Review by Russell Whitehouse
Rap is about reppin’ your hood, from the 213 to Dharavi 17… The latter is the focus of director/writer Zoya Akhtar ‘s GULLY BOY, India’s version of 8 MILE, complete with a troubled family backstory, love woes and a celebrity rap battle cameo (this time, from Shah Rule).
Ranveer Singh stars as Murad, a college senior unsure about his future. After studying for his final exams and hanging out with his drug dealer buddy Moeen (Vijay Varma), he comes home to the slums of Dharavi, Mumbai. Murad’s father (Vijay Raaz) struggles to provide for the family working as a chauffeur, but he hopes that Murad will accept a cushy office job from a relative upon graduation. Toiling away at a thankless job and pinning all his hopes on his son makes him very tough on his family, especially Murad.
Murad has other plans, however. He stumbles into a rap battle squad les by MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi). As a lifelong hip-hop fan and amateur poet, Murad quickly starts establishing his drip in the battle rap scene and, this being the 21st century, on YouTube via viral videos. Further complicating his future is a secret romance he shares with Safeena (Alia Bhatt), an aspiring doctor kept on a short leash by her parents.
Rap defines the film. The scenes of Murad writing his first rhymes, recording into his iPad and finding his voice in his early rap battles feel quite authentic. The battles themselves are hilarious, with a combination of memorized and improvised burns. Murad’s songs are backed by infectious instrumentals. It’s annoying hearing Ranveer’s voice Auto-Tuned, though. It’s completely unnatural to hear post-production work on what are supposed to be depictions of live rap battle and concert performances. Besides the fact that rapping isn’t the same as singing; no one listens to Lil Wayne expecting the vocal perfection of Bhimsen Joshi. There are also some inexplicable deviations from hip-hop in the soundtrack, the most egregious instance being a sappy Western pop-style song at the end of the film. As recent artists like Noname, Anderson .Paak, Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper have proven, rap is versatile to tell all different types of stories. An all-rap soundtrack would have provided more consistency and originality.
The film loses its voice (literally) when it chooses to focus on the cliché plotlines of the overbearing father and the love triangle. Alia Bhatt was fine in her scenes sitting on a bus next to Ranveer, but I would have preferred seeing more rap scenes. It would have been interesting to see more of Moeen’s gang activity, as that’s one of the staples of hip-hop culture. Murad criticizes Moeen for hiring children a few times, but then completely lets it go a minute later. Focusing more on these “gully boys” would have added more depth to Murad’s backstory than the other subplots.
GULLY BOY is, overall, a fun movie buoyed by fantastic rap freestyles and tracks. It does a good job of exploring the systemic inequalities that birthed hip-hop in the slums of the Bronx and Queens by “gully boys” like the film’s executive producer, Nas. Hip-hop gave marginalized teenagers a voice in the greater public conversation by allowing them to freely express their thoughts (freestyle) over beats that they cobbled together by remixing disco and R&B instrumentals with Jamaican dancehall DJing techniques, thus circumventing the traditional music production bureaucracy that had previously ignored them. Small wonder that hip-hop has inspired “gully boys” worldwide, from Jamaica’s Gully God to the various Indian rappers who make cameos in the film, like Dub Sharma and Emiway Bantai. Murad gives voice to the people of Dharavi, both in his populist lyrics and in his welcome-to-my-hood music videos. Ranveer Singh’s portrayal is inspirational and, hopefully, a trendsetter for more hip-hop in Bollywood to come.