhtar and her relentless passion for narrating the most heartfelt and moving tales of life. And that she does that through wholesome entertainment without compromising one bit on art, is what elevates the experience of her films. She sucks you in to the worlds she creates however alien they are to you, and makes you a part of them – whether they are the elitist cruise lines or the dingiest ghettos of Dharavi. With Gully Boy, she only raises the bar of her craft even higher to possibly create her most complete and near perfect film. It has an unadulterated beating heart at its core, daring to dream and rousing with rage, that wants to break away from all societal norms and harsh realities of life which often limits one’s desires (murad) to attain their potential.
Gully Boy achieves its completeness because it is not just about chasing the dreams and desires of its central character Murad. It is a story of many dreamers and none of them are ready to accept what life hands them down. They are all rebels in their own ways, some reluctant, some confident, some privileged and some lost. The rebellion finds its language in raging poetry for some of them, in uncontrollable fits of anger for others, and in challenging the status quo of the city in the darkness of nights for some more. These rebels choose not to keep walking on that Ek hi raasta, sir jhukaaye huye, band aankhein kiye and have it in them to dare, to challenge and to break free. They are not ready for an obsessive father or the rest of the world to decide what their worth is, they are not ready to be caged in mundane nine to six jobs and hence go on to grab that one opportunity that life gives them with both hands, they are not ready to be tamed down by the patriarchal conservative clutches of religion, class, gender or age. And they are ready to soil it out to get there and emerge winners, whatever it takes!
Co-writers Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti set out to tell the original story of Gully ‘Murad’ Boy and MC ‘Shrikant’ Sher, while drawing some basic inspirations from rappers Divine and Neazy (who shaped up the brewing hip-hop scene of Mumbai) and rightfully pay that tribute upfront even before the story starts. But they are also interested in telling many other stories of hope and dreams that exist along side. So we meet the firebrand Safeena (amongst the most interesting characters written in the film), who is no lesser a hero than the Gully Boys. She rages her own war with her conservative and patriarchal roots and is clear about her ambitions in life – to become a surgeon and marry Murad, only in that order. Her anger is the outlet of her oppression. Murad is the only one with whom she can breathe freely, breaking away from the shackles of a hijaab, their moments of tenderness finding wings in empty compartments of static trains or over bridges of hope built over neighborhood sludge that surrounds them. She knows that they have the understanding and she has the ability to be the spine of their relationship while Murad chases his dreams. So an exchanged iPad never becomes a big ego issue, but Safeena is trapped in circumstances where wearing lipstick and makeup seems like a distant dream. Credit to the storytellers then that when she finally finds the closure of her little desires on her way to be part of Murad’s journey, part of us feels liberated along with her. Safeena’s and Murad’s is one of the best written love stories we have seen on screen in the recent times, with their passion, understanding and possessiveness for each other oozing fire and ice at the same time. And yes, we did not miss the subtle reference to Dil Dhadakne Do and ‘kya baat karni hain tumko‘ in one of their very earnest confrontational scenes of ‘break-off‘. Alia Bhatt approaches the bad-ass Safeena head-on like a true gundi, it is one of the most refreshingly different roles of her career, and she delivers it with such abandon and aplomb! Sheer talent, this woman!
But Safeena is not the only woman in Murad’s life. There is Sky, who literally and figuratively gives Murad the courage to fly unbound. Sky is aspirational and hence is intentionally underwritten to maintain the aura around her, and Kalki Koechlin plays her with a natural effervescence that only Kalki can. At some level, Sky is the impersonation of Zoya herself and her world. So naturally Brown and Beautiful is her mantra for rebuttal, she does not hold back on her simmering passion, and yet she knows where to let Murad go back to his love. Her love for art gives her the power to appreciate talent beyond class. She is as magnanimous as her living spaces, and her world is as disparate from Murad as possible. It is also befitting then that she wants to ‘program’ and ‘choreograph’ her way into the alien world of meri gully me on one hand, while in a striking contrast, Murad is seen gauging the expanse of her washroom through the measure of his footsteps. It’s the power of Zoya Akhtar’s perceptive storytelling that masterfully weaves in such subtle details and symbolism seamlessly into her narrative.
The other tender and affectionate presence in Murad’s life is his mother Razia. She is a tortured soul who has forever lived in fear of facing the wrath of a brutal husband Aftab, who has thrown her out of her own bedroom when he decides to remarry and get a new wife in an already cramped dungeon. Razia protests when she can, submits to the situation when she cannot any further, and walks out when she has to. She wants stability for her son in a mundane secured job, and also finds her happiness in his twinkling eyes seeking fame. Her’s is a journey of breaking free in her own restricted way, to her a new home with a window and space to breathe is a huge win, and Amruta Subhash plays Razia with the perfect raw intensity. Supplementing her brilliantly is the ever reliable Vijay Raaz as the nauseating Aftab, who is naturally insecured of his own son and wants him to wear a shirt because there is a younger bride in the house now, but is too egoistic to hear the same from his wife. His boxed up life has impacted his thinking and awareness. Again in another way, the father and the husband in Aftab is very similar to a certain Kamal Mehra sailing on a certain cruise ship while their worlds may appear as dissimilar. They are both self obsessed with themselves, they both want their sons to fit in, and they both least understand their partners. Thankfully, the redemption arc of Aftab feels a tad more organic than Mehra here, though honestly that is possibly the only closure that though not out-of-place, feels somewhat formulaic to fall conveniently into that place.
