The documentary Gully Life opens at a barber’s shop. The subject of the film, Mumbai rapper Vivian Fernandes aka Divine, exchanges light-handed banter with his friends and his hairdresser. Next, the camera moves to a slum cluster in Sahar in Mumbai’s Andheri suburb, following Divine as he walks through the narrow lanes and points out the house where he spent his early childhood. These scenes set the tone for the 55-minute film: an exploration of the 28-year-old musician’s rise in the Indian hip-hop scene and his deep connection to the streets on which he grew up.
Gully Life, directed by Akshat Gupt and produced by Red Bull Media House and Supari Studios, will be aired on July 1 at 9 pm on Discovery Channel and other Discovery Inc platforms, including TLC and Discovery Science. This will be followed by a digital release on Red Bull TV on July 15 and Divine’s YouTube channel on July 17.
The documentary is a love letter of sorts to his fans, Divine told Scroll.in. “I like to share everything with my fans, and a documentary was a very good way of communicating all that had been going on in my life over the past 20 years,” he said. “That’s because my music is very personal and I think I owe the documentary to my fans because they’ve been a part of my journey musically.”
The details of how Divine rapped his way from rags to riches are widely known: growing up in Mumbai’s slums and chawls, he discovered American hip-hop through a friend at school. After writing some of his early songs in English, he found his voice by imbibing the cadences of Mumbai’s unique argot in his music.
The resultant mix of Hindi and slang birthed Divine’s breakthrough hit Ye Mera Bombay in 2013. The song that propelled him to stardom was Meri Gully Mein (2015), for which he collaborated with fellow rapper Naved Sheikh, better known as Naezy. Divine’s other hits include Jungli Sher (2016), Scene Kya Hai (2016) and Farak (2017).
Gully Life, shot over 18 months, fills in these broad strokes with details of the journey behind these milestones, including Divine’s relationship with his alcoholic father, his yearning for his mother, who used to work abroad, and his relationship with his grandmother, with whom he lived since he was 10. “I wanted to show my fans the many people who worked behind the scenes in my life, like my closest friends and fellow musicians,” Divine said. “It also features my mother, speaking in front of the camera for the first time ever. She’s my best friend who my fans had only heard about in my songs and now they’ll get to see her.”
The documentary lands four months after the release of Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, starring Ranveer Singh as a rapper from the Dharavi slum. The film was loosely based on the lives of Divine and Naezy and brought countrywide attention to the duo. The rappers have also emerged as the torchbearers of Mumbai’s hip-hop scene and paved the way for the emergence of “gully rap” – a musical movement that celebrates the resilience of Mumbai’s less privileged while also critiquing income disparity, crime and corruption.
“The journey has been very inspiring,” Divine said. “I love the whole hip-hop movement happening in the country. As a hip-hop fan first and then a musician, this is a great time to be alive.”
Gully Life features interviews with Zoya Akhtar, Singh, Divine’s fellow Mumbai rappers, and members of Gully Gang Entertainment, a record label that the artist launched in February to support hip-hop talent in the country.
Divine’s next goal is to take his music across the world. He’s also looking forward to the release of his first full-length album, Kohinoor, which was expected to come out in April but has faced some delays. Meanwhile, he wants to continue rapping about his city and his roots.
“My life changes everyday and my music changes everyday,” he said. “One thing that will not change is that Mumbai is the teacher I never had. I’ll always be inspired by it. For me, the word ‘gully’ is passion, it’s motivation. I’m very proud of that word.”