Woo, Gully Boy! Released in February, just when I was thinking 2019 would have no good movies at all. And then it showed me that it would have at least one.
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.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Ranveer is a boy from Dharavi. He and Alia have been together since they were 13, she is the daughter of a doctor who runs the local clinic and in med school. Ranveer is in college, he spends his days in class, and his nights hanging out with Vijay Varma, the local drug dealer/car thief. He avoids his house because his father has just brought home a second wife and is increasingly abusive and dismissive towards Ranveer’s mother. In the middle of all of this, he sees Siddhant Chaturvedi performing at a college festival. He goes to meet him later to offer him his poems, Siddhant turns him down and tells him that he needs to speak his words himself, and Ranveer starts working towards being a rapper. His life is falling apart in other ways at the same time, his father is injured and he has to take his job for 6 weeks, and miss school. He is inspired to write another poem, “Doori”, and Siddhant helps him turn it into a rap, they record it in a little local studio and then make a video and put it on youtube, and Ranveer starts to get noticed. They are contacted through youtube by someone who wants to work with them, it turns out to be Kalki, a rich girl who is going to Berklee and wants to make a music video for school. She arranges everything, Ranveer and Siddhant write the words and perform, they bring in professional dancers and costume people and so on and film in Ranveer’s neighborhood. Ranveer starts to pull away from Alia and spend more time with Kalki. One night she picks him up and they go around the city putting up graffiti. At the end of the night, they kiss and have sex in her car. The next day, he lies to Alia about where he was. He invites her to the party for the video, and Kalki lets drop that she was with Ranveer that night. Alia knows something is wrong, because Ranveer lied, and confronts him. Kalki tries to get involved, and she hits her with a bottle. The police come, Kalki doesn’t press charges but Alia’s parents are called and find out that she has been sneaking out and put restrictions on her movements. Alia calls Ranveer, and they fight over her jealousy and possessiveness and his lying, and break up. INTERVAL (I think. I can’t remember)
Ranveer is still working with Kalki, he goes to her for another session in her enormous empty apartment, and she kisses him, and then he stops it. He admits that he loves Alia, that “my life without her would be like never having a childhood” and Kalki understands. Ranveer’s home life falls apart at the same time, his parents have one final fight and he takes his mother and little brother and moves them out. They go to his uncle’s house first, his rich uncle, but he won’t help him, just wants them to find a way to patch up the marriage. So Ranveer goes to Vijay Varma, who he has been avoiding as he gets more seriously into drug dealing including using small boys to make deliveries, and asks for help to make some money. Vijay takes Ranveer off to steal cars, Ranveer makes money, gets a little apartment for himself and his mother and brother, barely passes his exams, and finally his uncle gives him the job he promised him if he passed. At the same time, he works hard training with Siddhant because there is a rap battle contest coming up, if he wins he can perform as the opening act for a big concert. His uncle won’t give him the day off for the first round competition, so he walks out and loses the job. He is selected as a finalist, but still needs money, goes back to stealing cars. Vijay Varma is arrested and beaten, but tells Ranveer not to worry, he won’t give his name. Just go to the competition and win, and also take care of his “boys”, the street kids he uses for drug deliveries. At the same time, Alia has been having her own struggle, her parents didn’t even let her leave the house until she begged to go back to school and agreed to meet boys for proposals in return. One of the boys her mother offers is a friend of Ranveer’s, Alia agrees to the meeting, then tells him that he has to take a message to Ranveer for her, Ranveer has to call her or else she will marry him (the friend). He takes the message, and that night Ranveer calls her and climbs up to her bathroom window, the kiss and make-up, he admits that he hooked up with Kalki but Alia doesn’t care. The night of the final competition, Ranveer goes the club where it is happening, his friends are there, Alia manages to sneak out and come to, and finally he performs, first giving a kind of shy and serious intro, and then breaking out in a blazing performance of “Apna Time Aayega”. And then “Train Song” starts as we see the aftermath of his win. He and Alia are back to stealing glances and blowing kisses behind her parents’ back. He bails Vijay out and takes him for a drive in a car he bought. He buys things and spends time with Vijay’s kids. He goes back to his father’s house to give money to his grandmother and as he leaves the whole neighborhood cheers him and shows him a graffiti picture of himself that is now on a wall, labeled “Apna Time Aayega”. The film ends at the big concert, he comes on stage and sees his parents and Alia in the audience, and then starts. END
I went into a lot of detail with that plot. Really the plot is just “poor boy decides to be a rapper, works hard and makes it, breaks up with his girlfriend and then they get back together”. But that’s not what the movie is about, not really. That would be a really boring movie if that is all it was. It’s about all the other stuff, about Vijay Varma stealing cars to feed orphans, it’s about Ranveer’s uncle who can’t be bothered to help, it’s about Alia struggling to find just a little freedom in her life, it’s about Kalki coming into his life and messing it up, it’s about the whole complicated world that Ranveer lives in and is trying to express in his art.
