‘Gully Boy’ review: Joan of Story Arc

LICH rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

With a run time of 153 minutes, Gully Boy seemed to go on for a bit more than I thought it ought to. At one point, I even wondered if the storyline was meant for a streaming mini-series. But try as I might, I was darned if I could figure out where she could have cut a piece away to streamline the timing.

She being writer-director Zoya Akhtar (regular collaborator Reema Kagti co-wrote this venture), for whom characters aren’t someone to dispense with to make way for the story. In all of her ventures, it’s the other way round, and Gully Boy is no exception—her characters are important, what happens to them is critical to her story-telling and she makes you care. Not just for the lead protagonists, but almost every apposing human frame who share the screen with them. Not for her her actors twiddling their thumbs, looking awkwardly at their feet or gape at some marker in space; they’re all, always in motion, their emotional kinetics always in real-time motion, and it’s up to her to decide who to capture and when.

Ranveer Singh: what do you mean I got to keep my energy in?

And so it is with Gully Boy, her grittiest venture yet. And not just because she’s abandoned the glitzy for the slum. Every one of her ventures has never pulled the punches in visceral emotions, never mind if she wrapped them in upper class sheen—human smiles, tears, and violence are the same, be it in faux stylistic accent or everyday language. But here, she gets down to capture not just the “be who you want” leitmotif that’s also common to all her movies—she does it with unbridled rebellion power, using the underground rap movement in Mumbai and singeing lyrics that conflate the distance between dreams and reality, between flying high and the lack of wings.

Loosely (and that’s a term I use rather loosely) based on the lives of real-life Indian rappers Divine and Naezy, the movie is about Murad Ahmed (Ranveer Singh) and his life in the slums of Dharavi, where his college sojourns are lit up by girlfriend Safeena Firdausi (Alia Bhatt), their meetings inside the BEST buses a chess move in the crowd, especially because Safeena’s accompanied by her mother Hameeda (Sheeba Chaddha, superb) for part of the journey. And when they connect, it’s through music on shared earphones and holding hands. That’s all the space they get, even as a child lolls on Safeena’s shoulder.

Alia Bhatt, Ranveer Singh: Mumbai romance is the BEST.

Unbeknownst to Safeena, Murad is straddling the fence in bad company, courtesy Moeen (an absolutely brilliant Vijay Verma); the bad companying involves stealing cars and it’s only a matter of time that the cops will catch up. On the home front, father Aftab Ahmed (Vijay Raaz, simply terrific), a chauffer, chaperones home his new wife, while Murad’s mother Razia (Amruta Subhash in a scintillating and devastating act) is left boiling in an emotional cooker that’ll explode someday. Aftab’s mother and Murad’s grandmother (Jyoti Subhash, real life mother of Amruta Subhash, if you’re interested, delivering a fine performance) is all but blind to her son’s domestic shenanigans. Plus, there’s Razia’s brother Ateeq (Vijay Maurya, very effective and also penning the driving-the-point-sharply dialogues), well-to-do, but keeping an arm’s length from his sister’s marital black-and-blues.

Vijay Raaz (right) thinks Ranveer’s Murad’s got too much cheek.

In the scene where Aftab gets his new bride home, Murad shows what really powers him. A la Ansel Elgort‘s character in Baby Driver, he simply plugs in his earphones to dull the reality. And what a superbly designed scene it is. The sound design is smashingly good, as the earphones act as buffers to the roiling that’s all around Murad. It’s in meeting Shrikant / MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi showing what it means to live the role in a beautifully supportive act) via a Facebook post that Murad discovers the pipeline to his inner turmoil-catalysed lyrics. The story and camera follow Murad all around, almost stalking him, obsessed with him, but never ignoring all those around him. This includes the sub-plot involving him and Shweta/Sky (Kalki Koechlin) that is perhaps the weakest of all arcs in the movie, aligning completely to the trope of the protagonist’s North star, invariably falling for him and then doing what is right by the story—which is surprising because her character shows Murad the way to graffiti-sprayed liberation. I expected more relational fight in her.

Siddhant Chaturvedi, Ranveer Singh rap it out.

But despite this flaw and her movie’s length, director Zoya Akhtar shows why she’s the Joan of story arcs. Every sub-plot is intrinsic to the main journey and is beautifully detailed. With cinematographer Jay Oza, she uses a grungy tint in her lenses, capturing so many aspects of life in a slum—the unabashed tourism, the patriarchal crushing via financial threats and security, the strata-layer within communities. It’s not easy for anyone, as Murad’s jaywalking-on-the-deadlier-side-of-law friend Moeen tells him. And Akhtar shows it without being exploitative.

But it’s in the end-credit sequences that she truly overwhelms you, beautifully capturing the prologue of her character’s lives, a satisfying and grateful lump in your throat the memory of the rapper’s journey. And in acting out the titular role, Ranveer Singh is a winner. His energy is but molten lava flowing inside him, his restrained act the highlight of the movie. He reaches out to you in a shy, sly manner, and there’s an irresistible likeability to his presence, just as he gestures to Alia Bhatt’s Safeena across grilled windows and railway platforms. And when he does explode in the end, it’s a volcano of rap lyrics (that the actor recorded himself) that leaves you stunned and breathless. To his uncertain rebel is Alia Bhatt’s counterbalancing superb act. She’s fiery, she’s funny, and she’s real. The actress is effortless in what is a secondary domain and yet is unforgettable. She’s a tigress who’ll roar and maul to ensure her loved one remains in the purview of her jungle. But dare he step out of the jungle, she won’t hesitate to burn it down with her emotions-fuelled flame-thrower. His time’s come and she knows it.

LICH ratings chart
1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5): Don’t bother
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5): Not too great
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5): Worth a watch
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5): Very good
5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5): Drop everything else NOW

Gully Boy (2019) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

Gully Boy is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) There’s intense sequences mostly emotional in nature and some kissing.

Gully Boy
Director Zoya Akhtar Running Time 2h 33min
Writers Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti
Stars Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Vijay Raaz, Amruta Subhash
Genres  Drama, Music