There’s a beautiful sequence mid-way into Gully Boy where Murad (Ranveer) and Safeena (Alia Bhatt) have an argument for the very first time. The sequence doesn’t resolve the dispute and the camera moves high up into the air showing us exactly where the lovers meet. It’s a bridge that connects two different classes together. It’s also the only clean place that they could supposedly find but the catch is – It’s built upon a lake that has turned into a trash dump. It’s a nice little analogy to the love that Murad and Safeena share. It is pure and unconventional but is also rigged with societal norms and the rage that they can’t foresee as the harshness of being born with a pre-conceived, ill-fitted ‘dream’ doesn’t give space for having one that truly rings true to them.
Zoya Akhtar’s film always stays true to the love-story that binds this template coming-of-age drama together. With elements of truly genius and genuinely intriguing dramatic arcs, she even manages to keep things engaging. But unlike its protagonist whose heart fancies an altruistic gaze, it never so much as tries to take the scalp off the boundaries that the film is surrounded by or seems to inhabit. The underground rap-scene that makes Murad firstly realize his passion and talent and secondly transform him into a better version of himself is complete side-tracked as a getaway that gets things going. The self-containment that the film so verbally criticizes is never actually sensed as an escape. It all drivels into a narrative to ploy over plot-points that force it to become relatable.
Set in Dharavi – Mumbai’s biggest slums that actively serves as a residence for a varied number of people, Gully Boy knows how thugs, drunkards, enlightened and no-so-enlightened youth co-exist together. They all live under roofs that are mostly part of the constant fascination for people who come from outside the country to investigate and judge how people live in circumstances where every inch of ground is made to good use. Murad is a young final year student who keeps chugging his reality but never fit into this constant circle of being able to live an okay life. He lives with his abusive father who drives rich people around to keep his house intact. There’s also his mother who has been left off to wash dishes and live with another woman that his father has married into the mundanity of their lives.
Amidst all this chaos, Murad finds his solace in his verses that he keeps to himself. His escapes are his uncomfortable strolls to steal cars that his cautious friend gets him into. His comforts are his stash of weed that helps him simmer the pain at home and confusion about what’s right to get them into his poetry and understanding his girlfriend who has escapes of her own. It’s their love that keeps both of them sane in a life that they have no control over. Their unison is comforting and understated which makes their romance believable and authentic. Akhtar – Who previously explored only rich lives, manages to give them characteristic situations that avoid turning them into caricatures. However, she never seems to get that exploring these lives don’t call for exploiting them. She doesn’t take any wrong steps in her narrative and plays it safe when it comes to present the story as a political and social construct.
These distractions find their way into Murad’s lyrics but what is shown on the screen as a part of rap-battles only succumb to theatrics that has raved the rap-scene for so long that criticizing it for its face value is not enough. Also, there’s a severely underdeveloped subplot involving an Indo-American music producer Sky (Kalki Koechlin) who comes into the narrative as a thread to move Murad’s life forward. There’s nothing wrong with having a character who gets one’s life going, but Zoya uses her as a disruption both in the social construct of rebellion and a substandard love interest that serves as an unwanted conflict. The subtlety that she had gained through her carefully calibrated first-half goes out of the window and less essential things come to the foreground.
There are brilliant scenes here and there – Especially the one that involves a solid confrontation between wit and wisdom where the father and son talk face to face with their emotions out in the open, but a chunk of others just skim through the coming-of-age underdog story cliches. There are solid performances all around with some crackling surprises, but Gully Boy – Which could have easily been the first great Hindi film of the year, just manages to stay safe for possible likeness as a crowd-pleaser.