Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Watched: Gully Boy

After much hesitation owing to my tepid feelings towards rap music in general, I finally gave in and watched Gully Boy, on a Monday night no less. Am I glad? Yes: I had already anticipated heavy doses of rapping boys so I could focus on the movie on its own merits.
Of these, there are many. Notwithstanding the dull poster where the two leads are adjusting their earrings while pondering what to eat for lunch, the movie itself carries a certain rough charm largely owing to its unvarnished telling.

Thus we follow slum boy Murad- a mercifully restrained Ranveer Singh- as he gnashes his teeth through his anguished but not-miserable life. His great love, surgeon-to-be Safeena (Alia Bhatt, elfin as usual but more on her later) and his lifelong friends, his beloved mother make up his universe. (The dad is a hellion whose new much-younger wife is causing further pain to his first wife, Murad's mother.)
Murad's early exposure to the local rap scene in the cramped alleys of Dharavi marks the beginning of his transformation. With the help of an established local star named MC Sher and a young student-producer visiting from the US, Murad begins cutting his teeth, putting out a single set to his own lyrics. The only jarring note here was the established initiation rite of the young rappers, all male, vying to establish credibility by engaging in 'rap battles'- which to me seemed the polar opposite of what Murad wants to achieve. Still, perhaps this was one of the lessons that MC Sher so generously imparts.

Inevitably, the young producer- a free spirit who calls herself Sky- falls for the intense Murad and they fool around. Promptly, Safeena sniffs a rat. Safeena then makes her stance clear by breaking a bottle over Sky's head- and this is where Alia Bhatt takes great advantage of her cherry-blossom face in portraying the impetuous, imperious Safeena. When she uses subterfuge, cunning and plain old violence to get exactly what she wants, the contrast between looks and actions is stark and effective. The script thus goes to great lengths to give her a place of imperfect glory in the emerging story of Murad's journey.
Meanwhile, things progress nicely on the musical front. A contest comes up in which he participates to the detriment of his uncle-provided job. (We know he will win.)
But the kernel of the story for me was the way having the world- the internet- in the palm of your hand at all times is changing the youth of India. The seduction of YouTube-generated validation, the joy of being recognized for his music, the translation of his lonely tears into lyrics that he then performs in a stylized, Mumbai version of the American swagger- all this transforms the pain of the young man into something concrete. And perhaps that is what we are all hankering for still. Perhaps that is the lure of the American entertainment industry- not just the outward style, although that is a great part of it- but the central theme or idea of 'self' that the Yanks have perfected over three centuries. While in India, as an anti-individualistic society, we have stretched that ideal of 'belonging' to the group so much that the bubble is slowly beginning to burst.
Finally, during another heated (physical) exchange with his father, Murad puts it into words: "No one else will tell me what I am. I am...something."

All this makes me curious to see what kinds of stories will emerge from India in the coming years. As for Gully Boy, it was engaging and well-intentioned, if too heavy on the rap battles. Director Zoya Akhtar handled this one nicely, giving her leads ample backing with a superb supporting cast. (The whole car-thievery episode could have been cut out altogether to save time, but in the end the fast-forward button helped me avoid crankiness.)
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