‘Gully Boy’ deserves both celebration and reflection

Rahul Vaidya
Amidst the manufactured fury and ‘josh’ of cinematic jingo-nationalist glory all
through January (‘Uri’, ‘Thackeray’, ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’) and then
somber moment of Pulwama terrorist attacks and counter (surgical) strikes being
turned to new levels of political frenzy; was the recent release and commercial
success of Hindi film ‘Gully Boy’ (directed by acclaimed director Zoya Akhtar).
 No wonder that remarkable success of
this film did little to shape the public conversation at large. The film which
takes on serious issues of class, urban ghettos, patriarchy, and
counter-cultural forms of expressions of the underground in a serious manner
and gravitas was clearly at odds with cheer-leading Hindu Majoritarian consumer
middle class mobs that matter for box offices. Cinematic critical acclaim and
commercial success aside, this film deserves a larger conversation and debate
and here is my attempt to pen down a few thoughts in this regard.

the outset, ‘Gully Boy’ is a classic underdog, rags to riches story. Murad
(Ranveer Singh) is a final year college student staying in Dharavi slum with
his dysfunctional family. His driver father is abusive and keeps everyone on
their toes, he fights with Murad and his mother and has got a second wife.
Amidst all the chaos and harsh poverty; Murad has some fine support from his
girlfriend Safeena (Alia Bhatt) who is feisty and comes from well-off family
with her father a doctor. And of course, he has poetry and rap music. As with
rappers all around, another rapper MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi) takes him
under his wings, shares the techniques and tricks of the trade and fighting all
hardships and abyss of bleak future of car stealing, mechanic, AC repairing,
drug dealing etc. that is staring in the face; Murad goes on to discover his
‘self’, his identity as ‘artist’ and of course winning contest, popularity, and
wonder that aspiring middle class, youth would identify with ‘Gully Boy’ which ends
on the promise and confident proclamation of ‘apna time aayega’. Some
commentators have criticized the film as ‘a markedly neo-liberal moment in
Bollywood’[1] which
fails to appreciate the crux of hip hop that is identity and harsh reality of
urban ghetto life. The film fails to track political roots of the hip hop as
protest music against discrimination and ghettoisation. Further, the rap songs
in the film – ‘Jingostan’ and ‘Azadi’ (JNU protests) are poignant but they are
stripped of the specific context and rappers’ reaction to it[2].
Apart from this, there has been criticism that how despite trying to distance
itself from exoticising poverty, Dharavi etc., the film ends up doing exactly
would like to argue that this criticism misses something critical that is at
heart at this film (and Zoya Akhtar’s other films as well)- here’s a film maker
which goes about her work not in a straightforward but in a layered fashion and
treats the familiar tropes not just with sensibility and sensitivity but also deception
and cunning grounded in realism. It is quite easy to miss the subtle elements in works such as
this, and to only list out the usual offenses of commercial Hindi Bollywood.
class is central to the film is accepted by everyone including critics. So what
is it that requires our attention? That the ‘underdog’ story here doesn’t go
along the lines of ‘angry young man’ themes of Bollywood is as much recognition
of reality of 30 years of neo-liberal reforms and the shift in politics as well
as identity of ‘working class’ as we understand and not only a political choice
of playing to the gallery of aspiring middle class. If anything, it is
important to underline that even ‘angry young man’ was also a trope with which
cinema-going middle class of the 70s identified with and hence was as much an
effort to play to the gallery if not more. What is more, that image of ‘angry
young man’ (intricately linked to Amitabh Bacchan) had firm ground in upper
caste, middle- lower middle class imagination of seeing oneself as savior,
taking on the dirty world of mafia, corruption, politicians, worshipping
‘mother’ while displaying a nihilistic ethic otherwise. There was a cathartic
pleasure involved in seeing ‘angry young man’ do the dirty job for you on
screen while speaking language of authority and power. This language was
captivating. It was poetic. But it was foreign to working class and the poor
all the same. They definitely enjoyed it, identified with it. But it was world
of sheer fantasy and escape. It was corruption of imagination. No wonder that
it coincided with discrediting the idea of collective action and strikes. It
spoke against big businessmen, but sought the easy way out of outwitting them
via mafia. This Robin Hood politics was certainly regressive although the
drapery it was cloaked in spoke of poor and systemic injustice.
have been plenty of films in last 30 years which have not gone the route of
‘angry young man’ and yet either ended up glamorizing mafia or acquiring riches
one way or the other. ‘Gully Boy’ resolutely stays away from either. It is
striking to locate Murad and poverty and working class experience that shapes
him. The sheer in-your-face inequality he encounters, struggles against system,
abusive father, ghettos all are familiar experiences of millions of people. and
it is equally essential to note that merely because these are all familiar, out
in the open experiences has not led people to take up arms or rise in
rebellion. The overarching thread that knits this unjust and unequal ‘system’
together is something that Murad is grappling with. Murad has seen both options
on offer from the ‘system’: abyss of everyday life to make a living, or to make
an acceptable dent in hierarchy through art to climb the social ladder. He is
not joining mafia, or political party- which is curiously considered to exist
somehow more ‘outside the system’ by some.
