There’s a phrase that echoes through Gully Boy like a talisman. Bohot hard, fledgling rapper Murad (Ranveer Singh) is told again and again, as encouragement, as validation. It’s a compliment the film would badly want paid back to it. But it’s not that easy. ‘Bohot hard’ is the gulf between Murad coming up in confidence-annihilating open mics and Singh getting to rap not just because he’s good at it but because he’s a famous actor and people are happy to let him. It’s also the distance between the lives of Singh and director Zoya Akhtar and the sort of people whose lives they’re putting on the screen.
If Gully Boy earns its props by the time it’s done, this is testament to its immersion in, and respect for, the world it springs from. The first thing we see on screen is a shout-out to “the original gully boys, Naezy and Divine", the rappers whose stories formed the basis for Akhtar and Reema Kagti’s script. Other rappers turn up too, in small roles or as performers. A lot of the film is shot in Dharavi – where Murad lives with his father, mother, grandmother and brother – but the neighbourhood isn’t exoticized. Or rather, it is, but by a group of tourists on a “slum tour", a knowing bit of us-versus-them positioning by Akhtar, sold wonderfully by Singh (Murad looks more amused than angry at strangers entering their home).
Gully Boy lasts 153 minutes, and there will be those who’d prefer to cut short the gradual build-up. But there’s so much happening in each frame that I was happy to let the narrative move forward at its own pace, repeat itself a little. It's overstuffed in the best sense, with music and movement and slang, and half a dozen characters who could be at the centre of their own film. There’s Safeena (Alia Bhatt), Murad’s hot-tempered but devoted girlfriend, who’s studying to be a doctor. There’s Murad’s friend, Moeen (Vijay Varma), a mechanic, carjacker and drug dealer, with the same burning anger but nowhere useful to channel it. And there’s beatmaker Sky (Kalki Koechlin), who carries with her the promise of a richer, smoother world.
When we first meet Murad he’s studying in college and writing rhymes with no intention of actually performing them. Safeena’s the one bright spark in his otherwise difficult life: money is tight, and his father (Vijay Raaz) is dismissive of him, cruel to his mother (Amruta Subhash), and has just brought home a new wife. One day, Murad attends an open mic hosted by local rapper MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi) and offers him his rhymes. Sher pushes him to perform – which he does successfully. He fluffs a subsequent rap battle but the seeds are sown. Soon, he’s recording his first single.
This is where Gully Boy nearly lost me. First, there’s the contrivance that Murad, faced with the first proper recording of his life, seemingly spits it out in one go, no false starts or flubs. Then there’s the montage that accompanies the track, “Doori" – a music video of sorts, with people from Murad’s neighbourhood. It’s an object lesson in how not to shoot poverty, all immaculate framing and gliding camerawork and meaningful close-ups. Singh is shown rapping the last few lines in the studio, and I was left thinking how much better it would have been if we’d stayed with him.
Koechlin’s Sky comes across as a stand-in for Akhtar and Kagti, a curious, well-heeled artist who genuinely believes that talent overrides one’s circumstances. Murad knows better, but he’s also falling for Sky and the life that she represents. She takes him out on a graffiti run one night, tagging billboards with skinny models and fairness cream ads. Since Koechlin has herself modelled for various fashion brands and Singh has been rendered visibly darker for this role, it’s a little difficult to untangle the politics of the scene from the people in it. This is at best a glancingly political film. The Dub Sharma track “Jingostan" might have references to lynching, but it’s presented innocuously, without context. “Azadi" hints at demonetisation, but ducks the controversy it courted in changing the caste references in Kanhaiya Kumar’s original chant by leaving that bit out altogether.
Given the testosterone levels of Singh’s last two performances – a warrior king in Padmaavat, a cop in Simmba – it’s a relief to see how much he holds himself back in Gully Boy. Though he’s a bit too buffed-up to suggest an ordinary kid, his body language is toned all the way down. MC Sher is the alpha in his scenes with Murad – a huge compliment to Chaturvedi, but also to Singh’s willingness to pack his jack-in-the-box charisma into a more contemplative package. Similarly, Vijay Varma, though physically less imposing than Singh, is more intimidating in their confrontations.
For much of the film, Safeena doesn’t have much to do besides support Murad’s dreams and be jealous of any woman paying him attention. Even when her own ambitions are made clear, it’s not the best-defined part, but it has the funniest lines, and Bhatt renders Safeena both lovable and slightly demented. After she attacks a girl for sending Murad a Valentine’s Day message, they have an argument. Suddenly, she stops frowning and flashes Murad a beatific smile – a change of mood that’s scarier than her earlier ferocity. Singh and Bhatt make a lovely pair – I don’t know if any other combination of Hindi film actors could so casually pull off the scene in the train compartment where they kiss, then talk a bit, then kiss some more, like Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious.
More than the Eminem-starrer 8 Mile, which it shares a few plot points with, I felt the ghost of Saeed Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro hover over this film. The relationship between Murad and his father isn’t too different from that of Salim and his father, except in Mirza’s film it’s the son who’s hot-headed. There’s also a similarity in the way Mirza shot Bombay – all those wonderful framings of characters in everyday surroundings – and the way Akhtar and cinematographer Jay Oza go about their work here. There’s the memory of another Mirza film, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai, in the scene where Murad visits Moeen in jail. In another scene, the volatile Moeen reveals his own hurt. That’s another Mirza trait – an innate sympathy for all underdogs, deserving and undeserving.
In Sky’s house, Murad places one foot in front of the other and measures the length of the bathroom. We don’t see it, but he probably goes home and checks if any of the rooms in his place are that large. Before launching into his final song, he tells the audience about his journey. He murmurs softly into the mic, like someone at their first karaoke. Then the beat drops, and he’s a volcano. It’s a hard-won transformation – bohot hard – and it rings true.