Cinema and music are both powerful media on their own, and even more so together. Perhaps this is why Gully Boy is one of the most hyped and anticipated films of 2019. The energy its soundtrack creates is magnified on the big screen, to create a pulsating atmosphere that has virtually everyone tapping their feet to the beats.
A film as hyped and acclaimed as Gully Boy should ideally also be subject to a proportional amount of scrutiny.
Rave reviews have poured in from all quarters and merely watching it once in a packed theatre would give you a hint of how big a pop cultural phenomenon the film and its music have become.
Praise for Gully Boy has been pouring in ever since the trailer was released. (Photo: YouTube/screengrab)
Praise for certain aspects of the film’s craft is well-deserved.
But the fact that the identity and politics of its maker and its two leads has either been forgotten by most critics, or reduced to a footnote, shows that Indian film criticism has a long way to go to understand that art cannot be separated from the artist.
Gully Boy is inspired from rapper Divine’s life, a man who grew up poor in a slum with an abusive father. His experiences informed his lyrics, which were about the world he came from. His success is owed to the fact that people from that world related to his music. Rap music originated as the voice of the oppressed and Divine’s songs were just that.
Now consider writer-director Zoya Akhtar and actors Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, who will, undoubtedly, get the lion’s share of the credit for the success of Gully Boy.
To many, each of them can appear a product of nepotism, and from a class that constitutes the 0.001% of India.
Akhtar was privileged enough to study film at New York University and was able to make feature films under the banner of her brother’s production house without the struggle that outsiders undergo.
Alia Bhatt had the privilege of Karan Johar, one of the most well-known filmmakers in the industry, making a film just for the sake of launching her when she was 18. She once remarked that Parineeti Chopra’s command over Hindi (possibly the most basic requirement for acting in Hindi films) made her ‘insecure’.
And then there’s Ranveer Singh, who said last year that he had only vacationed in Indonesia, Singapore, Italy, and the US growing up because his family “didn’t have a lot of money.”
He also recently said that he was “apolitical” because there was “too much going on in his life” to care about politics.
The maker and the lead stars of Gully Boy inhabit a different world from what the movie depicts. (Photo: India Today)
His response to being asked about the film appropriating the Azaadi chant was to say that he hasn’t “engaged much with the song” and that for him, it’s just “catchy.”
Clearly, he intends to disown any aspect of the film that might lead to uncomfortable questions, while cashing in on everything that earns him praise.
A so-called artist picking and choosing what parts of his 'art' he takes responsibility for.
The rank privilege these heavily Westernised people come from puts them in the crème de la crème of Indian society. A society that is so stratified based on caste and class that it can very easily be argued that these people choosing to make a film about a world so far removed from theirs is a form of cultural appropriation.
What business does a man who doesn’t understand that being “apolitical” is an option only for the uber-privileged, or that art is never apolitical, have playing a man from Dharavi, for whom rap is the only way out of poverty?
What business does a woman whose success and talent were practically pre-decided have playing a woman for whom studying and being financially independent is the only way to control her life?
Above all, what business does a filmmaker whose life experiences have apparently been limited to the world of Bombay’s elite have cashing in on the voice of the streets by exoticising the slums?
The song Mere Gully Mein has been blatantly Bollywoodised and turned into a heavily choreographed dance number. Many shots in the song are telling, as everyone, including the conventionally attractive Siddhant Chaturvedi, blends right into the surroundings, while Ranveer Singh sticks out because try as he might, he simply doesn’t belong to that world.
Had a film in virtually any Western country apparently made a fair-skinned person artificially darker to make them seem ‘poorer’ — to my mind, that's what seems to have happened — there would be an uproar that would be the sole point of debate on the film, craft be damned.
Ranveer was apparently made to look 'darker'. So far, there has been no outrage on this. (Photo: Screenshot/YouTube)
But the extent of our brainwashing at the hands of Bollywood is so obvious now that virtually no major film critic has chosen to focus on the purported use of bronzer seemingly to make Ranveer Singh darker.
Of the kind of struggle the film’s two main characters — Murad and Safeena — have to undergo, Singh, Bhatt, and Akhtar know nothing, for despite the glimpses of talent they’ve shown, they’ve also effectively had their careers handed to them on a platter.
It even shows in the film’s final scene, when Singh’s Murad sings the anthem Apna Time Aayega on stage like a performer voicing someone else’s ‘cool’ lines and enjoying the stage — rather than a man showcasing his art that comes from every fibre of his being and bares his soul.
Singh and Bhatt, who have both been riding on the success of Padmaavat, Simmba, and Raazi last year, have already been showered with acclaim for performances that wouldn’t turn a head coming from a character actor.
The very fact that two rich star kids from Bandra and Juhu are being lauded for being believable as Dharavi residents proves that their privilege, besides having given them unearned opportunities, is also setting the bar lower for them.
Rapper Divine has actually lived the music he makes. His life experiences are not a robe to be borrowed by a rich kid. (Photo: Instagram/vivianakadivine)
Not only will this film boost their careers even more, it will counter all criticism of Akhtar for making films about rich people facing first-world problems.
Worse is that for all our wokeness, we’re conditioned to instinctively respond to this line of criticism by asking how else a film like this can be made.
It can be made when instead of just getting real rappers to lend authenticity to the rap battle scenes, one looks beyond star kids to cast the leads.
It can be made if this feudal industry opened its doors and empowered the actual voice of the streets to tell their own stories, rather than appropriating it to add to the narrative of the talent and success of very average star kids.