This story is part of our DocuWalk series. Read more here.
Text by Neerja Deodhar | Photographs by Aashim Tyagi
“Do you know where Hamza Shaikh or Naved Shaikh’s house is?”
“No one by the name of Shaikh lives here.”
“Do you know where Naezy’s house may be?”
The man nods in agreement; he knows who we’re talking about. We’re shouting questions at him, and he’s shouting the answers back, over the din of bhajans playing at ear-shattering volumes from a mandir nearby.
It is 8 am on a Saturday morning, and our crew of three is trying to find our way around labyrinthine Kurla. Five years ago, film writer-director Disha Rindani walked along the same roads with Naved Shaikh — Naezy, as he is better known — when she was making a documentary on him, titled Bombay 70.
Before the era of blue-ticks and verified profiles, Disha messaged Naved on Facebook, asking if he’d be part of her film. This was enough to get his attention. “At our first meeting, he felt it was better for him to come to our side of town because he felt we (Viraj, my associate, and I) wouldn’t fit into his gully just yet. But once we met, I realised that he was just being cautious.” Twenty-four hours before they could shoot, he expressed his apprehensions about it; he was fearful about overexposing himself.
“He almost cancelled the shoot… He was constantly plagued by dogmas of his faith. He was afraid his beliefs and choices would hurt his family members and the others in his community… It took a lot of convincing for him to put his trust in me and I promised him that we wouldn’t exhibit anything that was in any way false or that he didn’t approve of,” Disha says.
He was only three songs old then, but Naved was being pursued by someone else who also wanted to make a short film on him. “He wanted to know what my vision would be for the film. He was very sure that he didn’t want any part of it being sensationalised or misleading, as it could jeopardise his family and his reputation in the community. It became my moral and professional responsibility to protect the essence and innocence of his story despite the dark edges it came with. As we got to know each other better, he began to trust me, and very soon we crossed over to his gully in Bombay 70.”
In 2014, near the railway tracks in Kurla, Disha came across a space where Naved would come to clear his head. “He came here when he wanted some respite from the noise around him.”
When we looked for it, we first found a newly-built bridge. A few turns later, the desolate ground became apparent. It’s almost as though the world turns monochrome when one enters this space, marked by high fences and grey columns. Naved has changed over the years – and so has his neighbourhood. “He understands business talk now, having learnt from experiences where people have short-changed him. I think he’s also become more closed. Everyone wants a piece of him,” Disha says.
Naved plays to the gallery; he is extremely honest and does not mince his words, Disha says. “Once he began talking, he was unstoppable. He had so many stories to tell, and we instantly formed a friendship.” She says he’s very humourous, and that this trait characterises his music too.
We take a rickshaw towards LIG Colony. In the middle of this housing complex is a playground. “This is one of the places in Kurla where Naezy performed. I remember when we were shooting his performance, there were kids and teenagers surrounding him. They were rapping the lyrics of his songs too. He commanded an audience, they were engaged listeners. It was meaningful viewing,” Disha says. In a sense, Naved was including a community, which would not otherwise listen to the genre, into Mumbai’s rap narrative.
His first big gig was at Blue Frog in Mumbai, following a screening of Bombay 70. “Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti were at this screening!” Disha recounts.
The conversation about poverty porn is more nuanced now than it was a few years ago. Creators are now more conscious of how they present subjects; those who are not, are called out for exoticising the circumstances their subjects live in or the way they are presented. Did these questions cross Disha’s mind?
“I didn’t look at Bombay 70 through any lens except honesty... I didn’t force Naved to take me to his house, or places where he may not have been comfortable. You exoticise the subject when you’re curious about them but not open or willing to understand, you just want to look... I didn’t feel sadness for him. He was happy in his world. My motive to make the film was to show how he made his music.”
We discuss the undeniable reach of a mainstream film, about its ability to create a conversation. But what about the risk that a feature film will become more about the people who make it and star in it, rather than the subject? “It’s all about the maker’s integrity. Every film is about what the maker wants to say. They sometimes use someone else’s story… Then it’s a question of how much of it is a vanity project, and how much is earnest expression,” Disha says.
