“You have a college just for music?”

In a crowded bar in Mumbai, an aspiring hip-hop artist Murad (Ranveer Singh) asks Berklee student Sky (Kalki Koechlin) this question; an innocent and curious one as it may be, it’s a depressing reflection of India’s failure to value and encourage the performing arts.

This scene, for me, holds the core of Zoya Akhtar’s ‘Gully Boy’; a 20-something year old slum-dweller whose destiny dictates that he carves survival in a Dharavi chawl with an education to land a modest office job. Murad, however, yearns for a different sort of existence that satiates his passion, his junoon – to rap. It draws on a tragedy that we don’t account for when we think of the underprivileged population in this country – there is little space for their dreams.

Singh’s spectacular, subdued performance is matched by Alia Bhatt in her role as the feisty, possessive and aggressive Safeena. Their chemistry as a couple encompasses a warm familiarity that exists in blemished relationships that have lasted a long time. Your skin tingles when their burning gazes cut through the distance and people between them before reaching a crescendo of soft embraces and kisses in fortunate moments experienced alone.

Gully Boy’s plot is simple enough to evoke the feel-good factor whilst inspiring the audience on the subject of underground desi hip-hop used as a form of expression by voices that have been muted for far too long. The film draws inspiration from real-life Mumbai rappers Naezy and Divine who vented on social inequality, corruption, family strifes and government apathy. Their music was a form of revolution, drawing from personal stories and the shared misery and aspirations of young people in slums, the rebels with causes.

But the real question is – has the movie done justice to their incredible lives as the original gully boys?

No. In a two and a half hour film, there is little writing dedicated to capturing their struggles as rising artists in an environment that is barely conducive to basic survival needs. And although there is never a moment of boredom, Gully Boy fails to focus on how hard it must have been for men to bear the burdens of their fate and plod on with unconventional aspirations. Murad’s progression as an underdog rapper is too smooth. Apart from a single scene where he gets cold feet and backs away from a group of hot-headed rappers, he is able to land and navigate opportunities too conveniently with the support of the established rapper MC Sher (played by the brilliant debutant Siddhant Chaturvedi).

I can see that the writers, Akhtar & Kagti played it safe here, skating minimally over the grit needed to excavate angst and convert it to poetry and music. There is no conflict between Sher & Murad at any point and the consistent conflict-free rapport feels too unrealistic. None of Murad and Safeena’s irresponsible actions and crimes bear any real consequence, paving the way for an ending that wants to keep the audience content. And don’t even get me started on the contest bit, a badly manufactured plot device that is lazy and predictable.

That being said, Murad’s story is portrayed with remarkable subtlety; the forlorn expression borne as he dons headphones while his parents fight, when he walks outside a club and starts grooving to the thumping music but a stout bouncer gestures at him to move away (I can’t get over how amazing Singh’s performance is when he returns to his car and raps with rage to a song), when he measures the length of a plush bathroom with his slow steps, as he partakes in a rap battle with a tubby boy with chunky jewelry who hones in on his gully-ness and reminds him of the few saris his mother has.  

There are also a few decent attempts to address toxic masculinity. MC Sher takes on a bunch of boys who boo a female singer off stage. When Murad’s grandmother yells at his mother for raising a defiant son, he volleys it back at her, questioning her role in the upbringing of a violent and chauvinistic man – his father.

But neither Murad or Safeena or the naturally ebullient MC Sher stole my heart. The real hero for me was Murad’s crooked yet endearing friend Moeen, played by the fantastic Vijay Varma. I figure that there is a reason the film begins with him walking briskly in Mumbai’s dark shadows tinted with yellow street lights, smoking a cigarette and glancing around without a hint of trepidation before he deftly picks the lock of a car.

Moeen is the character you’d love to hate but simply cannot because he is the closest you’ll get to India’s reality personified, that someone can steal cars and use children to peddle drugs and still be human enough to ask a friend why he’s being such a jerk to the woman who loves him. In a well-crafted scene he asks Murad how his night out with his new ‘English’ friends was. As he teases Murad for not inviting him, sadness and envy hide behind a cloaked smile. Later when he’s captured by the police and beaten black and blue, Moeen refuses to let Murad help him and only asks him to feed the children who work for him.

Moeen, not Murad, made me cry. In a country stuffed with over a billion people, not everyone can sing ‘Apna time aayega’ and wait. There’s not enough luck, money and resources to go around for it. Period. Which is why his onscreen presence although limited, provokes the real dark questions we ought to think about ; on opportunities, widening income and class disparity, how hunger provokes desperation and the murky grey shades of truth we use to validate people as good or bad.

Gully Boy isn’t perfect. There are several clichés built in to exploit the slum narrative, the editing is sloppy and the plot goes haywire without focusing on the origin of street rap in slums. But the intention, music and stellar performances by every single cast member make it an important and entertaining piece. We have a mainstream film that’s using its marketing power to catapult real-life Murads and MC Shers into recognition. As part of a ‘Voice of the Streets’ campaign, several talented yet under-appreciated rappers (Kaam Bhaari, DEEMC, Dub Sharma, Spitfire) are being provided the opportunity to showcase their via short videos. This model of combining commercial success with concrete efforts towards specific causes is amazing. I only wish some of their rawness was incorporated directly into the film as a more honest attempt to disrupt our notions of privilege and poverty.