Gully Boy is a profoundly sad film. It sincerely deliberates class conflict, it also reduces that conflict to desire for social mobility.
For a curious parallel, one may recall the rape-revenge films of the 1980s, where as Lalitha Gopalan argues, the narrative device of rape was the price professionally successful female characters had to pay in order to become protagonists who could avenge themselves in the film.
Similarly, in Gully Boy, the only way the film leaves any space for “politics”— of class, or religion — to emerge, is to quickly submit that very politics to a reality television aesthetic.
This ‘biographical’ film sincerely details the slum-dwelling lower-middle class Muslim family and feeds off real-life stories, while retaining various idioms of contemporary popular culture. Its subjects live amidst soul-crushing contrasts of upbringing, access and desires; they breathe in the toxic air of these inequities and use them to mockingly position themselves on the map of their city. They are not mere victims of a political arena; they are deeply aware of the political undercurrents that shape their lived reality. The candid foregrounding of their lived awareness becomes the vessel in which the politics of Gully Boy takes shape. Rap music becomes a way for Murad and his friends to protest the visible disparities of class in a city like Mumbai.
Yet the central tension of Gully Boy is that it actually wants to be a different film from the one it eventually becomes: At the surface, the film is about a Muslim college student from a subaltern background who wants to become a successful rap musician, and does.
Yet in the best parts of the film, Murad is not just looking for social mobility. He is hinting at something far more substantial; something he can’t fully comprehend or say. By the end of the film however, Murad’s messy, tangled yearnings are straightened into a simple story of one individual’s triumph against the odds. He is reduced to becoming the champion of crowd-entertainment, even if the politics of protest appears as the show’s key ingredient.
Gully Boy isn’t the only film to follow such a trajectory: a glittering makeover into celebrityhood is the only cinematic destination working class lives and politics are allowed in popular cinema.
“Gully Boy is highly aware and sensitive towards such violence, which is reflected in the most empathetic portrayal of an abusive father and an outlaw friend.”
As Murad goes from a boy who lives in a gully in a Mumbai slum and transgresses elite spaces, to Gully Boy the viral sensation who will eventually feel at home in these spaces, we rejoice in his success in exiting a world that we exit with him.
We are so overwhelmed by the thunderous applause that his affected voice is rewarded with, that we overlook how fame turns the rage and agony he feels on behalf of his social condition into something safe and palatable that can be consumed.
The issue I have with Gully Boy is about the neoliberal defacement of its otherwise moving politics. To use David Harvey’s formulation, is the film’s surrenders to the idea that market exchange is an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action. By this logic, to enter the market as a commodity to be ‘freely’ exchanged can be hailed as a destination, since the journey thereafter is assumed to be glorious.
The false rage on social media about Alia Bhatt and Ranveer Singh’s ‘apolitical’ self-positioning only distracts us from this appropriation of the structural violence their characters are shaped by. Indeed, Gully Boy is highly aware and sensitive towards such violence, which is reflected in the most empathetic portrayal of an abusive father and an outlaw friend. The characters of the film are all shaped by the politics of the permissible, living as they are on the borders of legality, morality and desire.
Whether Ranveer or Alia, as individuals, understand this politics of urban settlements, sexual unfreedom, joblessness and class ceilings should not take away from acknowledging their ability to magnificently inhabit this political geography.
One example is where Murad grapples with Kalki Koechlin’s character, Sky’s lifeworld by making sense of her apartment – the neatness, the size, the multiplicative reflections. Gradually, he reimagines Sky as not just as “Sky the person”, but Sky as the representative of a cosmopolitan elite with which he shares no common ground. The delicate tone of wonder, amusement and pathos with which he speaks of her house when he registers, “Acchha upar bhi hai” is one of the most enduring triumphs of the film.
I was particularly moved by Murad’s description of his relationship with Safeena, as he retreats from a tender moment between him and Sky by saying that living without Safeena, for him, would be like having grown up without a childhood.
This profound rendering of their relationship establishes his delicate childhood romance as the foundational emotional anchor of his life.
Also, it establishes Murad and Safeena’s shared travails with a conservative upbringing, in the corridor barricaded by class — an upbringing that Sky can possibly understand, but never experience or inhabit.
Both Murad and Safeena walk in and out of Sky’s world, tentatively stepping into the ‘free’ world of glitter and glamour, only to take cognizance of their place on the margins this world, and to promise to return better prepared with adequate ‘success’.
When his father comes home with his second wife, the soundtrack switches between the wedding shehnai and the rap music thrumming through Murad’s earphones. Safeena is also adept at using her headscarf to step outside the world of desire and freedom within a flash.
“This corrosive struggle to articulate the pride and meaning one searches for, in a life pushed to the margins of social respectability, is what brings Gully Boy together with one of the finest films on class conflict.”