We’re now going to meet Nikhil Naik, Naved’s longtime collaborator, who goes by the name N Cube. Café Medina Hotel, a small but bustling restaurant near Halav Pool, is the meeting place we decide on. A few minutes later we realise that he’s been waiting at another outlet of the same restaurant. “Medina is the KFC of this neighbourhood, it’s a sort of franchise,” Nikhil explains, when he sees us.
It’s soon going to be noon and the sunlight will only get harsher, so we decide to take a few portrait shots of him against a bright green wall. Two minutes in, I notice that a group of three to four men — no older than 25 — are watching us. It would be remiss to think they were curious about the camera and shoot; they were there to speak to Nikhil.
They recognised Nikhil from a distance. Though he lives on the outskirts of Dharavi, Nikhil is known by more people in Kurla, through his association with Naved and his own music. “Dharavi has its own rap ecosystem, populated by the people who live in and near it. They keep moving in and out of it,” he explains.
We settle down to have multiple cups of tea and bun maska. Nikhil tells us he’d been rapping before he met Naved in Khalsa College, where they both studied. He recounts that time in their lives when Naved’s recordings and releases would clash with his exams. Their loyalty towards each other is inexplicable, and it’s apparent from the way Nikhil speaks of Naved.
Their partnership came into being organically; Naved would rap and Nikhil would shoot him on an iPad. Bombay 70 shows Naved’s entire production lay in one cabinet in his house – an iPad given to him by his father, which would be used to shoot video and create tunes. He also used a chhanni (tea filter) to add texture to his voice, and the scene that captures this in Bombay 70 is mirrored in Gully Boy. They would buy hoodies from Chor Bazaar. “Naved was creating gold using whatever means he had,” Disha says.
The duo ran a page on Facebook called ‘Schizophrenics.’, the idea for which came from Naved. For three years before they could put out the first track, they were honing their craft and largely freestyling. Raftaar commented on one of Naved’s tracks, and Brodha V shared one of his videos. Soon enough, Naved was on the map.
There’s a scene in Bombay 70 where Naved talks about performing ‘Temperature’ by Sean Paul in front of kids from his school. It was a song he had heard many DJs play, and which he could sing with relative ease (despite its complicated lyrics, spoken at a fast speed). The people around him didn’t understand what he was singing, but he says they acknowledged he was good at what he was doing. “Naezy created Bambaiyya rap. He realised that Hindi-Urdu is the language of the people, that they would not understand English,” Nikhil says.
One of the darker parts of the narrative surrounding rap in Mumbai is that while there are a number of people who have made it big, there exists a much larger proportion of those who have not. However, hustle and grind is central to the stories of rappers, successful and lesser-known. “Will mainstream films be able to showcase this grind, this struggle realistically? It remains to be known,” says Nikhil.
“I look at people of privilege and stardom playing roles of people like me, when I want to see myself in them,” says Nikhil. Still, he hopes that the film will change people’s perception about this genre of music. “I hope Gully Boy will encourage the parents of children who want to pursue hip-hop to support them.”
In one part of Bombay 70, Naved is wearing a salwar and kurta (he was fasting for Ramzan when the film was shot), and in the other, he’s dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, along with his characteristic cap and sunglasses. The sunglasses are more to hide his eyes and less a fashion statement, he says. It’s clear, through these images and the things Naved speaks about, that he’s straddling many different identities at the same time – of being the only child of his parents, of being a Muslim, of a being third-generation resident of Kurla who wants to make a difference.
He mentions that in his community, creating music is haram, adding that his mother wasn’t sure about him pursuing rap as a career. In another part of the film, she is encouraging a young child to sing his song, signaling that there is acceptance.
Naved also speaks about leaving behind the life he lived before he was 16, when he had run-ins with the police and he committed some petty crimes, like stealing from shops. Music seems to mean self-expression for him, and a step away from the past. 'Mere zindagi mein aisa samay aaya jab mujhe samajh aaya ki chhodna hai yeh sab, phir main wapas sahi raaste pe aa gaya… Pata nahi yeh rasta sahi hai ki nahi,' he says.
As we walk through the gullies he once called home, Disha says: “There is Naved, and there is Naezy. If Naved wasn’t born here, if his life wasn’t shaped by these experiences – if Naved wasn’t Naved – Naezy could have been anyone. His music has the flavour of where he comes from, of the communities he is part of. It’s why I titled the film ‘Bombay 70’.”