Somewhere in the streets of Mumbai, up-and-coming Muslim rapper Murad aka Gully Boy (Ranveer Singh) lies down on his bed and dreams of an India free from social disparity. He sits with headphones on, not to drown out the sounds of his mother fighting with his abusive father about his second wife, but to unleash his frustration at a class system that defines impoverished people like him as unworthy.
His grandmother, who sleeps a few metres away from him, watches as the drama between his mother and father escalates into violence. If the heat of the argument didn’t make the room feel smaller than it already is, the tourists who pay to tour their house – buying into Indian struggle as a form of spiritual enlightenment – do not help the situation either.
These hardships inspire Gully Boy’s raps with lyrics flowing through him like lava in a volcano. It is not enough for these lyrics to remain hidden on his phone. For Gully Boy, he must be the change he wishes to see in India, or else he remains just another dreamer.
A hip-hop fairy-tale, the parallels between Gully Boy and 8 Mile are evident. Murad, a boy from a poor background, rises-up in the Mumbai hip-hop scene and uses the platform as a soapbox to inspire change. Anything less in Gully Boy’s mind would be an acceptance of oppression, with Director Zoya Akhtar cleverly using hip-hop as a voice of rejection towards classist norms embedded in Indian culture.
Gully Boy is frustrated at the state of modern rap – seeing it less as a voice of the people and more as a voice for materialism. He hears what the world thinks of him when he participates in rap battles, with competitors reducing him because of the status of his ‘servant’ father. Rather than be ashamed of his upbringing, Gully Boy celebrates the hustle his family goes through by turning all disses about his social standing into recognition of his fight to survive. These barbs have less bite when translated from Hindi to English (“Your biggest dog is a poodle on my street” being one of the many highlights) but when considered in the context of a male-centric Indian culture, they go straight for the jugular.
Despite being restrained by cultural norms that prevent complete independence, Akhtar ensures there is no shortage of strong women featured in Gully Boy. Student-doctor and love interest of Murad, Safeena (an impressive Alia Bhatt), is a driving force for change in the film thanks to her refusal to remain complacent. Safeena is frustrated by a regressive system that disadvantages women so much that she chooses to be defiant if-not independent.
The music in Gully Boy comes through as kinetic, creating a heavy vibe that matches the rising frustration felt by a new wave of young Indians fighting against discriminatory traditions. The continued use of high energy music helps keep the film burning, which when you factor in the two-and-a-half-hour length (half an hour shy of Avengers: Endgame), helps keep the viewers’ mind from any impending numbness.
All elements considered, Gully Boy exists as an important rejection of discrimination and represents a progressive foot forward for Indian cinema.