India (2019) Dir. Zoya Akhtar
It shouldn’t matter where you come from, if you have a dream there is no reason why you shouldn’t try to make it happen. Sadly, instead of encouragement, parents in some cultures feel settling for the status quo should be their children’s fate just because it was theirs.
Murad Ahmed (Ranveer Singh), a meek 22 year-old student living in a ghetto in Dharavi, Mumbai, hangs out with his waster friends to get away from his abusive father Aftab (Vijay Raaz), who has recently brought a second, younger wife to their cramped home. Murad also has a secret girlfriend in the possessive, headstrong Safeena (Alia Bhatt), a medical student also needing to keep Murad secret from her family.
Keen on rap music, Murad is inspired when local rapper MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi) plays an open gig at his college and starts writing his own lyrics. Murad finds Sher at an underground open mic session to share his lyrics but Sher insists Murad perform them himself. It’s a shaky start but Murad gets the bug, and with Sher’s support sets out to be a rapper which goes well until his father finds out.
Not being a fan of rap – I prefer to listen to music – this wasn’t a film I ever envisioned myself watching but the reviews were positive and the trailer sold me as it being more an accessible drama than a film just for rap fans. Zoya Akhtar tells a familiar story in Gully Boy but the main selling point is in the Indian setting, which I am sure is a country many won’t immediately associate with rap though it clearly has its own scene.
Then there is the fact this is a Bollywood film – a branch of the film industry noted for its garish productions – tackling something as gritty and unrefined as rap. Alarm bells must be ringing about this but Akhtar, with a background in music videos and varied, atypical catalogue of gritty comedies and dramas is eminently qualified to embrace the challenge to eschew the norm to suit the subject.
Based loosely on the real life stories of Indian street rappers Naezy and Divine, Akhtar uses the age old obstacle of hidebound values of the older generation to impede the progress of the young protagonists. If modern Indian parents are still clinging to such pernicious tenets that is hard to parse, but I’d hope the reality is closer to those freer to choose their own direction in life.
One thing that also stands out is polygamy being legal in India. Aftab bringing his new bride into the same home he has made with Murad’s mother Razia (Amruta Subhash), Murad, his younger brother and his own mother would be unthinkable in the west, yet is taken with a pinch of salt here. But Aftab rules with an iron fist per the patriarchal mores of Indian society, and everyone, including Murad, cowers in subservience.
When Aftab is injured, he hands his chauffeur job driving around the spoiled daughter of a rich family to Murad, instructing him to keep his head down and know his place. The discrepancy in attitudes between what Murad knows and that of his affluent employers provides a source for lyrics which Murad turns into a rhyme about not selling yourself short because you came from lesser origins and go for it.
After meeting Sher, his words are turned into a track which is recorded then filmed and posted on YouTube. True to the age-old formula, it catches on and Murad is off the starting block. Slowly things happen locally, and under name Gully Boy, he is on course for bigger and better things. Unfortunately, Aftab’s wife is young enough to be up on the rap scene and shows her dyspeptic husband Murad’s video.
You can to see where this is all going, but Akhtar isn’t done yet as Safeena is also being oppressed by her strict parents. Safeena is hoping to become a surgeon but her parents’ reaction to finding out about Murad is to forbid her from studying and marry her off. If Akhtar feels the need to continue to perpetuate this side of Indian culture in 2019, then there must be some truth to it which is alarming in its own way.
Equally in need of dispelling is Aftab’s insistence people from the slums must accept their lowly status and not aspire beyond it, as it will never happen for them. This is the basis of Aftab’s objections to his son’s musical ambitions, and something he truly believes, yet a sad indictment of the effects of the caste system, that Akhtar explores beyond Murad’s family.
Despite the bludgeoning central message and conformity to convention, Akhtar spins a compelling yarn even non-rap fans can enjoy. Murad not being an abrasive character means he grows throughout the film, and is easy to support, just as Safeena needs a bit of levelling to her possessiveness to get the audience onside. The rest of the cast are standard tropes, but used properly and vital to the story.
The only issue is Murad is meant to be 22 yet Ranveer Singh is 35 and looks it; worse still Amruta Subhash playing his mother is only 6 years older than him. In the scene of Murad practising his hand gestures and other affectations in the mirror, he looks exactly what he is – someone trying to act cool and not pulling it off. But this is a minor strike against an otherwise decent turn, bolstered by a very capable support cast.
Gully Boy succeeds in relocating a well-worn story to a culture where the stakes are higher, bringing an air of freshness to it. Akhtar is also a smart director with a keen eye for visual narratives and knowing when to pitch the mood and tempo changes. However, like most Bollywood films it could have done with a slight trim off the 2 1/2 hour run time. Word, yo!
Currently available on Amazon Prime!