Movie Review: Gully Boy (2019)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch the movie on Amazon Prime
Buy the soundtrack at iTunes
Watch Gully Boy: Live in Concert on Amazon Prime

Aspiring filmmakers should study Gully Boy as a masterclass in character creation. Every character has a place in the story’s social fabric, and we see how they fit into the wider world — not just how they relate to the protagonist.

Murad (Ranveer Singh) is the spoke around which the rest of the characters in Gully Boy turn, but there’s always a sense that they have lives that continue when he’s not around. Murad suspects his criminal friend Moeen (Vijay Varma) is up to something dangerous, but he isn’t sure, since they’re not together all the time. The parents of their buddy Salman (Nakul Roshan Sahdev) are looking for a bride for him — something Murad’s fiery girlfriend Safeena (Alia Bhatt) uses to her advantage when the couple are on the outs.

Too often, Hindi movies with a male protagonist played by a big star consider the hero’s love interest only in terms of how she relates to him. Director Zoya Akhtar and writer Reema Kagti make sure that Safeena’s character is fully developed, showing her relationships with her parents and Murad’s friends. This doesn’t take away from Murad’s importance to the story, but instead emphasizes how he fits into his world. Giving all the characters agency adds to the movie’s realism and reinforces the notion that Murad’s actions have consequences for other people.

He and Safeena have kept their relationship secret from their parents for years, assuming that they’ll announce their intention to married when she finishes medical school and he earns a business degree. When Murad begins participating in the local rap scene, it changes the trajectory of his life and Safeena’s. Even though she supports his new endeavor, it means adjusting the plans for their future, since rapper isn’t an occupation that any of their conservative parents would approve of. A powerful scene in which Safeena asks her parents for the freedom to go places other than school highlights what she and Murad are up against, if he strays from the safe path to follow his dream.

Murad’s lyrics are born out of anger at the injustice that defines his world and limits his opportunities. His father, Aftab (Vijay Raaz in a chilling performance), accepts the limits imposed on poor Muslims and views educating Murad as a waste of money, since he’ll likely just end up a driver like his father anyway. Quashing Murad’s aspirations is a way of protecting himself from the truth that his own life might be better had he allowed himself to dream, instead of accepting what was forced upon him.

Gully Boy doesn’t pretend that Murad can succeed on desire alone, given the enormous societal forces he has to contend with at both the top and bottom of India’s economic ladder. He hones his craft under the tutelage of MC Sher (star-in-the-making Siddhant Chaturvedi), an established local rapper who understands Murad’s frustration and sees him as a voice for the underdogs in their neighborhood.

Ranveer Singh did his own rapping in the film, and the music overall is really good. (It would have been nice if the lyrics of the incidental music had been subtitled, and not just the lyrics from Murad’s scenes.) The lone weak points in Gully Boy are rap battle scenes — insult contests that have little in common with Murad’s introspective lyric-writing. I don’t know if one must be adept at rap battles to be considered a good rapper — or how one even wins a rap battle — but the sequences are dull.

Although Gully Boy isn’t an ensemble picture like Akhtar’s two most recent feature films — 2015’s Dil Dhadakne Do and 2011’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara — it almost feels as though it is, given how much care went into fleshing out the characters in orbit around the protagonist. Akhtar’s fascination with the connections between people sets her apart from her contemporaries and makes her one of India’s most compelling filmmakers.


23 thoughts on “Movie Review: Gully Boy (2019)

  1. Thank You

    Thank you for your review.

    I watched the film with some hesitation as that particular genre of music is not something I generallly enjoy [two easily-recalled exceptions: Mr. T. Shakur’s “Changes” and the Eminem/Dr. Dre duet, “Forgot About Dre”]. Any unpleasantness I had was subsequently remedied by a visit to the local library for peace and quiet and watching the excellent “Alita: Battle Angel” film made by Mr. R. Rodriguez, so no major harm was done about my willingness to watch another Hindi-language film. Your rating of this film made sense to me, after I eliminate my lack of appreciation for that music genre from my worldview.

