No costume drama: 'Gully Boy' and being Muslim in Bollywood today

In Bollywood, over many decades, for every Vijay, Prem and Rahul, there were just no Rahims or Abduls. Until, finally, there was a Murad!

 |  5-minute read |   09-03-2019
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In a recent freewheeling chat with Anupama Chopra, Zoya Akhtar spoke about the sheer length of her film, Gully Boy. At approximately 2 hours and 33 minutes, the Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt starrer is way too long compared to what we are used to these days.

But she didn’t want to cut any scene out.

Primarily because there were far too many artistes involved in the making of the film, and she didn’t want to break anyone’s hearts. But also because every scene, she says, contributes to the holistic experience of the film — in establishing a character, a mood, an impetus.

The first couple of times I watched Gully Boy, I was a kid in a candy store. I am not even ashamed to admit that I would have rated it 6 out of 5 stars if the better sense of my editor hadn’t prevailed. On my third watch, however, I noticed several things — nuances, underlying messages — encrypted in-between the lines. After I was satiated by the candy, I could now spot the wrapper it came in.

I realised — Ranveer Singh was Murad.

lead_022519043528.jpgChoosing to spin a tale around a ‘Murad’ and not a ‘Rahul’ was no compulsion. It was a deliberate choice. (Source: YouTube screengrab)

If it is about chopping off unnecessary scenes to keep the run-time tight, two scenes, according to me, that could easily have been dispensed with where Murad was seen praying in a masjid. There were three namaz scenes in total — one, where a dialogue between Murad and his mama (Vijay Maurya) happen, important to the film, hence justified. Two others, where Murad is seen praying with his father (Vijay Raaz) and alone, before he reaches the recording studio right before the release of his first music video.

Zooming out from each scene, and onto the totality of the film, both Murad and Safeena (Alia Bhatt) belong to a Muslim family — albeit of different social strata.

So are Moeen (Vijay Varma) and Salman (Nakul Sahdev) — again, two very different social strata.

Repeated marketing hammering has taught us that Gully Boy is loosely based on the lives of Divine and Naezy — Vivian Fernandes and Naved Shaikh, respectively — as it is on numerous other rappers from Mumbai’s underground scene, some of whom have worked directly on the film.

So, choosing to spin a tale around a ‘Murad’, and not, say, a ‘Santosh’ or a ‘Vijay’, was not a compulsion. It was a choice. A well-informed, much deliberated and much-needed choice.

Anybody who has been to Dharavi knows that those beehive houses hold within their fragile tin walls many a story, and they’re most certainly of both Diwali and Eid. Yet, if Zoya has decided to characterise her leads as Muslims, and thrown in namaz scenes for good measure — in some ways, doing away with the iconic temple scenes of Bollywood, most of which were written by her father, Javed Akhtar — it is because she wanted to make a point.

And she has.

In the same interview, when Chopra asked her to respond to allegations of ‘poverty appropriation’ that some misinformed film critics had baselessly heaped upon her, she powerfully retorted, saying, “They are not ‘poverty,’ they are people. And they are staring at you in the eye. You better respond!”

slum-2_022519042825.jpgThat mosaic of thought, religion — and dreams. (Source: YouTube screengrab)

Could this response spill out of the perimeters of the question and be applicable to the subliminal portrayal of Murad’s religion too?

"And they are staring at you in the eye. You better respond!”

Could this be Zoya’s rebuttal to decades of appropriation, or rather, the exclusion of Muslims in Hindi cinema?

"And they are staring at you in the eye. You better respond!”

Could this be a reminder that when life is down to its basic denominator — money — ‘us’ and ‘them’, on the basis of whether they choose to pray to Shiva or Allah, is utterly baseless?

"And they are staring at you in the eye. You better respond!”

Yes. Yes. And yes.

When Javed Akhtar was asked to comment on ‘intolerance’ brewing in India at a literary meet a couple of years ago, he said, “In 1975 I showed a comedy scene in a temple. Today I won't. But even in 1975, I wouldn't have shown a scene in a mosque because that level of intolerance was there. Now the other one is matching it.” What he failed to take into account — or consciously steered clear of — is that for every iconic Hindu lead character written in Hindi cinema — for every Vijay, every Rahul, every Prem — there were no Rahims or Abduls. 

Until there was a Murad!

He can be the hero’s best friend, and the most trusted one at that — Sher Khan in Zanjeer (1973) — he can be the spy or the ‘khabri’ (Abdul in Shaan, 1980), he can be the misguided youth easily brainwashed into terrorism — Altaaf Khan in Mission Kashmir (2000) — or just reduced to the more generic Khan chacha, Refutbi, Daijaan and the likes.

But he shall not be the primary character — positive or negative.

After all, we’re talking about a time when non-Hindu actors would be required to adopt a Hindu screen name to cement their position in Bollywood — Muhammed Yusuf Khan became Dilip Kumar, Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed Jafri became Jagdeep, Mahjabeen Bano became Meena Kumar, Hamid Ali Khan became Ajit, Begum Mumtaz Jehan Dehlavi became Madhubala and so on. Therefore, to expect non-Hindu characters to be written thus was way too much to expect.

And then, here we are. In circa 2019, loving a character and his story, without so much as batting an eyelid when the namaz scenes take place, not loving him less or hating him more for them, simply responding to the holistic experience of the film — the character, the mood, the impetus — just as Zoya wanted it.

When Ranveer Singh claimed he was ‘apolitical’ in an interview, he was criticised. Surely no one can be apolitical. Zoya’s response to the same question in a different interview was perfect, “I am political. And my politics is out there in my films for everyone to see.”

Indeed.

Also read: 'Gully Boy' Movie Review: Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhat make it 'bahut hard' for us to find flaws

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