Alia Bhatt's Safeena from Gully Boy is the Angry Young Woman Bollywood desperately needs
For a change, in Gully Boy, it is a young woman (Alia Bhatt's Safeena), and not a man, who expresses her anger, asserts herself and tries to regain control of situations.
Everyone has a favourite character in Zoya Akhtar’s recently released Gully Boy. I’m yet to meet someone who has watched the film and come away blissfully unaffected by at least one of the many characters that populate the overcrowded, angry and claustrophobic world of Murad Sheikh, an aspiring rapper played by Ranveer Singh with such well-calibrated authenticity, it makes you want to weep.
It’s been only a week since it’s release, and Indian Internet can’t stop raving about Murad and his shabdon ka jwaala (volcano of words); or MC Sher’s (played by an inspired Siddhant Chaturvedi) ferocity as he goes about adding fat to Murad’s fire every time it shows sign of dying out; or the moral ambiguity perfected by Moeen (Vijay Varma), Murad’s friend who is really more like an older brother; or even the brooding hopelessness that drips off of Shakir (Vijay Razz), Murad’s father.
And then there is Alia Bhatt’s stereotype-defying Safeena, a character that could well be every woman’s alter ego — but only if we’re willing to acknowledge the ugly and unloveable buried within us.
Safeena is uninhibited, sharp, ambitious, unorthodox and resilient, but that’s not all there is to her. Complicating her image as the rebellious spitfire that the hero must ultimately "tame" with his love — an archetype that Bollywood is obsessed with — are Safeena’s anger issues, an irrepressible violent streak, and the ability to use her charm to manipulate those around her. How do you rally behind a character who will remorselessly break glass bottles on the head of the woman she thinks her beau is cheating on her with? Or throw punches without flinching at any woman who flirts with her man, consequences be damned?
You don’t, you can’t. You quietly applaud this piercing of the tried and tested narrative — of the defiant but ultimately sweet, young object of desire that the heroine must never deviate from. Safeena is not just gutsy, she is aggressive, cranky and often unlikeable. And even though she’s a closer representation of the reality of women than almost any other female character to come out of Bollywood in recent times, we don’t quite know how to feel about her, or do with her. But that’s okay.
Ask any woman and she’ll relate dozens of incidents when she, too, wanted to express her rage through violence. Break bottles, break jaws, claw, thwack, pummel or thump someone so they rue the day they decided to cross her. Most of us probably won’t act on the instinct. But it’s refreshing to at least have this personality type acknowledged in a mainstream Bollywood film, and enacted by a leading lady in the industry. Safeena is the Angry Young Woman of the Gully Boy universe.
We’ve applauded and empathised with the angry young man trope for decades, but Gully Boy’s audaciousness is in reversing the formula we’re so familiar with — while Murad is quiet, hesitant and wary of attracting attention, Safeena, or ‘Danger Aapa’ as she is nicknamed, is all rage and rampage. For a change, it is a young woman, not a man, who expresses her anger, asserts herself and tries to regain control of situations she finds herself helpless in. Sometimes she gets away with it, other times she does not. Just like real life, Safeena’s violence has consequences, and she must face them.
Gully Boy is frustratingly — and, in retrospect, deliciously — vague about what motivates Safeena and makes her react to situations the way she does. Is it really a blind, all-consuming love for Murad that makes her violent when anything threatens their almost decade-long romance? Or is there a deeper insecurity at play? The film hints at several explanations, leaving the viewer to land on the one that resonates best with their own experience and understanding.
Personally, I believe Safeena doesn’t love Murad so much as she loves what he represents: freedom. She inhabits a world where her ambition will always be secondary to her gender and the limitations it places on her life’s choices. By her own admission, she loves being a doctor more than she loves him. She has grown up lying to her parents and manipulating them so she can have some semblance of the life she yearns for. Murad is her ticket out of her desolate world. He’s a practising Muslim like her which makes him an acceptable option to bring back to her parents, but unlike the men they are both surrounded by, he is sensitive, accommodating, and understands her dreams. He is comfortable and familiar, and with him she has the freedom to be herself. He is her best bet among the limited choices that Dharavi offers her, and she’s spent a decade neatly arranging her life around their plans of building a life together.
Safeena’s whole life has been about negotiating and bending rules; I see her violence not as impassioned response of a woman madly in love, but the result of the pent up frustration of having new competitors join the race just as the finishing line started to loom within sight.
To me, both, Safeena’s violent fury, as well as her scramble to forgive, forget and move on from Murad’s indiscretion are results of her unwillingness to have the boat rocked. Forgiving Murad his moment of weakness is easier than upending her carefully laid plans for their future. As a surgeon in the making, she has bigger fish to fry.
In a world filled with romances that blossom in sarson ke khet and the Swiss Alps, with women prancing around in impractical pneumonia-inducing clothing and unencumbered by the demands of education or occupation, along comes Safeena with her efficient approach to love and life, anchored in practicality and common sense.
Gully Boy might not be the love story that makes your heart do funny things or fill your head with unachievable ideas of love, but it’s the love story most young women in my generation needed to see. Because there isn’t a soul among us who hasn’t secretly seriously considered marrying (or actually married) her Murad.
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