On the other hand of the spectrum is Murad’s family of friends, in a world that understands Murad more than anyone else. There is Moeen, played by the absolutely terrific Vijay Varma (I think he is my most favorite actor for the beyond amazing supporting ensemble of the film), whose moral spine isn’t as upright as that of Murad, but he stands by Murad through thick and thin. Moeen is a reflection of what Murad could have easily become in his circumstances. There is Nakul Sahadev playing Salman, who thinks Safeena is tod phod, but his friendly loyalty guides him when life offers him some irresistible opportunities. These are friends who can steal for the other, break down to each other without inhibition in their weakest moments, and will do everything to protect the other even if they are down and out or behind bars. And then there is Siddhant Chaturvedi in a sensational debut playing MC Sher, who becomes Murad’s mentor, partner and one amazing friend. Tera gaana tu nahi gaa sakta to main kya gaun? – he says, instigating the hidden performer in an intense poet for the very first time. He channels the tentativeness of Murad into focus, determination and attitude. He is the pro in that world of hip-hop and hence its but natural that he will dominate the screen space between him and Murad – kudos to Siddhant’s hold over his craft, his confidence and his silky smooth understanding with Ranveer about who underplays which scene and by how much. And kudos to Zoya again for ensuring that this track does not fall into the traps of cliched buddy rivalry when the professional prospects of one of them suffers a situational setback in the story.
And amidst all of them, there is Ranveer Singh who is b-e-y-o-n-d a-m-a-z-i-n-g as Murad! This is the most definitive performance of Ranveer’s career to date and he becomes Murad and Murad becomes him in every frame, every glance and every breath. Murad is the most ordinary of people, who has lived all his life remaining under the shades of a chaotic family, more assertive friends and a far more aggressive long term girl friend. His presence is so inconsequential to him and to the world that he is not even in focus when he is first introduced to us. He is stumped by MC Sher when he is first introduced to the later’s confidence in a college event, and the awe shows in his eyes. In fact, Ranveer speaks a thousand words through Murad’s eyes with a simmering unspoken intensity. We have never ever seen this Ranveer on screen before, his Murad is diametrically opposite to the ultra-flamboyant Ranveer that we know off-screen, and it possibly takes a master craftsman like Zoya to reign in all his exuberance and channelize it to internalized emotions of volcanic might. Emotions that are trapped inside a poet, a rebel, a broken soul, who wants to break free to say ‘Uth ja apni raakh se.. Tu udd ja ab talaash mein…’ and has the shabdo ka jwala to melt the shackles that have trapped him inside a car, while the shiny world of his dreams engulfs him from all sides. His helplessness to reach out to and comfort a broken soul sitting in a car backseat also finds its expressions in his self aware poetry – Main yeh bahte aansu pochhoon.. Utni meri aukaat nahi hai… he thinks. But he certainly knows what his aukat is, and gives it back to his father when challenged about it. He also knows very clearly that the love and warmth that he gets for his songs and his dreams finding their feet is far more precious than any security that a confined job will give him. And through Murad, Zoya throws the challenge back to millions of dreamers to find ways to get to their own 4 lakh views or anything equivalent that will give them the sense of their personal uncompromising happiness! Heart-wrenching inspirational stuff this!
Kudos to the entire technical team of Zoya Akhtar as well to make Gully Boy such an exceptional experience. The music is the beating heart of the film and is so intense and pure in its intent and form that it even sucks in someone completely uninitiated to rap deeply inside its world. Not one song seems out of place, and when the entire theatre raps on to Apna time aayega in exuberant chorus and cheering, you know that the soundtrack has captured the fancy of the nation. This soundtrack is apparently a collaboration of 54 artists coming together and they all deserve a huge round of applause. Supporting them are the equally sharp dialogues by Vijay Maurya that spice up the entire film with a lot of passion and chutzpah that all the characters evoke. Maurya, Kagti and Akhtar are a team that tell an extremely engaging story together, so much so that there isn’t any jerk in the narrative at any place, and not one thing feels additional. Job well done by them and editor Nitin Baid for such a seamlessly immersive experience through and through even at 156 minutes of the film’s run-time. And then there is Jay Oza‘s spectacular cinematography along with the intricate yet subtle production design that pays a deeply authentic and yet intensely charming ode to the cramped spaces, dingy gullys and bubbling ghettos of Mumbai, a portrait of a city through which Zoya definitely pays her own tribute to Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay, the film that deeply inspired her very early on!
It only takes a magician like Zoya Akhtar to actually tap into such powerhouses of talented performers and technicians and ensure that they are all completely in sync together for her symphony to reach a crescendo called Gully Boy. This is a symphony of rousing rage and dazzling desires, of simmering passion and unbound creativity, of vulnerable souls and chaotic minds, and of a common relentless focus to dream, to fly and to live.
With Gully Boy, she has now told her most heartfelt and relatable story ever – a story that is yours, mine and of everyone around, an experience that leaves you teary eyed and speechless at the same time. Its a winner all the way! Zoya Akhtar – Take a bow!
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