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Berlin Film Review: ‘Gully Boy’

A mainstream rap musical served up with generous helpings of deftly written hip-hop lyrics and an appealing, largely well-woven narrative starring Ranveer Singh in all his charms.

Director:
Zoya Akhtar
With:
Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Siddhant Chaturvedi

2 hours 33 minutes

Official Site: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2395469/

A Bollywood movie about a rapper from the slums may sound derivative, but what does that matter when “Gully Boy” revels in high-wattage screen chemistry and an inclusive social message, all served up in a slickly enjoyable production showcasing Ranveer Singh’s many charms? Zoya Akhtar’s most accomplished film to date is a mainstream rap musical about a Muslim guy from working-class Mumbai determined to break free from the strictures of expectation and class, all served up with generous helpings of deftly written hip-hop lyrics and a largely well-woven narrative that’s so likable one can almost forgive how the script barely bothers to resolve an important plot element.

Even though few Bollywood films break through into non-specialized distribution, this one has a better chance than most to become an international crowdpleaser, polishing and semi-pop-ifying the gritty genre for a broader audience as it does. It doesn’t hurt that Nas is credited as one of the executive producers, and the production isn’t shy about dropping his name at key moments. Neither do Akhtar (“Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara”) and co-writer Reema Kagti (“Talaash”) try to pretend “8 Mile” wasn’t partly an inspiration, as testified by a glimpsed photo of Eminem, though Indian hip-hop stars Divine and Naezy are the acknowledged models. In fact, one of the pleasures of “Gully Boy” is in recognizing how the writers take certain formulas — such as the mismatched posse that so often surrounds Bollywood heroes, the exaggerated jealousies of girlfriends, the sacred mother figure, and so on — and give them fresh life via characters effortlessly exuding charisma.

College student Murad (Singh) lives with his family in a crowded tenement in the densely populated Mumbai slum of Dharavi. Tension in the tiny home reaches breaking point when his father Shakir (Vijay Raaz) takes a second wife, played out in a terrific scene in which a fuming Murad puts on headphones and drowns out traditional wedding tunes with A$AP Rocky’s “Everyday.” Murad’s heart is shared equally between rap music and his girlfriend Safeena (Alia Bhatt, “Raazi”), a sharp-witted medical student from a religiously conservative higher caste family who has to hide her relationship from her strict parents.

At a university jam session, Murad meets amateur rapper Sher (impressive relative newcomer Siddhant Chaturvedi), who encourages the hesitant student to perform his own lyrics, brimming with social injustice and the obscenity of the caste system. Possibilities are opening up, but then Murad’s father has an accident and forces his son to take his place as a chauffeur for a rich family. The pressures are huge: finish school, work on his raps, drive around the entitled employers, and try to steal some time with Safeena.

Once his father is back on the job and Murad graduates, the idea is for him to work in his uncle’s office; for Shakir, it represents the pinnacle of what can be expected from the son of a lowly servant. However, Murad’s plans have started to soar under Sher’s encouragement, and the pair record a rap video in the neighborhood that goes viral. Rich wannabe music producer Sky (Kalki Koechlin) sees the video and offers to fund a professional recording session around the same time that Nas announces he’s sponsoring a rap battle where the winner will be his opening act.

Naturally, Safeena gets crazy jealous of Sky, and of course there’s a break up more or less at the moment when Shakir’s violence against Murad’s mother Razia (Amruta Subhash) and Murad himself comes to a boil, forcing them to flee. Here’s when one of the side plots really goes off the rails: to earn much-needed money, Murad joins up with his buddy Moeen (Vijay Varma), a smalltime drug dealer and car hijacker. Moeen’s a nasty character who happily employs kids to do his dirty work, so the friendship simply doesn’t make sense, and the script’s way of awarding him redemption at the very end is both nonsensical and misguided.

It also adds nothing to the treatment of caste and expectation, which elides with the film’s major theme: Dream big. Murad feels the disparity around him, rebels against his father’s attempt to limit his horizons in the name of tradition, and refuses to end his relationship with Safeena just because her family comes from another class. Similarly, Safeena won’t give up Murad and plays the game of being the dutiful hijab-wearing daughter (she’s an expert prevaricator) until such time as she and her loved one can be independent.

One of the joys of “Gully Boy” is reveling in the chemistry between Singh and Bhatt, perfectly paired: Her ironic smile meets his open-faced grin and the screen lights up. Sure Singh is about 10 years older than his character, but he has the boyish charm to pull off the role, and he raps like a pro to boot. Musical numbers are expectedly energetic, many featuring words by the director’s famed writer-lyricist father Javed Akhtar that fit the message like a glove. Contemporary Indian rappers add a note of authenticity but there’s no denying who’s the star of this show. For the record, “gully” means “street,” and “Gully Boy” becomes his moniker.