I saw some things that were trying to squash this movie into the genre “romance”, and it’s not that really, but the romance is a strong part of the overall message. This is not a movie about falling in love, this is a movie about Alia and Ranveer being together most of his life, about her being his whole past. And Kalki offers him a different future, a cool rich girlfriend who takes him off on fun adventures and makes him feel free and happy, instead of Alia who drags him back to earth. He tries out Kalki, as part of his experimenting with a new world, but as soon as he leaves Alia behind, he regrets it. And then doesn’t do anything about it. Not because he doesn’t care, but because he knows what they have won’t really go away, not ever. He just has to wait it out. And sure enough, she sends him a message and he comes over and it is just like it always was. She isn’t the person dragging him back or dragging him down, she is the firm ground under his feet, the one thing he can always count on and never leave behind.
And that’s what the whole story is about. Ranveer is growing as a person and an artist and for a little while it looks like he might be growing away from where he came from, growing towards these rich people and professional studios and all of that. But then it drops away. He says good-bye to Kalki, he tries to take care of his mother and his brother, he turns to Vijay Varma for help with money because Vijay has always been there. In the end his success comes not from these rich people helping him, but from the support of those who have been with him all along, Vijay and Siddhant and his mother (who blesses him before the competition) and Alia. His success is their success, he doesn’t do it all and then move away and forget them, look for validation from the outside, he does it for them, so he can take care of his neighborhood and his people and give them a voice.
This is such a rare message!!!! Too often these stories are about the one talented boy who rises up and out, and his “happy ending” is never having to go back to that dangerous place again. The message is that poor people drag each other down. But this movie, they lift each other up.Really, this movie bothers me more and more every time I think about it
Vijay Varma is where this movie starts. We see him striding down the street, immediately charismatic and powerful, and then he calls Ranveer and his friend out to help him steal a car. I honestly did not even notice Ranveer in this moment, he had bad hair and was kind of scuttling behind, Vijay Varma was everything. He offers Ranveer a motorcycle as a thank you for being look out on the car theft, Ranveer turns it down, so he offers him a little marijuana. And then later we see him getting drugs from a little kid on the playground, Ranveer confronts him about becoming more of a drug dealer and using kids, Vijay lies that he isn’t. Ranveer starts pulling away from him, doesn’t invite him to his video party with Kalki. But he has to go to him for help getting money later in the film and sees 4 boys packing drugs at his garage and yells at him, Vijay says that he takes in these boys because no one else does, he feeds them and gives them a place to live, is that wrong? Ranveer steals cars with him and makes the money to take care of his family, Vijay is arrested, beaten, tortured, and refuses to give up Ranveer’s name. Ranveer offers to testify and help him get out of jail, Vijay says “no”, he can take it, Ranveer has to go and win. And all he wants is for Ranveer to check on his boys, feed them and make sure they are safe. Vijay, the drug dealing car thief, isn’t the “bad company” who is dragging Ranveer down, he is his savior. He isn’t doing the “right” things, the things that society says you should, but he is the best person in the movie in the end. He feeds orphans, he saves Ranveer’s family, he takes a beating to protect his friend.
