The voice of the streets
Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt and Zoya Akhtar on Gully Boy, what makes rap culture revolutionary, and the Azadi controversy
Zoya Akhtar’s upcoming rap musical, Gully Boy, seeks to familiarise Bollywood audiences with the booming ‘asli’ (authentic) hip-hop movement in India. The film charts the journey of Murad (Ranveer Singh) — an underdog street rapper emerging from the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai — and is loosely inspired by the lives of Indian hip-hop artists Divine and Naezy. Produced by Excel Entertainment and Tiger Baby, Gully Boy had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival on February 9 and was met with an encouraging response.
“The hip-hop scene in India is not only growing and evolving, it’s actually exploding,” says Ranveer, contending, “We are on the threshold of a musical revolution, which is almost like a social revolution. The expression in this music is so relevant, I believe it’s beyond sangeet — it’s kranti. While on one hand, we have the remix culture — and I am not dissing remix culture; I listen to it and have benefited from it — I feel it’s also important for original music to come out.”
The collaborative soundtrack of Gully Boy (18 tracks, 54 contributors) has been supervised by musician Ankur Tiwari. Featured artists range from non-rap veterans like Karsh Kale and Raghu Dixit to up-and-coming scenesters like Spitfire, MC Altaf, MC TodFod and beat-boxers D-Cypher and BeatRaw.
Ranveer, a rap enthusiast since his growing-up years, has lent vocals to five hip-hop tracks in the album, including Asli Hip Hop, Apna Time Aayega and Mere Gully Mein. The actor recalls, “I wanted to rap, but Zoya was unsure. She was like, ‘I don’t know if you are going to be good enough’. For me, there was no question about doing my own vocals. The nature of this film was such, it called for the lead actor to sing for the part. So Zoya asked me to give a test. I went to the studio: Ankur was there; Divine bhai was there in the booth with me, giving me tips. They asked me to rap Mere Gully Mein. I went for Naezy’s verse and they were like — ‘Okay, this is happening. This is on’.”
In the film, Alia Bhatt, last seen in the 2018 espionage thriller Raazi, essays the role of Safeena: Murad’s love interest and an aspiring surgeon. To prepare for the role, Alia worked closely with dialogue writer Vijay Maurya (also a part of the cast) to acquire fluency in the Mumbaiya street lingo, as exhibited by her meme-worthy dialogues in the film’s trailer. Asked if she was familiar with Mumbai’s underground hip-hop scene before coming on board for the film, Alia admits, “I was only aware of Divine and Naezy and a couple of other artists through my sister (Shaheen Bhatt) who is really into the underground scene. In fact, she was the one who first told me that Zoya is making a film on this subject. Then, a year later, this film came to me. After having been a part of Gully Boy, I’ve realised how alive Indian hip-hop and rap culture is. It has just not been given the more obvious commercial attention yet.”
Like Ranveer, Alia too is known for her passion for music and has contributed vocals to her previous films like Highway, Dear Zindagi and Badrinath Ki Dulhaiya, besides performing at live concerts, and stage and reality shows. In Gully Boy, however, the actor has stayed away from the film’s musical creation. “There’s no rap or song I am performing in the film. The stand that Zoya and I wanted to take was that there is more to every character who is not singing in the film. Because this character was already so strong, I didn’t feel the need to unnecessarily add a rap in the middle. It would have seemed unauthentic, and this film is all about being authentic,” says Alia.
While the release of Gully Boy — a mainstream Bollywood film starring two of the most popular actors of Hindi cinema — will give an undeniable boost to the independent hip-hop scene in India, there’s also suspicion that the film might strip off some of the exclusivity and autonomy associated with the medium. This was partially foreshadowed by the criticism that Divine, credited as one of the pioneers of the gully rap movement, faced, when he signed a music deal with Sony in 2015. With global brands and commercial labels closing in to make the most of gully season, how ‘asli’ can Indian hip-hop be?
Addressing this line of thought, director Zoya Akhtar says, “As an artist, no matter where you come from, you want the maximum people to discover your work. It is natural human behaviour. Not only Divine, this also happened with Anurag (Kashyap). He was hailed as the ‘king of indie cinema’ but the minute he got bigger, people were like, ‘He’s not indie anymore.’ But you can’t remain that. The point is, you come from there, and the beauty of it is that you are telling these stories, and more and more people are watching it. When you sell out is when you start lying. The beauty of these artists is their honesty and their truth. And there will be those you will remain the same throughout their career and people will never accuse them.”
Although generally well-received, the soundtrack of Gully Boy has faced criticism for excluding the political narrative of Dub Sharma’s viral song Azadi. Like the original track, the jukebox version of the song opens with pro-freedom chants raised by former JNU Student’s Union president Kanhaiya Kumar in 2016. However, the song has been recreated (in collaboration with Divine) to focus on the theme of economic disparity. The music video of Azadi did not include Kanhaiya’s chant, and it won’t be present in the final version of the film. Additionally, last week, parody versions of the song were tweeted by both BJP and Congress to throw shade at each other.
“‘Azadi’ is a strong word, meaning freedom. It’s also a concept and word strongly associated with youth because that’s the age for the josh and rebellion. When we adapted this song, I loved Dub’s track but we needed it to fit into my narrative. My narrative is about class and class denomination. I have a problem with the class system. I have a problem if someone speaks down to their staff. My film captures that, as well as socio-economic divide in terms of disparity and poverty,” Zoya says, adding, “What Divine and Dub did with Azadi is bring the song to this narrative. It’s a slogan that came before JNU, and will come after JNU, and you can use it for anything you find oppressive. Rap is that kind of a genre. It is conscious music. That's why it is legitimate and real.”