    It was unfortunate that one really enjoyable aspect of the subtelty of the local dialect was lost in translation, i.e. the dual meaning of the catchphrase “apna time ayega.” The Marathi influenced Bombay dialect of Hindi often replaces the traditional grammatically-closer-to-accurate, Sanskritized “mera time ayega” [“my time will come”] with “apun ka time ayega” [the time of mine will come; something Yoda will be happy to enunciate]. “Apna time ayega” is a progeny of the latter on the streets of Bombay [O.K., fine, Mumbai for the politically correct readers of this comment, who probably are wasting their time on this set of observations], it being easier on the tongue.

    When Hindi-speakers not native to the Bombay dialect (a vast majority of that language’s speakers) hear that phrase “apna time ayega”, they hear it as the grammatically-closer-to-accurate, Sanskritized “our time will come” out of context, which is more prevalent in the Northern dialects of Hindi. These non-native linguists understand that the Bombay-dialect utilizers mean “my time will come.”

    Ergo, there was an interesting transition from “my time will come” when Mr. R. Singh’s character uttered it alone inside a vehicle, to the sing-along ‘chorus’ towards the end of the film when that ‘chorus’ sang-along “our time will come” to the identical phrase “apna time ayega.” That transition was subtle because the lyric near that chorus, “tu nangaa hi to aaya thaa, to ghantaa lay kar jayega” [literally ‘you did arrive naked, so you’ll leave with a bell’; figuratively, ‘you brought nothing, you’ll leave with nothing’, or in American-ese, ‘you arrived obviously worthless, you’re gonna have your bell rung in case you think you’ll leave with with our stash’] is more prevalent in the Sanskrtized Northern dialects of Hindi, which changes the understanding of the catchphrase from the singular to the collective.

    Also, I’ve come across a few other reviews that compare it to the excellent 8 Mile, with some hinting that this is another stereotypical rip-off of American popular culture. Not really.

    Mesdames Akhtar and Kagti were either not aware (hard to believe because the lyrics of the song, offered as evidence, mentioned subsequently included the name of a town close to Ms. Akhtar’s hometown) or deliberately chose to not send a competitive (possibly hostile) message to their American audience via their screenplay that that music genre was invented in Bombay, by Bollywood, way back in the day [1968], in a song picturized on and sung by Mr. A. Kumar [elder brother of the popular Bollywood singer, Mr. K. Kumar; Mr. A. Kumar was a star of repute undisputed fame to his era, what Messrs. R. Kapoor, A. Bachchan and S.R. Khan were to theirs]. That song was titled Rail Gaadi [literally, ‘Rail Car’; figuratively ‘Train’] and was a happy song (much like the early works of this genre’s American pioneers, The Sugar Hill Gang, e.g., Rapper’s Delight). Rail Gaadi would have fit in in the scenario created by this film’s screenplay writers, given their scenes around train stations and moving trains, but that was their choice to make and with which I have no criticism.

    Shemaroo has published Rail Gaadi on Youtube, unfortunately without English subtitles:

    [I believe that the subtitled film it is from is another publication from Shemaroo at that location, but have not verified this to be accurate].


    1. Kathy

      That’s a really interesting distinction about “my time will come” versus “our time will come” — especially considering that the filmmakers do seem to switch based on narrative context, as you point out. Thanks for the education, TY!

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  3. Thank You

    Another, somewhat interesting, subtlety about the “apna time ayega” catchphrase came to my attention when I watched this film. I have opined on the following thought elsewhere but thought I would bore this location’s readers a little bit.

    It has to do with the use of “time” instead of “samay” (the word that would turn the catchphrase into a grammatically accurate sentence into, most if not all dialects of, Hindi) or “waqt” (from Urdu, a language that is both [a] the preferred language of Muslims in India like Mr. R. Singh’s character and [b] often combined with Hindi, and occasionally other modern languages like English, to create Bollywood’s “Hindustani/Hinglish” dialect); all three words have the same meaning but are from different languages.

    “Samay” would not fit as it adds another syllable into the rhythm and hence tempo of the catchphrase. The film did worry itself about tempo elsewhere.

    “Waqt” would fit with the tempo of the catchphrase and it would make sense given the disclosed devoutness of Mr. R. Singh’s character as a worshipper. However, the screenplay writers chose not to make religion the cause of the societal divide being experienced by the protagonist (the stereotypical “Hindu, Hindi-speaking majority oppressing a Muslim, Urdu-speaking minority” theme). There are a couple of hints at this being a factor that was considered and dismissed –

    – when Mr. V. Raaz’s character tells his son that the family that hired him to chauffeur them around uses a phrase that would translate as “these are good people” [i.e., not religious bigots; were the hiring family Muslims, the need to utter that phrase would be unnecessary in a city that has a regular history of religious riots between Hindus and Muslim, thus making people hesistant to reach out across the aisle, so to speak].

