Gully Boy feels in part like a response to those critics who dismissed its director Zoya Akhtar's previous film, the cruise ship melodrama Dil Dhadakne Do, as no more than a big block of soap, unmoored on the ocean waves. Taking the bustling Mumbai slum of Dharavi as its backdrop, Akhtar's follow-up is very much grounded, gritty by Bollywood standards, a film indisputably of the streets. (Its title derives from the Hindi word for backstreet.) What Dil Dhadakne Do's fiercest critics overlooked was that its boiler room - motoring away beneath the film's frothy-glossy surface - was a younger generation's struggles to express themselves in the sternly traditionalist face of their elders, a theme that could only chime with emergent Indian filmmakers' desires to rework and reinvent the established commercial formulas, and which is further developed in Gully Boy's inspired-by-true-events tale of an up-and-coming rapper. Murad, busting rhymes under the street name of Gully Boy, is played by Ranveer Singh, whose thousand-megawatt charisma (much on display throughout last year's Padmaavat) makes him easy casting as a rockstar of some kind. Yet it's a telltale sign of the new film's toned-down naturalism that the first time we see him creeping out of the Mumbai shadows - degroomed and unprimped, as raw and real as the film's arc requires him to be - he's barely recognisable as the figure beaming out at us from covershoots and celebrity wedding photos. This Ranveer is a diamond in the rough; unformed talent that Akhtar will spend a full two-and-a-half hours polishing.
To Western viewers, that arc will most immediately recall 2002's Eminem vehicle 8 Mile, but Murad also exists in a more localised continuum: he's a bestubbled update of all those poor yet keen-eyed poets that have graced Indian cinema (and Indian culture) through the years, an optimistic riposte to the tragic martyr Guru Dutt created in 1957's Pyaasa, both observing and reporting on the poverty of his circumstances - and, in this incarnation, getting his contemporaries to listen and cheer. (An actual poet - the most honourable Javed Akhtar - provides some of Murad's verses.) Rather than a trailer park, Murad barrels straight outta a cramped hovel he shares with his relatives, a location apparently so representative of the city's underbelly that it features on a tourist itinerary that sees condescending, camera-carrying Westerners invade his personal space every couple of hours. When he takes on menial labour, in this case a very zeitgeisty stint as an Uber driver, his passengers' endeavours only flag up his own lack of mobility. Yet throughout, he guards his thoughts and words in a notebook alongside a picture of Slim Shady: these will in time be converted into YouTube hits and block-rocking floorfillers. A star will be born, in time-honoured tradition, but Murad has to take what for Indian cinema will be an unusual route to the top.
For starters, rap gives the musical sequences new, angular contours: the rhymes come at us with fists and elbows, often in onstage battles with markedly different reference points than those in 8 Mile. One competitor namedrops the Mahabharat, and there are notably fewer yo-momma disses than expressions of genuine affection for the women who brought the rappers up. In what we might call the Brittany Murphy part, we find Alia Bhatt as the "good Muslim girl" Safeena, the actress's doll-like features only accentuated by the character's hijab. This is a secondary role on paper - you sense only Akhtar could have talked a topliner like Bhatt into playing it - yet it's a surprising one, and perhaps only Bhatt could have played it this well. She claims that hijab as cover in multiple senses, and promptly instils Safeena - a student dodging her folks' pleas for her to pair off with a suitor of their choosing - with a very modern spark, going for the throat of one love rival, and taking a bottle to the head of another. Even in repose, she's prone to weaponising that hitherto sweet smile for the purposes of withering sarcasm. She is, in short, a perfect match for the scrappy Gully Boy: a fixed (albeit sharp-edged) point our boy might hold to in times of uncertainty, possessed of that kind of constancy that keeps a guy on track. (Either that, or it's the threat of physical violence.) Oddly, Safeena is allowed to display more energy than our slightly crumpled protagonist, who only really comes alive with a microphone in his hand.
Singh chewed up the scenery (and there was a lot of it) as Padmaavat's pantomime villain, yet his was a smart, knowing pantomime - I wasn't the only onlooker reminded of the blockbuster heyday of Alan Rickman. This actor proved he could do thoughtful work even amid the copious excesses of 2015's Bajirao Mastani, where his brawny warrior-king appeared sincerely conflicted, as anyone might be with Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra competing for their affections. I wonder whether, at 33, he isn't already a little too old for the role of ingenue, visibly more man than boy (which no-one could have said of Eminem back in 2002), but his brooding here has been carefully calibrated: Murad opens up and shuts down in a recognisable pattern of straight working-class male behaviour. Offstage, he barely speaks, and Akhtar makes a point of noting as much; here's someone who's biding time, waiting for the right beat, the right moment to set him off - much as we in the audience wait for this smacked-down, sadsack Ranveer to transform, Hulk-like, into the screenfilling megastar we know he can be. It's a very droll joke on Akhtar's part that the first time we witness Murad rapping in anger, he's shut himself in his car after being turned away from a chi-chi nightclub, heard by an audience of one. (And then none: Akhtar cuts to an exterior of the car and its silently raving driver. To an outside eye, the creative process often resembles lunacy.) Yet once his words are unstopped, he becomes unstoppable; the moral of the story, handed to Murad's producer-associate MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi, rocksolid in his feature debut), may simply be "let it flow".
There remains something of the traditionalist in Akhtar - she's following a rags-to-riches trajectory you'll be able to second guess at most junctures - but she's flexible with it, craning her neck around the obligatory plot points to spot those generational schisms and class divides that give a drama detail and heft and its characters convincing inner and outer lives. We always know why Gully Boy is spitting bullets: when, at one point, our troubled troubadour arrives at the line "Even with this closeness, there's a chasm between us", we're reminded of the wall of disapproving faces awaiting him at home - those of the elders who've resigned themselves to the way the world is and their own place within it, and who would perhaps prefer their kids to wind up stuck in the same dead-end ways. Watching Gully Boy, I was alerted for the first time to the generic similarities between these types of dramas and the prison-break movie. Plans are put down on paper; a crew is assembled; and then, once the right equipment is prepared, they bust a move. (There is something cellblock-like about Akhtar's gullies, with their grilled windows and flourishing drug trade, their seemingly plentiful opportunities for recidivism.) Our hero will need his fair share of luck to get out alive, but Gully Boy also presents as an ode to friendship, those harmonies we make for ourselves - often in defiance of our elders - and how they too can help us out of the deep, dark holes in our lives. As Murad and his crew take their late-night drives around the city's fringes - listening to formative tunes, stoking one another's dreams, rearranging their immediate environment along more favourable lines - Gully Boy takes on an aspect that might legitimately be described as lyrical.
Gully Boy is now playing in selected cinemas.