It’s always risky when you’re the first to wade into an uncharted genre. Commercial rap is now commonplace in Hindi cinema, but there haven’t been films about street-level hip hop. Somewhere in director Zoya Akhtar’s mind must have lurked the question: Will film viewers care about authentic hip hop in a country where party anthem specialist Badshah is the genre’s best-known artist? The rapturous reception to the Gully Boy trailer and soundtrack must have eased some nerves. We caught up with Akhtar before she headed to the Berlin Film Festival (on till 17 February) for the film’s premiere. Edited excerpts:

Did the film originate with a Naezy video you saw?

My then editor sAnand Subaya showed me Aafat! in 2014. I couldn’t believe it. I like rap a lot but I hadn’t listened to Indian hip hop ever. I thought, dude, this is legit. Anand said, it’s by this kid Naezy. So we started looking for him. Ankur Tewari, a close friend of mine who is also the music supervisor for Gully Boy, contacted him. I went to meet him. I started asking him about his life and what rap means to him. A half-hour conversation became 3-4 hours.

Then I went to his gigs. At one of them, DIVINE was opening. So I went backstage and started chatting. I asked if he would come in for an interview. We spent 5-6 hours talking.

We started following them. We spoke to other people, but these two were the main consultants. They took us through their lives, their career paths.

When you started speaking to Naezy and DIVINE, was it with the intention of making a film?

I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just wanted to know more. We wanted to see how big the scene was. And it’s massive. It was a surprise to me that there’s this big subculture. That was very exciting.

Also read: The voice of the Gully

The guy’s life (in the film) is fiction, but obviously we’ve gleaned facts and experiences. There’s no way it could have happened without (Naezy and DIVINE), but it’s not their story. You start writing, and you need drama. But they came in and said what was authentic, what wasn’t.

It drew from the experience of gully rap. I wanted to make a film about this kid, someone who is from a disenfranchised space. And art—how art can transcend class, break barriers. You hear a piece of music and it cuts across class, caste, borders, religion. Thematically, that is what this film is to me. Nobody else is speaking about these experiences, this life, nobody else is showing a mirror to society the way they experience it.

Was it easy to get them to open up?

It took a bit. Initially they were a little shy and reticent and it was all “ma’am, ma’am", but then it becomes simple and it’s like “madaam". It took a little time but it wasn’t hard. They’re very special boys.

Why did you feel Ranveer Singh would be right for the lead?

I always had Ranveer and Alia (Bhatt) in mind for the film. Because I know what hip hop means to Ranveer. He has the lingo, the language, down. I’ve worked with him before, so I share a comfort (level) with him.

Also read: Ranveer Singh, master of ceremonies

Did you consider casting a rapper?

Yes, there was a thought initially. You could do that, but it would be a different film, and a tinier film. What I want to do in life is tell whatever story I want and be able to integrate that with the mainstream on some level. What this is going to do for the hip hop scene—because this is a star-driven audience at some level—is, I think, bigger than if I had done a tinier film. But what I wouldn’t compromise on is where the music came from.

What was Singh’s process like?

He had just got off Padmaavat, and the first thing he had to do was lose all the bulk. We didn’t have much time, so that was tough for him. He spent a lot of time with the rappers. They would all be in my room; they would just talk, hang out, read scenes. Vijay Maurya, the dialogue writer, spent time with them—the three of them have done additional dialogue. So it wasn’t just the singing, it was a process of taking in who these kids are.

DIVINE was in the studio with him every time he recorded, which was very helpful. The thing is, you have to find your own flow. DIVINE would give him tips, then hold back and let him find his voice. DIVINE’s very generous that way.

Most actors, they’re initially finding a pitch for the character. Ranveer is an extremely keen observer, so I don’t know what he gleaned from whom. But he got easier; he got more and more relaxed.

You mentioned that Singh throws himself into the first take very hard.

Sometimes he’s giving more than he needs to. Then we cut and we look at each other and laugh. Then he’s like, okay, it’s out of my system. And then he’ll do it again. He’s very aware of it.

Did the rappers weigh in on the script?

DIVINE and Naezy did. And then the four that came on as additional dialogue (contributors)—Altaf, Rahul Piske, Emiway Bantai and Kaam Bhari. We were narrating the dialogue to them and they were going, don’t say it this way. Little things, like places they weren’t allowed to perform in before they were famous. It’s how the world treats them, their gaze. We wanted to be on the inside, looking out.

You shot a lot in Dharavi, with construction within real structures.

It worked really well. We didn’t want to build a set in Film City that has no texture around it. We wanted the world. We picked certain spaces within Dharavi. You can’t tell what’s what because it’s just an extension, in the middle of it.

Did you have any cinematic references you could draw on?

Are you asking about 8 Mile?

Sure. Or other hip hop films.

I draw cinematic and photography and art references from everywhere. That’s part of my job. So yes, you watch films, you see artists for palettes, photographers for mood.

Did you have a particular look in mind?

There is Dharavi, of course, and there’s also the world he experiences outside. We wanted that to have a particular tone and texture. Also, how you see Bombay, and what of Bombay you see. We were specific with that. You’ll see there are particular kinds of lines and architecture that we’ve chosen to show.

Suzanne (production designer Suzanne Caplan Merwanji) got this photograph one day. She said, “I think this is the colour palette." And that’s the whole film, that one photograph.

You’ve always found inventive ways to shoot musical sequences. How did you approach them here?

I love shooting them. For the two videos within the film—Mere Gully Mein and Doori—we pushed it a bit more. But the performances needed to be a particular way. They can’t be set-pieces; they have to be organic. You need to feel the mood.

We just shot the rap battles. (Cinematographer) Jay Oza is a tough cookie. He had the camera handheld and they would battle and we would shoot it. The one you see in the trailer, where he says “Go back to your gully"—that whole battle, one shot. And then I cut it, but they’re in there. It’s like theatre. You can feel the breathlessness.

Ankur Tewari isn’t from the rap scene. Why did you choose him to supervise the film’s music?

He’s one of my closest friends, so we know each other inside out. He was heading MTV Indies: Because of that, he knew everyone in the independent scene, so that access was there. What was interesting about him was that he understands film—he has an idea of narrative. When you’re scoring music for a film, it has to be interwoven with the narrative, it has to reflect the mood, the ethos. I thought he was the best person for it.

The most important thing for me is: Is it evoking the feeling I want? When Jeene Mein Aaye Maza comes on, I want it to be a world he’s not from, I want there to be a slight magical quality that’s not his experience. Apna Time Aayega—you want the audience to own that. That track was actually written as “Sabka time aayega". My dad was like, make it apna, which I think was really smart.

The soundtrack feels more politically charged than your previous films.

I feel like all my films have my politics. As a film-maker, whatever story you’re telling, your value system comes out. When I see a movie, I can say I know where you’re coming from. This is a movie about rebellion. Most of these boys are into conscious rap: They speak truth to power. You can’t take that truth out of the music. Who else is talking about them? They have to speak for themselves.

Where do you think Mumbai rap is headed in the next few years?

I think it’s going to get bigger. I’m really excited for an alternate music space besides Hindi film. We need to develop artists who are not just scoring films. I’m hoping Gully Boy can help with that. I’m hoping these boys get huge. I’m hoping they retain their grit as they get bigger. I hope it works out.

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