He is angry, but he is not naïve. He vents his anger through poetry but
he understands the reality of something called ‘socially necessary labor time’
which capitalism neatly develops and determines the worth of each and every
commodity including art. He is aware that capitalism has robbed him and
millions like others to properly even ‘dream’. But at the same time, there is a
possibility for someone in Murad’s position that capitalism opens up to reach
out to millions of people which hitherto was impossible. Social media or
otherwise, it is only under capitalism that music and other cultural forms
develop and travel far and wide extending their influence in unimaginable
forms. This exposure to information, culture, and media leads to
democratization. It leads to and shapes up eco-systems which thrive upon
cosmopolitan experience. Marx was enthusiastic about city life for this very
reason. The city was to be praised for at least one thing, the escape it offers
from what he called “the idiocy of village life“. The ghettos
working people in cities inhabit often resemble the villages and customs, caste
and creed divisions. But the possibility of cosmopolitan experience and the
process of individuation that capitalism offers is what Murad’s search is for. Murad
is clear about focus of his struggle: roti, kapada, makan aur internet. Murad’s
journey of rapping and hip hop is hence less about aspiring luxuries and riches
and more about his struggle against the tyranny of everyday life of de-skilling
and creative numbness that is enforced on millions of working people as
capitalism warrants to have an army of cheap labor that is easily replaceable;
men and women who have retrospectively taken spots of robots yet to arrive. In
short, would Murad rap if there was no contest? Yes. He would. Would he
continue to rap if he lost? Yes, he would. That is the puzzle many people seem
to be completely missing.
let us turn to the question of identity. The objection that Murad is Muslim and
believer is not central focus of the film has upset many critics, especially
since hip hop and its association with Black resistance, and Black Panthers He
is not joining mafia, or political party- which is considered to exist somehow
more ‘outside the system’ by some. I would argue here is the case of critics
simply projecting their preferences onto rappers/ artists to carry out certain
political movements and tackle questions. Mumbai witnessed the riots in
1992-93. Sri Krishna Commission report has not been implemented even till date.
No political party has taken up the cause of riot victims and Muslims thrown in
ghettos in reality. Is it the case that ‘Gully Boy’ should have done a fantasy
trip where Murad becomes a star rapper who waxes eloquent about Muslim pride
and self-respect and demand abolition of ghettos et al? MIM and Asaduddin
Owaisi have steered their politics in this direction, but it doesn’t resonate
with larger oppressed minorities the way Black protests did in US. The
correspondence between art and politics is such that politics inspires art or
at least elevates and supports it and not the other way round. Dalit Panthers
led by Namdev Dhasal and their protest poetry in Marathi certainly is great
example of convergence of art and politics. But Dalit protests and politics
could grow and reach out to other oppressed sections because of its ‘part of no
part’ social identity which resembled proletariat. We have several examples of radical
Dalit balladeers, singers (Anna Bhau Sathe, Sambhaji Bhagat, Kabir Kala Manch,
Waman Kardak, Ginni Mahi to name a few). Unless something similar happens in
Muslim social and political experience, it is cynical to expect films like
‘Gully Boy’ to start a fire when there is none. The film is shrewd enough to
convey how ghetto has shaped up even the employment choices for Murad: AC
repairing, driving, mechanic, car stealing, drugs, and music. (The double
exclusion of Muslim women via patriarchy and ghettoisation is depicted even
more sensitively- in Safeena’s fight for continuing her education and
relationship with Murad as well as Murad’s mother having to struggle with her
husband and then brother refusing to support her) On an aside, Do Naezy and
Divine and other rappers in India, (many of whom are from minority communities
and who have inspired this film) situate themselves in ‘Muslim/ Christian
Pride’ frames? They do not. They speak of ghettos but also they speak of so
many other issues and situations. And their rap is about local pride,
brotherhood, everyday struggle as well.
with this is the question of what constitutes rap? What constitutes art and
what is its politics? Is rap mere noise and clever play of words with drum
beats? Or is it song of the oppressed? Perhaps evolution of hip hop (and before
that, art forms like Jazz) as protest music needs greater enquiry. It didn’t
start with motto of intervening in overt politics; hip hop started to challenge
the beats and tunes of disco in 1970s which sought to exclude the poor and
marginalized and catered to glossy, well-to-do patrons in sophisticated
dresses. Rap was born in streets and parks of New York suburbs like Bronx to
come up with an inviting tune which invited all to join the party/ fun. Over
the period, it integrated elements of soul, funk, techno, rock, disco; it also
took more explicit shape of protest music. Indian rap and hip hop may seem like
‘foreign’ and exotic influence at the outset. However, as Indian rappers have
time and again expressed, this ‘foreign’ sound is more authentic to their life
which captures the beat and the pace, the frenzy, excitement and fury of their
experience. This rap is protest against romantic/ cliched tunes of mainstream
Bollywood music which ‘dumbs down’ working people from experiments in their
art. The fact that Indian hip hop quickly evolved to speak the vernacular
languages and many artists from slums are coming up is promising. In
Althusserian terms, theirs is correct ‘working class instinct’; whether it
leads them to reach fully worked out ‘working class position’ and lead to
larger explicit political interventions is bit too premature. But, the very
fact that a mainstream commercial Hindi film provides this experiment a solid,
realist platform is heartening.
The Author is an Independent Researcher based in New Delhi