Society is slanted to protect the rich. What we know of as “good” and “bad” are what the wealthy define them as. According to those definitions, Vijay is “bad”. Ranveer thinks that too, gets virtuous about him stealing cars and using kids. But when he is really down, when the world has turned upside down for him, suddenly it doesn’t matter if Vijay is “good” or “bad”, because he is there. Ranveer’s family would starve without Vijay’s help, he would have been thrown in jail. And those kids, who a simple view of the world would say are being “ruined” because of some connection with the drug trade, are surviving and thriving, fed and safe, instead of dying but honest on the streets. In the end, in this film, there is no punishment for Vijay’s “crimes”, because he never truly did anything worthy of punishment. Stealing cars from people who can afford cars so the desperately poor can live. Selling harmless drugs (marijuana, not anything harder) to people who want them. And having kids work to help him, so he can make the money that feeds them. And so Vijay is released from jail with Ranveer’s money, rewarded for his true goodness, his goodness beyond the impossible rules set up to protect those with power and punish those without.You see how it ends with him looking at the highrises? In a different movie, it would be about dreaming he might live in them one day. In this movie, it is about dreaming that they will all tumble down someday
Kalki, our most prominent rich character, isn’t bad exactly. She just isn’t aware. In her first meeting with Siddhant and Ranveer, she casually talks about copyright and funding in a way that is completely alien to them both, and doesn’t seem to realize how strange that is for them. She hooks up with Ranveer because he is willing and then doesn’t seem to understand how upset Alia is about this. When Ranveer comes to her house, he can’t believe how big it is, and she seems unaware of why this is surprising for him. It’s not that she is cruel or flaunts her wealth, or even sees poor people as less than her. She sees them as people, she likes them, she respects her fellow artists. But she doesn’t see where they came from, doesn’t grasp what their lives are. She can’t, it is too alien from where she is. And so she also can’t help them. They have to help each other.
The first half of the film goes down the idea of Kalki making this video with Ranveer and Siddhant, that this is going to be the big thing. The video is “Mere Gully Mein”, the one I picked out as slightly too cheerful and fake feeling when it released. It’s supposed to be fake feeling, this is Kalki’s money and ideas being mixed in with their message. She likes the funny line about a girl coming to their gully, she likes putting them in fancy hair and clothes, her vision has them in costume as poor people, not just being who they are. But that video goes nowhere. In the end, it doesn’t help Ranveer achieve anything.
The rap battle is what changes his life, and that comes from Vijay supporting him, Alia encouraging him, Siddhant training him. Kalki has dropped out of the film completely by that point, she isn’t needed. This isn’t about Berklee music trained rich people “teaching” the poor how to be, this is about them helping each other because they don’t need anyone else. That’s the revolutionary message, literally revolutionary. The upper classes can’t, and shouldn’t, “save” the lower classes. The lower classes are perfectly able to save themselves, if only the system was fair to them, if they weren’t struggling just to put food on the table, if they had a way to survive without falling back on crime, if the wealthy weren’t taking all the space and all the water and all the money and just left a little more for everyone else.
I showed this to a few of my friends (all in their 50s or older) who have seen more traditional Indian films with me, and they all loved it. I was hesitant at first, because I knew that at least a few of them really really liked K3G. But I sent them the trailer first, and hoped for the best. They were still raving about it the next day.
That’s really nice to hear! I love when Indian film crosses over in surprising ways.
On Sun, Jan 5, 2020 at 7:59 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
I haven’t watched Uri yet, but from what I’ve heard about it, would you not think about the success it was having before Gully Boy released?
Uri is not my kind of movie, I still haven’t seen it. It could very well be a “good” movie, just not to my taste. Gully Boy was exciting for me because it was the first non-action movie of 2019, and the first movie with a really strong female character. I am assuming, just from the topic, that Uri is not a strong female movie and is a movie about violence. Nothing wrong with that, I am just tired of films in that genre and until Gully Boy, 2019 looked like it would be all about war and soldiers.
On Sun, Jan 5, 2020 at 10:10 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’d agree with you here!
I disagree with you about everyone overshadowing Ranveer, with the exception of Siddhant. I couldn’t take my eyes of Ranveer, even though he was all meek and quiet, everyone else seemed like flies buzzing around him (except for Siddhant and Alia). Colorful flies, but still flies circling Ranveer. Alia seemed his equal, or no, she was greater, but her character was also greater, and so her interest and passion for Ranveer firmly centered him in the film. But Siddhant was so beautiful, so forceful, when he was on the screen I would forget to pay attention to Ranveer.
Based on some other reviews you’ve written it could be that we are just drawn to different men (outside of SRK of course). In Bhavesh Joshi Superhero I only had eyes for Priyanshu Painyuli; Harshvardhan Kapoor for forgettable for me.
I became a Ranveer fan after Dil Dhadakne Do, I guess I like is less “on” performances best.
Huh, you are making me feel like I should rewatch this film! See if I notice Ranveer more when I’m not distracted by trying to follow everything else.
Siddhant though I think will always still the film a little. Cannot wait to see what he does next!