The roots of a cult classic

Madhavan Narayanan

Feb 23, 2019 04:15:44 IST

In the dark times

Will there also be singing?

Yes, there will also be singing.

About the dark times.

— Bertolt Brecht

Playwright Bertolt Brecht’s words on singing about dark times ring true every time agony becomes a work of art. As Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy hits the screens to rave reviews from critics in a music-laden work that smells of a cult classic, there is more to it than the stuff they would speak of in Bollywood’s first flush — such as the shining performances of Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, the taut dialogue, catchy songs and the slick production values.

Beyond all this, the film’s classic appeal lies in the fact that it is the rebirth of the iconic Angry Young Man of the 1970s in a 21st-century package. You find his origin in the 1950s, when the Guru Dutt classic Pyaasa, and some other films of the era, explored the struggle of the poor amid the wealthy environs of Bombay, as much a city of opportunities as ugly contrasts.

Gully Boy takes the soul of Pyaasa (1957) with its anguished poetic hero, the spirit of Deewar (1975) with its negative shades of the antihero, and the stylish matter-of-factness with which Ram Gopal Varma portrayed the Big Bad City’s netherworld in Satya (1998), and puts them all in the juicer-blender of a globalised India, in a world made smaller by the Internet and social media. Despair comes out packaged as hope in a spirit of the times.

 The roots of a cult classic

Still from Gully Boy

Maybe three decades of economic reforms and six percent-plus GDP growth shapes culture in different ways, where class conflicts give rise to hopes and ambitions. But some of the old frustrations that trigger the poetry of escape lie intact and look for new forms of expression. Here, India’s New York, Bombay-turned-Mumbai, is the perfect foil for adapting the sub-culture of New York’s Harlem to the shanties of Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, where aspirations look more realisable than 50 years ago. Murad Ahmed (Ranveer), the college student-turned-rapper, is now in a fairytale universe where goals are made to look realisable despite the daunting cleavages of a city where condominiums loom over his squalid environs. But what remains unbent by decades of growth is the love and the longing of Pyaasa’s Vijay, who lingers on Bollywood’s muse list and by extension in India’s popular culture. The quintessential protagonist is still torn apart by social pressures that threaten his innocent soul. Still, much water has flown down the Mithi, not far from Dharavi. The underbelly now speaks in newer idioms.

Films of the 1950s starring Dev Anand and Guru Dutt such as Jaal and Pyaasa, and much of the Navketan productions that introduced bigtime urban themes to Bollywood, involved protagonists from the underbelly. So did Raj Kapoor classics such as Shree 420 and Phir Subah Hogi. The poetry of the 1950s that spoke against injustice was etched in plaintive melodies and ornamental language, representative of the middle-class characters who wrote the stories and lyrics. Sahir Ludhianvi wrote Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai (what if indeed we win this world), as Mohammed Rafi sang out against the lack of compassion amid the ugly dance of power and wealth. That was despair — some would say defeatism.

Despair turned to anger in the 1970s, in a more urban, more confident Bombay. The true antihero in the persona of the Angry Young Man, epitomised by the larger-than-life frame and deep voice of Amitabh Bachchan, marked a new chapter in the iconography of the Indian protagonist.

Now, take a deep breath and recall Vijay, the vulnerable smuggler, speaking a long, rhythmic monologue in Deewar: “Aaj khush toh bahut hoge tum...” What you hear in that anthemic expression is the stirrings of the rugged rap that comes four decades later. An inspired digital remix can even make it sound like rap.

Javed Akhtar, who wrote the cult lines for Deewar with Salim Khan, has now penned lyrics for Gully Boy, and his daughter — not son — is the director of the opus that adds gender sensitivity to class divide. There is more hope and optimism. Safeena, played by Alia Bhatt, sports a hijab in her relative affluence in the shanty-town but studies to be a doctor and has a boyfriend. She loves lipsticks and liplocks.

There is also a decided shift in form. Monologues have become lyrics, inspired by America’s underbelly, with their innate sense of body and rhythm. Rhymes happen with less melody and metre. But, as Murad’s friend MC Sher, played by Siddhant Chaturvedi, explains, rap is all about inner poetry and self-expression. It is not about singing somebody else’s song. The language is street-slang, with no concern for grammar. But it finds its own twists like the narrow alleyways of Dharavi, for gully boys to move about. English, Hindi, Urdu, brand names, abuse and cuss-words — everything mixes in an unlikely explosion of genuineness. If the dialogues of Deewar had the rhythm of rap, it found a clearer evolutionary form in Satya, in the song Goli maar bheje mein.

Flashback 1958. In Phir Subah Hogi, Ramesh Saigal’s adaption of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment, like in Deewar about two decades later, the protagonist flirts with crime. So does Murad in Gully Boy, in a scratchy collaboration with a car stealer who goes to jail but saves the singer. Shades of grey and humane ties remain in the backdrop.

It was Pyaasa’s Sahir who also wrote the plaintive title song of Phir Subah Hogi. Mukesh singing Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi is a sorrowful cry of future hopes. But how is that different from Murad spewing out Apna time aayega?

What has not changed is the business of misery looking for company, of despair trying to be hope. What has changed is the grammar and the rhythm. The luxury of melody has been dispensed with. The helpless are now confident. This is the 21st century.

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The writer is a senior journalist and commentator. He tweets as @madversity

Updated Date: Feb 22, 2019 18:05:48 IST