    – when Mr. R. Chaturvedi’s [MC Sher] less-than-useful father-character uses the more orthodox Hindi/Marathi/Sanskrit “ratri” instead of the more commonly used “raat” [meaning: night] hinting that that father is beholden to a more rigid form of an identity.

    This second incident was prematurely innoculated by MC Sher telling Gully Boy to articulate his own words instead of MC Sher making them his to use; there was no power grab here based on a majority religion member oppressing a majority religion member.

    Waqt also rhymes with the colloquial “sakht” [meaning “hard”]. In musicals like this film the human mind of an audience member subconsciously tries to anticipate rhymes so “sakht” will pop up in such people’s brain circuits. By contrast, “samay” uses a combination of softer consonants and is less confrontational. Which is why the preference to use “time” is more relevant than “samay”, again given the harder-on-the-ear “t” sound than the “s” and “m” and “y” sound. Confrontation is typically a feature of someone trying to remedy an error in authority. Language contributes towards that remedial effort. The use of “waqt” would have been suitable without causing too much incongruity, except in cases where the screenplay writers / lyricists wanted to not make religious differences the cause of the societal divide.

    “Time” unlike the other words mentioned above is a colonial legacy and it is from the language of significant historical authority. The federal courts and the federal government In India operate in English. There is a state language (English), a national language (Hindi) and a plethora of nationally recognized languages (e.g., Urdu), all of which are on par legally. From a Marxist perspective that is obsessed with class differences, culturally in post-colonial India, the use of English to give direction or instruction to someone is usually accompanied with the implication that the director or instructor comes from a class that has power over the person or persons to whom that message is being given to. Often English is used in cases where a prior direction or instruction that was given in a native language [for the sake of efficient communication, the defaut choice] was not responded to with adequate speed or enthusiasm.

    For Mr. R. Singh’s character to use “time” [when “waqt” would have been a lower cognitive burden to ariticulate] is basically Gully Boy challenging his authority-caused oppression with the language of authority. The phrase “my time will come” morphs into and is closer to a class-war declaration of “our era will begin” than the more poetic, “anon, my moment in the sun”, given the storyline choices made by the screenplay writers.

    That catchphrase is the protagonist’s ‘power’ move and he gifts that power to the ‘chorus’ as a coping mechanism that popular entertainment is often used for. It’s a useful tool for an oppressed person in that film: it’s use is a non-confrontational way to seek out ‘comrades’; when its use is challenged by someone within earshot the user can claim that ‘apna’ meant singular and a ‘no harm, no foul’ resolution will occur; when its use is received by someone within earhot in a non-hostile manner, the user has discovered a fellow journeyman (journeyperson in Trudeau’s Canada) or empathizer.

    I apologize in advance for this lengthy piece of boredom.


      1. Thank You

        You’re welcome and thank you for your kind words.

        Also, unconnected to this film, I saw the trailer of Kesari and I am not excited about their depiction of that battle. I’ll wait for the reviews on that one.


        1. Kathy

          The trailer didn’t grab me either, TY. I’ve seen similar sentiment on Twitter. I’m curious to read early reviews, too.

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  15. Siddharth Daniel

    “The lone weak points in Gully Boy are rap battle scenes — insult contests that have little in common with Murad’s introspective lyric-writing. I don’t know if one must be adept at rap battles to be considered a good rapper — or how one even wins a rap battle — but the sequences are dull.” Maybe this is the reason you deducted half a point from your overall rating but trust me, those rap battle scenes were way more impactful in Hindi than they were while being read on English subtitles. They were not very well translated and this might have hampered it’s Academy Awards prospect. I do understand your point that those scenes do not hold relevance to Murad introspective lyric-writing, but a contest with introspective lyrics might have made things a bit dull. That’s what I thought. Great review anyway and good to know you appreciated the movie. Keep writing and stay safe 🙂

    1. Kathy

      Thanks, Siddharth. I’m sure you right about the lyrics. Subtitling effectively is hard, undervalued work. You stay safe, too!


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