Gully Boy and its mixed political messaging: Zoya Akhar's film is praiseworthy but has superficial politics

Karthik Shankar

Feb 15, 2019 16:50:18 IST

For weeks I’ve been discussing Gully Boy’s watered down version of 'Azadi' with friends online and offline. And then came Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt’s interview where they shirked the very iconoclastic politics the film was meant to embody. Yet, despite all this handwringing, I still eagerly wanted to watch the Zoya Akhtar drama.

It’s no surprise to anyone slightly clued in that Gully Boy co-opts the anti-establishment politics of street rap. It’s the battle cry of the 99 percent, aesthetically packaged with the million watt smiles of movie stars, for multiplex audiences like me who can afford Rs 300 tickets.

Gully Boy is an update of a stock 70s movie template with a working-class protagonist Murad Sheikh (Ranveer Singh) who persists despite the odds being stacked against him. Like many films of the era, it spotlights class disaffection and, ostensibly, street rage. Yet like much of what Baradwaj Rangan has dubbed “middle-cinema”, Gully Boy tempers down the melodrama. Its concerns are squarely in the millennial ‘follow your passion’ messaging as Murad, a Nas fan, is encouraged to pursue his love for rap. The effect is that of serving pani puri in silverware.

Gully Boy and its mixed political messaging: Zoya Akhars film is praiseworthy but has superficial politics

Ranveer Singh in a still from Gully Boy. Screenshot from YouTube

This is a movie that, in its quest of appealing to urban and diasporic audiences, has reduced the decibel level of its protagonist’s voice from a roar to a whimper. He’s not an angry young man as much as someone who has his head on his shoulders, even if others can’t see it. We imagine that it’s only in rap that Murad is truly able to channel his righteous anger, his frustration against the system that disempowers millions of Muslim men like him. In the movie’s final memorable rap performance Apna Time Aayega, he memorably utters “Ye Shabdon Ka Jwaala Meri Bediyan Pighlaayega” (The flames of these words will melt the fetters holding me). Yet Murad’s anger is constantly muted, less an outpouring of volcanic fury than a carefully edited set of verses even during spontaneous rap battles.

For a film that’s based on the lives of counterculture figures like Naezy and Divine, whose politics are decidedly anti-establishment, Gully Boy is depoliticised.

The film shares more than a few similarities with Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, the 1980 National Award winning drama that similarly focused on the social lives of working class Muslim men. But Saeed Mirza’s sharp film was intimately concerned with community history and codes of masculinity among Muslim men who grow up in a city whose politics is hostile to them.

The barriers to Murad’s success rarely seem to be structural. The people who briefly stand in his way at various points are his father, a boss and a bouncer outside a club who wordlessly signals him to leave. In almost all these instances they have to do with his class, not religion, even if Murad is shown to be a devout Muslim. The one song that features references to lynching (Jingostan Beatbox) isn’t even sung by Murad.

A still from 'Mere Gully Mein' from Gully Boy

A still from 'Mere Gully Mein' from Gully Boy

Part of the reason the movie is very careful not to indict the ‘secular’ 1% is because Zoya Akhtar’s sympathies unsurprisingly lie there (in case Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Dil Dhadakne Do didn’t make it clear). One of the most fascinating scenes in the movie is when Murad accompanies Sky, a free spirited woman who speaks immaculate Hindi (played by none other than Kalki Koechlin), and her friends as they drive around town in a Mercedes defacing billboards. They spray paint ‘Nature was here’ on a fence around a new property development, ‘Feed Me’ next to the mouth of a slender model and ‘Brown and beautiful’ on a Fair and Lovely advertisement (in a movie where both the female leads are light-skinned women).

I wondered if Akhtar and Reema Kagti (the movie’s co-writer) were later going to undercut the shallow anti-capitalist posturing of the liberal elite, or the fact that a white woman takes a saviour-esque interest in Murad but that moment never emerges. Akhtar notes in a recent interview “…the human experience beyond a point is the same. It’s the conditioning, it’s the environment, it’s the socio-economic space that changes…” If Akhtar’s characters are transposed to their socioeconomic backgrounds instead of being drastically shaped by them, in her mind class reconciliation isn’t a fairy tale. It seems ardently possible in the world of street rap.

It’s telling, though, that we never get this sense of solidarity among the inhabitants of Dharavi in the film. The only time when everyone lines up at Murad’s house is during the credits sequence after he has won the final rap competition. Murad’s dream of making it rests on chasing individual liberty and freeing himself from community shackles. Community support isn’t intrinsic to his art the way Naezy and Divine have made clear it is. The movie doesn’t see the inhabitants of Dharavi (except for Murad’s Bollywood ready circle of friends) as ciphers.

The poster of Gully Boy. Image from Instagram.

When Ranveer Singh records Doori, his first song in the studio, it is interspersed with images from his music video showing the invisible denizens of Mumbai. There’s a stark difference between the manner in which these so-called ordinary folk have been represented in the film and Divine’s debut music video Yeh Mera Bombay from which it takes some inspiration. The people in Divine’s videos are active participants smiling and voicing the song’s lyrics. In the movie they are stoic, passive figures, othered by the camera’s gaze.

Given all this, why even watch Gully Boy? Because waiting for the perfect piece of art can be exhausting.

It might be possible to make ethical choices in art as consumers by choosing to spend our money buying albums by street rappers instead. Yet, the truth is we make a series of compromised decisions under capitalism every day. Consider that the progressive Afrofuturistic themes of Black Panther still went towards channelling profits towards a mega corporation intent on selling merchandise. Closer home, Pa Ranjith’s Kaala, a sharper film set in the slums of Dharavi, featured powerfully progressive politics while starring a superstar whose own politics are muddled and hawking multicrore product deals with Havells and Airtel.

It might be easier to boycott a movie starring a sexual predator or skip watching Vivek Oberoi play Modi under layers of prosthetic makeup, but political fervour in art, even if ideologically diluted, can be healing.

So at the end of the day, you could choose to ignore all the underlying mixed messages and soak in the sheer pleasures of Zoya Akhtar’s command over visual poetry. There’s not one false note in anyone’s acting, all the characters feel real, and the milieu feels lived in. Moreover Gully Boy with its nuanced Muslim leads seems practically radical next to the jingoistic machinations of Uri: The Surgical Strike and Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi. In an industry where the spectre of Hindutva comes into sharper focus and the cultural landscape shifts to the right, morsels are meals indeed.

Updated Date: Feb 15, 2019 17:52:10 IST