Enough has been said about Gully Boy and its many merits.
However, most Indian reviewers merely skim the surface by sticking to the same format – reveal the story, talk about the performances, and give it some stars. So ingrained is that style of reviewing in our systems, that product reviews on Amazon.in resemble Rajeev Masand’s opinions.
When I first heard of Gully Boy, I was sceptical.
I am sceptical everytime Bollywood claims to have ‘discovered’ something. With Rock On, they claimed to discover Indian Rock music. Ten years later, we find most rock bands in India playing Bollywood covers and Farhan Akhtar gracing the cover of Rolling Stone.
Bollywood did the same with Indipop too – bought all the artists and made them sing songs in movies, resulting in the death of a vibrant, thriving independent music industry. It did the same with rap too – an underground movement transformed into a shitfest of booze, boobz and babez. It is the same with nationalism too. I am wary of anything that Bollywood touches, for it has the opposite of the Midas touch on that industry.
One person who isn’t getting enough praise is cinematographer Jay Oza.
His shots of Mumbai at night are stunning. He chooses to zoom into Mumbai’s filth, and zoom out into her beauty at will. The characters are shown constricted in their houses, and thus, in their heads too. He captures the frustration of living in a small space – both physically and in the mind – with great skill.
Then there’s the fantastic casting, done with such care that leading man Ranveer Singh appears the weakest performer in the film. While the entire cast has won accolades, there’s not enough said about Vijay Varma who plays Moeen.
It is impossible to understand Murad without looking at Moeen. While most of us begin as Murads, we end up becoming Moeens. While Murad means desire, Moeen means a supporter, a provider of refuge. We all have a fire burning inside us – of varying colour and intensity – but we usually never get there. Circumstances, choices, or not chasing hard enough.
Vijay Varma’s Moeen is the reason Murad stands out. Without Moeen, Murad would be any other underdog who rises from the dust. It is through Moeen that we see how easy it is to slip, to go astray. To reach a point where employing kids to sell drugs can be justified, and even seems fair. Vijay Varma plays Moeen while walking a tightrope. Neither is he a complete tapori, nor is he the friend who sacrifices for the hero. He is both, and yet – neither.
The second Vijay in the film is Vijay Maurya – who plays Murad’s uncle, and has also written the dialogues of the film.
Vijay Maurya has existed in the film industry for a long, long time. He won a National Award for Best Original Screenplay for Chillar Party. He has also been on the screen since the 90s, most memorably as the chilling Dawood Ibrahim in Black Friday, and the station head in Tumhari Sulu. Playing Murad’s uncle, Vijay Maurya is caring but condescending. He wants to help Murad fly, while firmly welding a cage around him.
But it is through his dialogues that Vijay Maurya creates the soul of the film. Zoya Akhtar’s films have always had sharp dialogue – but they were always urbane, laced with English. Even in Luck By Chance – her most non-urban film so far – the dialogues were written by Javed Akthar. Choosing Vijay Maurya as the dialogue writer is a masterstroke. Having written plays and acted for decades, he has a grasp over the linguistic milieu that the film resides in.
Take the scene where Murad is speaking to Kalki Koechlin (who reprises her role as the Rich Bitch). Murad asks her ‘Hindi nahi aata?’. To which she replies, ‘Aati hai’. It is the obsession of the rich over perfect grammar, even if the meaning is the same. When MC Sher inspires Murad, he doesn’t sound like a translated version of a Paulo Coelho book. No ‘shikhar pe pahunchna’, no ‘aasmaan ko chhoona’. The words Maurya chooses are ‘Tere andar ke lava ko fattne de’.
The dialogues of the film ensure that the film doesn’t appear condescending, or preachy.
And finally, Vijay Raaz. Man!
I have been watching him act since the early 2000s, and every time I see him perform, I think to myself – ‘Ah! This guy has arrived’. And yet, he is constantly given half-baked roles to perform.
You can tell when actors shirk away from a role that isn’t meaty enough. Anupam Kher spent decades hamming his way through shoddy characters. The great Om Puri sleepwalked through his last few roles. The same goes for Naseeruddin Shah – who plays Naseeruddin Shah in every single movie. And yet, there is a certain honesty to every role Vijay Raaz plays, no matter how small, how forgettable.
What makes Gully Boy stand out from Zoya Akhtar’s other films is the presence of an actual, breathing nemesis. Zoya’s films usually have no real antagonist. In Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara, the strains of friendship are tested. In Dil Dhadakne Do, it is the pressure of being a family – there is no real villain in her films.
But Vijay Raaz, (named Shakir – someone who provides, who fulfils his responsibility) gives Murad’s nemesis a face, a shape. He is everything Murad wants to break out of. He is the reason Murad smokes joints on the terrace, and sheds silent tears. Shakir might be one of Zoya Akhtar’s greatest roles written, simply because of how earthy, how believable he is – a carefully constructed amalgam of all our fathers.
When Vijay Raaz slaps, it is not a filmy slap – it lands right on the cheek, with the fist flicking for best results. When he asks Murad to wear his shirt, it is the insecurity of a man married to a much younger woman. When he pleads, it is the desperate pleading of a father to his son. When he sheds tears in the last scene, it is Murad’s greatest victory.
If the film ended with Murad in front of screaming fans – it would have felt nice, but incomplete. It is when we see Vijay Raaz wiping his tears and bowing his head that we know that Murad has truly won. Vijay Raaz plays the oldest role in Indian stories – the strict father – with the most humane of touches – it is a master at work!
The success of Gully Boy should also be speaking about Reema Kagti. Perennially in the shadows of her friend Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti has one of the most impressive CVs in the industry. Just have a look at her filmography, and tell me it doesn’t make you jealous!
Gully Boy’s greatest victory lies in it humanising the underdog story.
Our underdog stories are always loaded with machismo. They are about physical transformations, about blood and sweat, men punching their way out of misery, or slogging their way to the top. It is a hyper-masculine narrative that is all muscle, all brawn.
Perhaps it needed two women to dissect the more humane side of things. In Gully Boy, Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti dissect the underdog. They lay him on a table, strip him of the muscles and brawn, and dig deep into his soul.
Gully Boy is not life-changing, or path-breaking. But it is effective cinema. It is a story where characters feel like real people. Where the writers put in efforts to ensure the roll numbers of students in the exam hall are consistent. Where the bouncer who first denies Murad entry guides him in. Where Muslim characters do not say ‘Ya Allah’ once every seven minutes. Where characters have arcs that are completed.
Gully Boy is effective storytelling. And in times like ours, an effective film seems like a blessing from heaven.