Both of them live on the fringes, scratching at the boundaries of the divisions they identify and wish to break out of. Safeena is confident of her bright future, while Murad is partly resigned to his fate, and only eventually comes to acknowledge his ‘gift’ – one that he shall not abandon but pursue wholeheartedly. The romance develops intermittently, as Murad and Safeena grow aware of their individuality in relation to their communal surroundings.
The film observes them as they both come to terms with the challenges and take control of their destinies. Murad literally finds his voice in rap music. While he is gradually convinced of the meaning in his uncertain life as a performer, both his parents try to admonish him against momentary distractions, which do not, as they say, alter the fundamental truths of life, i.e. the class-based division of labour. This belief in their truth, which looms large over their agonizing lives, Murad challenges by pointing to the joy his music offers to him and his followers.
“Kuchh hai ismein,” — there is something in this — he says, in a scene starkly reminiscent of Brando’s ‘I coulda been somebody’ in On the Waterfront (1954).
I find it beautiful that he doesn’t claim to know what that something is, for it reveals Murad’s being; quite like Brando’s Terry who could have been ‘somebody’ – a familiar but alienated object of social respectability. This corrosive struggle to articulate the pride and meaning one searches for, in a life pushed to the margins of social respectability, is what brings Gully Boy together with one of the finest films on class conflict. Both the films refract the class conflict via an icon sitting on the interface between the individual and the community.
And yet, Gully Boy is no On the Waterfront.
In its final act, Murad is appropriated by the show business, just as the film itself is appropriated by the cross-promotional dynamics of reality TV. Unlike Terry, whose triumph is earning the right to enter his workplace for wage labour, Murad doesn’t stand his ground at the site of conflict; he seeks the uncertain freedoms of the neoliberal variety (hopelessly celebrated by numerous films such as Tamasha and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil).
In order to disguise this appropriation, the film offers a false tradeoff between the desk job and relentless self-promotion in the new online economy of Youtube, Facebook and Instagram. Murad’s breaking the shackles of his desk job is symbolic of this triumph over a chained monotony.
We must not, however, surrender our critical faculties to accept such a creative assault upon dignified wage-labour employment. The twist in the tale may indeed be that the Murads of the world would very rarely be able to shift from being part of a carjacking gang to low-level technology sector employment. Without resenting Murad his success as a rapper, the appropriation of the music of protest against one’s class-condition by the show business repurposes the publicness of rage and empathy. The film builds upon this capacity, and abandons it midway, so as to reframe its politics.
However, the triumph of Gully Boy is that even as it tells the story of ‘the one that got away’, it renders the others (like Murad’s friend, Moeen) with enormous dignity and affection. The true protagonist of Gully Boy is the linguistic community of Mumbai subalterns, whose rebellion against their political inexistence is registered in not just rap music, but how it is provincialized in Mumbaiyya swagger.
“Unlike most of the popular cinema of its time, the web of social relations it draws upon is wide enough for most of us to be implicated in its triumphs.”
Mere gully mein, the song that is a rather loyal imitation of the original by Naezy and Divine, stages a rebellion against the ‘unfreedom’ enforced by this political inexistence. Unlike the film’s Urdu-inflected anthem – Apna time ayega, the essence of which is the neutral and universal spirit of social mobility – Murad’s partnership with ‘Sher’ marks a perfect blend of rap’s international aesthetics with its generic grasp of Mumbai slums. The gully, in the song, is a site of perpetual action – it is saturated with a communal energy, and stages a mild protest-laden reworking of Ramaiyya Vastavaiya from Shree 420 (1955). If the latter produced what Ashis Nandy called the ‘village in the city’ aesthetics, the former claims to speak for the city (’poore shehar ki awaz mere gully mein’) outside stark polarities. While the moral superiority of the village in Ramaiyya Vastavaiya was rendered in an utter-sweet melody, Mere gully mein is harsh, metallic and athletic in comparison
Gully Boy is a rare film, substantial enough for us to find faults with. Unlike most of the popular cinema of its time, the web of social relations it draws upon is wide enough for most of us to be implicated in its triumphs. In a nutshell, there are certain contradictory strands of the political within the film.
To put it somewhat simplistically, politics is the force that drives a desire for change, as long as the effect of such a change encompasses a shared condition, not merely a private, individual wish. But such a desire is not necessarily verbalized as such. It may very well reside in an embodied affect. In my assessment, the performative force of Gully Boy’s being exceeds its explicit politics. Even though the narrative of the film is derailed via false binaries, the performative essence of living amidst soul-crushing contrasts and the desire to break free of class ceilings continues to linger.
The politics of the film is increasingly diminished, and yet, the performative essence of Murad’s being lingers. It continues to speak over the film, against what we witness on the screen towards the end. While the film may want you to exit the environs as he exits them, only to briefly revisit as a ‘star’, we know, almost intuitively, that Murad would still remain suspended in the cracks between vertical integration and horizontal sprawl. Reading against the grain, I would imagine Murad to continue to scratch at the boundaries of liberal and conservative worlds, suspended between the music of protest and the everyday grind of his tentative class subjectivity.
Akshaya Kumar is at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Indore.