What a good movie! Not original, but also original, and perfectly executed. Reema and Zoya continue to be the Queens of the industry, and Alia is the Empress. Ranveer is okay too.
There are a few moments that feel forced, a few things that aren’t quite right about this vision of poverty, but overall it doesn’t matter because the big moments land. This is a film about one person pulling himself up, but it is also about the whole community that is down in the dirt with him, that is helping him to rise, and which he will turn back to and help in turn. That’s the bigger story, not a romance or a birth of an artist, but the anger and injustice that drives him onwards.
There is a moment in the film when Ranveer is inspired to write a poem, “Doori” (Javed’s poem). The first draft is about how he feels a distance from the young woman he is working for as a driver. She is crying in the back seat, and he can’t ask her what is wrong or try to comfort her. They are close, but kept separate. The first draft of the poem, and the first sequence in the car, it is very poetic and kind of high poetry, the romance of the servant and the princess, close but far. And it is inspired by her, by the distress of this rich young woman that Ranveer is unable to help. That could be one way this movie goes, a sensitive soul who writes poetry to escape the poverty in which he lives, who fits better in the clean world of the wealthy and writes for and about them.
But then we come back to the poem, we hear the full rap inspired by it, and it’s not about that young woman after all. It’s about all the people she never sees and what she is doing to them, about the wealthy living lonely lives in huge homes while the poor struggle to fit into small spaces, the increasing gap between rich and poor, the superficiality of their lives while people are literally starving outside their walls. That’s the movie this wants to be, not a poetic self-satisfied story of an artist, but an angry rant at the injustice of society, at what the rich have done to the poor, at how nothing is as it should be and one happy story won’t solve all the problems.
When I first saw the trailer, I was worried about all these rich people (Zoya, Ranveer, Alia, Kalki) being able to capture the story this should be. I shouldn’t have worried. I forgot that Zoya was Javed’s daughter, her family invented the angry young man, she can still tap into that anger. And I forgot that Alia was her father’s daughter, the man who made Arth and Naam and Sadak and Zakhm. She may have been raised rich, but she was raised by a man who was very aware of the other side of the country. Alia is amazing in this movie, truly different from her previous roles, fiery and angry and also cocky and confident and young. Not saying it is perfect, there are definite slight moments of miscalculation, but Zoya captures something really good here.
Ranveer, I was a little right to worry about Ranveer. It comes together in his final performance, I see why they wanted him. In real life, people talk about how Ranveer suddenly turns “on”. Press conference, party, filming, he will bring more energy than you know what to do with. But until that time, he can be very very quiet. That’s what this role needs, it isn’t a character who is a natural star, isn’t one anyone would particular notice, until he comes on stage and is driven by the power of his words. But the problem is, his character is only supposed to come “on” in that final performance, that’s what makes it the exciting finale of the film. Which means until then we are stuck with Ranveer in “off” mode. It needs someone who is a quiet brooder, who can draw us in with a still face, and that is just not Ranveer. I don’t know if it is anyone in Hindi film, when I tried to think of names the best I could come up with was Dhanush. Or Vijay Devarakonda. Have the northerners forgotten how to brood? Is that just a southern thing now?
What makes Ranveer’s lacks particular noticeable is that he is surrounded by such a strong charismatic group of men. Vijay Raaz plays his father, that is of course going to be a wonderful performance. Although a little disconcerting, because the last two times I saw Vijay he was playing comic gangsters in Dishoom and then Sanam Teri Kasam. Seeing him back in the “art actor” realm was a shock. Vijay Varma plays his friend, and easily steals the movie from him. Just immediately arresting on screen. It would be Vijay’s film, except Siddhant Chaturvedi is even better. Again, part of this is clearly purposeful, Ranveer is a follower first in Vijay’s group and then in Siddhant’s, he is not the one who is noticed, he keeps in the background thinking until the very end. But it’s also a little more than purposeful, Siddhant and Vijay are just amazing, easily overshadow Ranveer.
And Alia overshadows him. She is the second lead, if anyone is, the one who gets the most time in her own orbit and world, outside of Ranveer. But she is still “just” the love interest, one part of the story that is being told along with family and career and friends. And yet the shades she brings to her character and their relationship are so strong that I found myself rooting more for the love story than the hip-hop story. Partly because this is a very different kind of a love story, we don’t see the beginning and we don’t see the end, we just get a slice of the middle, and I wanted to see more of that different kind of story. But mostly because Alia makes it all feel so alive and real.
And the music overshadows everything. We get little bits of everything in the soundtrack, “Doori” and “Apna Time Aayege” and “Mere Gully Main” and “Azadi” and “Train Song” are the only ones that play straight through, but we hear everything else, plus more stuff I can’t even recognize from Western rappers. It’s just constantly there, the background of their lives, not just the lives of the artists shown in the film, but everyone, all the people who can’t afford anything else but at least have this to speak for them.