Zoya Akhtar’s hip hop-themed Gully Boy makes some vital rewrites to the average coming-of-age story. The February 14 release features a working-class Muslim hero who is equally comfortable with rapping and praying. Murad (Ranveer Singh) channels his ambitions and energies into his rap, but is a gentle soul otherwise who enjoys his cannabis joints and the tough-love support of his girlfriend Safeena (Alia Bhatt). In a movie that is mostly about Murad’s journey, Safeena emerges as a full-blown dreamer in her own right.
Murad’s introduction to Mumbai’s hip-hop community that follows an encounter with rapper MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi) helps him give full expression to his privately mumbled verses. The movie picks up its energy and rhythms from its characters and by using real locations around Mumbai, including the Dharavi slum, overhead shots of the Byculla-Lalbaug flyover, and posh housing complexes in central Mumbai. Cinematographer Jay Oza and production designer Suzanne Caplan Merwanji vividly capture parts of Mumbai that are often missing in mainstream Hindi cinema.
Zoya Akhtar has previously made Luck By Chance (2009), Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and Dil Dhadakne Do and contributed to the Bombay Talkies anthology films. Gully Boy was written by Akhtar and frequent collaborator Reema Kagti, and has dialogue by Vijay Maurya and a music score produced by Ankur Tewari. Akhtar spoke to Scroll.in about her vision for Gully Boy, which began when she watched the video Aafat featuring the Mumbai rapper Naezy, who, along with peer Divine, inspired Murad’s character.
Was ‘Gully Boy’ a film that you had always been wanting to make, or did it have a specific starting point?
I have a bank of ideas at all times, and I have plans, but I never make the film. I think you are always there in some story or the other. I have realised that the story that keeps me sustained is the one I am going to make.
I had no idea of the underground hip-hop scene [in Mumbai] until I saw a video of Naezy. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I kept digging on YouTube, and my interest kept going on. A film is about what turns you on, about what you get excited about. Your head space changes.
What was it about Naezy’s ‘Aafat’ video that kept you hooked?
That these guys exist, they are legit, they have a voice and they are going to raise this voice. They are talented and have a crazy flow. They are amazing writers, they have so many people watching them, and they are all 20 years old. It is ridiculous.
When did you set out to make the film?
We started the process at the end of 2014, and started working on the script in 2015 soon after Dil Dhadakne Do. We were supposed to shoot earlier, and the film should have come out at this time last year. But we lost a year – the Padmaavat shoot got extended. Plus, Ranveer needed to lose weight for the part of Murad, and that took two-three months. While Ranveer was losing weight, other things were going on – he was getting into the music, we were preparing for the shoot, and the music was being recorded.
The hip-hop scene with artists like Divine had started coming up last year. It wasn’t alien any more, but I also cannot say whether the film would have had the same impact if it had come out last year itself.
How much of ‘Gully Boy’ was improvised?
I write everything down. My blueprints for my films are solid, with dialogue and everything. Then I get the actors together and start workshopping. Some improvisations happen during the workshops.
A random example is Moeen [played by Vijay Varma] going wow wow, vade vade in the scene in the Benetton showroom. That happened during the workshop, and we kept it. It was insane, the boys collapsed laughing.
Or the scene in which Murad folds a napkin in the bathroom of Sky’s house [Kalki Koechlin plays Sky, who produces Murad’s music]. We were shooting in an apartment that didn’t actually have any water. That moment was improvised, and it became a layer. But the bit where Murad measures the area of the bathroom with his feet was written.
Everything was written, but then there were so many variables. If you are well-prepared, everything falls into place.
How much needed to be explained about the Indian rap scene, which is not as familiar as other music scenes?
Many people know the genre in India. Within the genre, there are various types of forms and artists. There are guys who represent the street – they write conscious rap, about things that affect their lives. They have distinctive voices, and each of their songs has a very different attitude. Take Kaam Bhari, for instance – his language is very different.
We had to make sure that each of the artists had their own voice. We also had to explain the ethos of the music without making it boring as hell. For instance, MC Sher describes rap as rhythm and poetry. You had to get into the scene without it becoming preachy or giving the audience a class.
Murad’s characterisation challenges the traditional depiction of the Hindi film hero. Did he evolve too during the shoot?
Murad’s character was there right from the beginning. He was no different. And whatever was written was for Ranveer. Murad has a different flow, and Ranveer didn’t influence the gentleness or depth or sadness of the character.
I wanted Murad to be the kind of man I want to see in the world. I am just putting it out there – you can be this guy too. You don’t have to represent the masculinity that you are always told about. It is brave to be sensitive. I like creating male characters whom I would like to see in the world.
Murad is also a rare Muslim lead in a mainstream movie.
Lots of people have been asking me about Murad’s faith. It is interesting that Divine and Naezy are both from minority communities.
We did want a Muslim character, but then I have always had Muslim characters in my films – Zafar in Luck by Chance [played by Hrithik Roshan], Imran in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara [played by Farhan Akhtar] and Farah in Dil Dhadakne Do [played by Anushka Sharma]. So in that sense, this wasn’t new for me.
The spitfire Safeena, who is played by Alia Bhatt, is quite the audience favourite.
The germ of Safeena came from Reema [Kagti, the film’s co-writer]. It was nice to have this kind of character. We don’t like to write people who are either black or white.
Safeena has to deal with her own share of oppression. She is incredibly intelligent and ambitious and has to curtail her personality because of her gender, and that can be angry-making. She has a violent mother, and violence is sometimes communicated through language. But Safeena is also loving, and she loves Murad deeply. They have a lived-in, comfortable relationship, and they are also friends.
The film has been shot on mostly real locations. What was your brief to the production designer?
You had to be on the streets for this kind of a film – you couldn’t be anywhere else. The locations dictated the camera movements, the lensing, the use of space, how the characters and their worlds were shot.
I had worked with production designer Suzanne Caplan Merwanji before. We found a spot in Dharavi and constructed a fixed set within it, which we used for Murad’s house and the street on which he lives. Everything around is Dharavi.
We were constricted within that space. All the houses were fixed, and, you couldn’t move them. These constraints led to a certain kind of language. It made you feel like you were there. If I had built the set at Film City, you wouldn’t have bought it. You may not have realised why, but it would not have been convincing.
‘Gully Boy’ is on the move right from the opening shot, and the cinematography creates an intimate, right-here-right-now feel.
We needed to feel that we were there with the characters. That was important. We didn’t want to look at this world from the outside.
You develop a gaze every time you do a film. For Dil Dhadakne Do, for instance, it was a view of this sub-culture, these people and their lives, these human beings who are always projecting. The film is from the point of view of the dog Pluto, in a sense. We used a lot of mid-shots and wides in that film, and we had hardly any close-ups.
Zindagi Na Milego Dobara was more internalised and moody. You were with the characters, and the camera was a part of the arc of their journeys. In Gully Boy too, we were with the characters. We needed that journey, the lack of space. We needed to get close to the guys, see what they were seeing and feel what they were feeling.
We moved a lot. Jay Oza [the cinematographer] is a beast and carried that camera. Usually, directors of photography tend to light neutrally and then add tones in the grading. But places like Dharavi have mixed lighting. There will be tungsten light and tubelights and fairy lights and candelight. Light doesn’t come into many of the houses, and they are dark. You don’t see the sky much. When the film gets out, you breathe. The lighting was beautiful and real and authentic.