Zoya Akhtar's Gully Boy, has caused quite a buzz since it was announced to the world in 2017.
The gritty, rags to riches tale is loosely inspired by the stories of Indian rappers Divine and Naezy, who rose from poverty and rebellion in Mumbai’s slums and found fame and fortune through angst-ridden hip-hop songs calling time on corruption, injustice, police brutality and family hardship. But it’s two of Bollywood’s brightest young stars, Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, the film’s leads, who have really got critics’ tongues wagging.
Singh plays Murad, a student who lives in a slum and turns to rapping to vent about the divisions between rich and poor, and he fully immerses himself in the character, spitting serious Hindustani hip-hop, which is perhaps the biggest highlight of the film.
Naturally, in the run-up to its release, the Gully Boy team have been in publicity overdrive, which culminated with its stars walking the red carpet at the Berlin Film Festival on Saturday for its world premiere.
Why it's such a big deal
Excitement reached a crescendo, however, when the trailer for the movie was released about a month ago. In its anthem, Azadi (Freedom), Divine, who also features on several tracks in the film, raps about corruption in politics, discrimination, India's education system, and life in the slums. The song instantly sparked controversy over the lyrics and chanting.
But above all the noise surrounding its highly anticipated release, it's the near absolute departure from Bollywood norms that this film represents for two of the three big names on whose shoulders it rests that has caused the industry to stop and take note. In so many ways, Gully Boy, a relatively small film with a big heart, is a watershed moment, and a launch pad for director Akhtar's next big hit, as well as Singh and Bhatt's careers.
Bhatt made her debut with Karan Johar's Student of the Year in 2012 and her climb to success over the seven years since has been rapid, and with very few missteps. In the 10 films she has starred in, Bhatt has had just one major flop (Shaandaar), and even the movies that received a lukewarm reception by critics went on to become hits (Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania and Badrinath Ki Dulhania).
One thing is crystal clear, though: Bhatt is the actress to watch out for in Bollywood, with an impressive filmography that includes gems such as Raazi and Udta Punjab. And yet, even she is not immune to stereotypes.
She may have wowed us with her acting ability, but it is undeniable that her characters follow largely similar trajectories in most of her films.
Aside from Udta Punjab and Raazi, Bhatt has spent half her career playing the trapped young rich girl with some kind of existential crisis or tragic backstory (Student of the Year, Highway, Kapoor & Sons, and Dear Zindagi); or the bubbly, outspoken firebrand (2 States, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, Shaandaar, Badrinath Ki Dulhania).
While Gully Boy, or boy from the alley, as its name suggests, promises to be a Singh movie through and through – Bhatt gets barely a few seconds of screen time in the trailer – it's still clear that her character, Sakina Ali, has all the makings of a meaty role, even if it is small.
After the success of Raazi, and at a time when Bhatt's real-life relationship with Bollywood actor Ranbir Kapoor makes more headlines than her professional achievements, Gully Boy presents Bhatt with the perfect opportunity to cement herself as a serious actor who is increasingly gravitating towards personality-driven roles she can sink her teeth into. For Akhtar, too, this film is a well-timed opportunity to make a statement about her filmmaking, while also laughing all the way to the bank.
The director for the job
It has been a decade, almost to the day, since Akhtar made her directorial debut with Luck By Chance. She has directed just three films in the past 10 years, but has built herself a reputation as an elite filmmaker who tells stories of the ultra-rich, who live glamorous, jet-set lifestyles and are unencumbered by financial constraints. While Luck By Chance was the story of a struggling actor, a man on the outside, looking into Bollywood and its wealth, glitz and sparkle, both Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Dil Dhadakne Do had characters who discovered themselves while taking expensive holidays in exotic international locations.
Akhtar’s style of letting the story unravel in its own time instead of hurrying it along with unnecessary plot twists, and her love for slick cinematography is evident in all her work, but putting really good-looking people in breathtaking locales doesn’t hurt a film’s prospects either.
In stark contrast is the gritty, urgent, and pulsating vibe of Gully Boy. Here, Akhtar has no jaw-dropping backdrops to come to her rescue if her characters start losing the audience's interest. There are no azure waters or impossibly blue skies for the viewer to be distracted by if they aren't riveted by the events on screen. In Gully Boy, Akhtar's only weapons are her actors, and for a director known for her slow, unhurried style of storytelling, this could either spell disaster or the start of a glorious new innings.
The leading man
And finally there's Singh, an actor bristling with so much energy all the time, it's tough to imagine him playing characters that don't borrow heavily from his larger-than-life persona. His nine-year-long career is replete with loud, boisterous, over-the-top roles tailored to accommodate his very out there public image. Whether in his debut role as the irrepressible Bittu Sharma in Band Baaja Baaraat in 2010, or the maniacal Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat in 2018, there is always a bit of Singh's own personality on screen.
The only time we've seen Singh disappear completely behind a character was in 2013's Lootera, in which he plays a thief masquerading as an archaeologist, a criminally underrated performance in a career characterised by excess. Gully Boy's trailer offers up little information, but even within its two-minute duration, we see plenty of Ranveer Singh, the skilled actor, rather than just Ranveer Singh, the man. A promising start.
Unless the film's promotional material so far has been a cleverly executed deception, we will finally get to see Singh take a backseat, as Murad takes the show on the road. Murad is everything Singh is not: unassuming, measured and determinedly silent – until he has something worthy of being said and heard.
As far as Bollywood films with A-list stars go, Gully Boy, made on a moderate budget of about Dh30 million, is nowhere close to Akhtar, Singh or Bhatt's other releases. And yet, while it might not be a big-budget, make-or-break film for the trio, each one stands to gain – or lose – a lot from this experiment.
Will this film deliver on both theirs and the audiences expectations? We will find out in just a few days.
Gully Boy is in UAE cinemas from Thursday