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Berlin Film Review: 'Gully Boy'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special), Feb. 7, 2019. Running time: 153 MIN.

Production: (India) An AA Films release of an Excel Entertainment, Tiger Baby presentation of an Excel Entertainment prod. (Int'l sales: Cinestaan International, London.) Producers: Ritesh Sidhwani, Zoya Akhtar, Farhan Akhtar. Executive producers: Stuti V Ramachandra, Nas.

Crew: Director: Zoya Akhtar. Screenplay: Reema Kagti, Akhtar. Camera (color, widescreen): Jay Oza. Editor: Nitin Baid. Music: Karsh Kale, the Salvage Audio Collective.

With: Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Kalki Koechlin, Vijay Raaz, Amruta Subhash, Vijay Varma, Jyoti Subhash, Vijay Maurya, Sheeba Chaddha, Soma R. Jain, Sanjay Udeshi, Ved Thapar, Chaitanya Sharma, Surveen Chawla. (Hindi dialogue)

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  1. How ignorant is this review? First, Ranvir Singh and Alia Bhatt’s characters in the movie are Muslim. And caste is not an issue for urban muslims in India in general. The tension here is due to the class difference between a doctor’s family and a driver’s family. Second, questioning the moral choices made by a character growing up in the slums in bizarre. Would the author dare question the morality of an african-american rapper dealing drugs on the streets of Harlem to feed his family? If your publication is reviewing an international film, at least have the sense of assigning the review to someone who actually understands the culture of that country.

  2. What is nonsensical and misguided here is your review, Mr. Weissberg. It’s clear that you simply cannot understand the socio-economic and cultural nuances of this world (” a sharp-witted medical student from a religiously conservative higher caste family”, wait what?! Lol). It is perhaps also illegal/unethical to give away so many spoilers. Most certainly irresponsible!

  3. “A Bollywood movie about a rapper from the slums may sound derivative” – Good clickbait of an opener. Considering its based on real rappers who hail from the slums and chawls of Mumbai, why would it?

    “Murad joins up with his buddy Moeen (Vijay Varma), a smalltime drug dealer and car hijacker…” – Have you even watched the movie? That’s probably one of the most realistic and best written characters in the entire movie. He refuses to name Murad as an accomplice when he gets caught – helps him get the cash he needs to live independently, and the kids he employs are orphans. He’s not running a charity for them, because he can’t afford to. Whatever his methods, Murad knows he owes his success to Moeen and gets him out on bail – it’s very likely he gets convicted anyway. How is that nonsensical?

    Also, caste is never an issue in the film. The issue is class. How uninformed do you have to be to confuse the two?

    “one can almost forgive how the script barely bothers to resolve an important plot element.” – I hope you get around to this crucial plot point by your next review.

    You do know it is possible to review a movie without giving away the entirety of the plot, right? And in case your proclivities do get the better of you, it is possible to warn audiences with a friendly “spoilers ahead” tag?

    Seriously, if you can’t do justice to a good movie with your review, don’t do it. Unless you’ve become so jaded that you know no one reads these things, in which case switch to another form of writing where carelessness is the norm, like journalism.

  4. I think Moeen is actually one of the most authentic characters in the movie. One can disapprove of their friends and their morals but that doesn’t mean one abandons them. He does what he can to survive in a very tough world – your take on this is a very privileged point of view.

  5. “one can almost forgive how the script barely bothers to resolve an important plot element.”

    What plot point are you referring to here? Please drop a hint, it’s driving me crazy trying to figure this out

  6. “Moeen’s a nasty character who happily employs kids to do his dirty work, so the friendship simply doesn’t make sense, and the script’s way of awarding him redemption at the very end is both nonsensical and misguided.” — This isn’t a black-and-white world. This is a world of poverty and survival and misery and hope. Moeen does what he does because he knows this is one way to survive in a world where all bets are placed against him (he’s poor, he’s Muslim, and he doesn’t hold the talent Murad does). To Moeen, what he does by employing young kids is give them a place to survive. This is made plenty clear in a scene where Murad confront Moeen and questions him about his decisions. Moeen says, “I’m not the bad guy here, I’m giving them a roof to live in and food to eat – the bad guys are the people who dumped these kids on the side of the road to fend for themselves.” Moeen’s been kind to Murad, and to these boys. Which is why Murad empathizes with Moeen.

  7. Too many plot points given away. And both Murad and Safeena are Muslims, not Hindus (she even wears a hijab, for crying out loud!) Caste doesn’t really figure in Muslim Indians’ lives as it’s a primarily Hindu belief system. Economic class and conservatism are the barriers to Murad and Safeena’s relationship. Please do some basic research before you write about films from other cultures.

  8. You are mixing up class and caste. They are two distinct concepts. Caste is part and parcel of Hindu religious system. How exactly is it present in a Muslim rapper’s life? You might want to do some research.

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