Gully Boy steers clear of 'posh people angst' but also sacrifices Zoya Akhtar's signature satirical humour
By staying true to Gully Boy, Zoya Akhtar loses the luxury to recreate the witty humour that made Luck By Chance and Dil Dhadakne Do immensely enjoyable.
A black cloud that has always followed filmmaker Zoya Akhtar is the allegation that she makes films about rich people and their struggles. Zoya, however, has maintained that the criticism of her obsession with 'posh people angst' is invalid.
She steered clear of this perception in her short film about a domestic help's affair with her employer, which was a part of Lust Stories, Netflix's anthology from last year. In it, the gaze is primarily that of the domestic help — and we go through long pauses in the narrative where the conversations that her employers have serve as mere background noise.
The 20-minute short set the tone for Gully Boy, her recent full-length feature on the underground rap scene in Mumbai's Dharavi slum.
Gully Boy has been lauded for its authenticity. The story of Murad, the central role of a coming-of-age rapper played by Ranveer Singh, has been told from the perspective of an insider, thanks to the contributions of real-life rappers like DIVINE, Naezy and Kaam Bhari. Their inputs, rooted in reality, added colour to the dialogues of the film. Also, it was a wise move on Zoya's part to shoot in real locations. All these creative decisions have presumably turned Gully Boy from an exploitative exhibition of 'poverty porn' to an insightful experience.
However, in the process of transporting herself to the setting of the film, Zoya loses the satirical approach that she employed as an outsider in her past films. In both her directorial debut Luck By Chance and her last film Dil Dhadakne Do, Zoya looked at privileged, dysfunctional people through the prism of scrutiny. That scrutiny is absent in Gully Boy. The underdog drama does have subtext but it never plays out in the form of her trademark sense of humour, characterised by wit and sarcasm.
The central narrative of Luck By Chance was depicted through the eyes of two aspiring actors, played by Konkona Sen Sharma and Farhan Akhtar. But the funniest and most keenly observed bits of the film were reserved for the scenes where senior members of the film industry, particularly the star (Hrithik Roshan), the producer (Rishi Kapoor) and the heroine's mother (Dimple Kapadia) engaged in high-pitch (to compensate for the fake emotion) conversations. Since the audience was privy to all the permutations and combinations of exchanges, they could see through the fake concerns and false promises that form the skeleton of the Hindi film industry. Zoya proved she had a keen eye for how people, particularly those who are removed from the harsh realities of life, made their superficial issues seem much bigger.
Similarly in Dil Dhadakne Do, Zoya let us into the drawing room conversations of a rich Punjabi family. The members, played by Anil Kapoor, Shefali Shah, Priyanka Chopra and Ranveer Singh, had a lot to confess to each other but hesitated in doing so, owing to a number of reasons like fear of resistance, confrontation and societal expectations. Every scene was a masterclass on satire on those who have the riches, but lack the ability to draw happiness from the same. It further established the futility of material aspirations.
But in Gully Boy, there's an internalisation of the socio-cultural reality the film possesses. Gully Boy could not have afforded to be a satire because of the perspective that Zoya chooses to tell the story from. In her road movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, the camera often focuses on the face of the protagonist, inviting the viewer to travel with him. On the other hand, there were barely any close-up shots in Luck By Chance and Dil Dhadakne Do, as Zoya never allowed the viewer to get into the characters' heads, the milieu and interpersonal dynamics were more important.
Additionally, Gully Boy revolves around Mumbai's gully rap, which is characterised by humour that is more confrontational. The characters in Gully Boy punch up rather than observing the rich and commenting on them from a distance. There are very few scenes where Zoya's witty humour comes into play. For instance, in a scene where Murad, in a lavish washroom, carefully folds back a towel after using it because he does not want to disturb the order of a sophisticated space. He then goes on to measure the dimensions of the washroom just to gauge how big a luxurious washroom actually is. In another instance, when Murad chauffeurs a rich family around, he witnesses the parents scold their daughter by pointing out that she is only as educated as the driver. The situation comes across as hilarious in almost a dark way, as the father pays no heed to Murad's self-respect. He goes about putting him down as if he is absent. Here, you're laughing at the rich family.
The shock value in these few scenes with Zoya's trademark situational sarcastic humour originates from our understanding of socioeconomic structures. On the other hand, the majority of humour in Gully Boy is inherently designed to provide shock value, for example, through unrelenting potshots in the rap battles. The humour employed in those ciphers is more direct and competitive. Zoya's evocative brand of humour can do much better without the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
The departure from situational humour may be a conscious decision to stay true to the setting of Gully Boy. Even Alia Bhatt's character of Safeena is designed as a spunky Muslim girl, who brings shock waves to an otherwise tepid narrative dominated by Ranveer's internalisation. But amidst the smashing of beer bottles on heads, this Zoya Akhtar fan longed for the simmering undercurrent that built up to her signature satirical low blows.
All images from YouTube.
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