I had the mixed pleasure of watching Gully Boy last week, a movie that defines a certain moment for Bollywood’s audiences around the world – but most importantly for (an emergent) consumer India. Perhaps, some say, we are finally seeing nuanced characters in “mainstream Bollywood”. Perhaps we are seeing intersectional feminism, and male allies, done right. Some are even saying that we are “seeing real stories” – and the commonly held, “this is a great step towards awareness”. Some, are more cynical. India, struggling to surmount the insult placed upon it, when Danny Boyle was the first to make a glassy-eyed blockbuster about Dharavi (with Slumdog Millionaire), has finally responded with a “real” story to be reckoned with. Just kidding. It’s a well-researched piece on class and caste struggles. Or am I kidding?
What benefit does this change of tone in Bollywood bring for Indian liberals? Whether or not any of these quasi-reviews and invocations of hope hold water, the film’s popularity can be attributed in part, to a blockbuster budget (40 crore INR) involving Bollywood celebrities, linked to underground names which do well to reach NRI soil – simultaneously, ingenious marketing that courts the upper classes within the country to gently transition to a new “underground” market trends – such as Hindi rap or really, any art coming from Dharavi. It’s very easy to consider Dharavi, or art that comes from Dharavi, as underground rather than seek out meaningful movements that the rich can understand (rather than appropriate).
Most of all, as a caste- and class-privileged, upwardly mobile, left-leaning intellectual and woman, it was a movie that made sure I wasn’t uncomfortable watching it, and if this happened to you too, that would be a well-engineered coincidence.
While it is a story about how an underprivileged young man from the world’s second-largest slum manages to become a hip hop star, the movie is not intended for underprivileged audiences. It acts instead, in an absurd twist, like the clarion call to a hipster nestling deep within your jaded, educated, work-life balance-seeking heart, its effectiveness in direct proportion to our indoctrination into the culture of yogurt served with exotic berries in white Instagrammable trays for breakfast, which, incidentally, the rich in the movie are seen doing. In short, it is a story for the consumption of the comfortable class.
While not all those who love the film may be a part of India’s budding hipster culture, younger viewers may be aspirants of it, or so become after watching, and that is where name-dropping such as mentioning “Berklee College of Music” “in London” gain their significance. Characters are also seen repeatedly using Apple and JBL products, meet in a bar called The Social, where the beer they drink is Bira. If you aren’t hipster yet, this is a step-by-step guide as to how you can become one.
The movie does depict a risqué issue within the country – viz. children being made to participate in a drug supply ring (which drug? Marijuana, of course), or the morally ambiguous issue of stealing cars (I’m joking! It’s not morally ambiguous. Or is it?). Murad’s friend Aftab, a mechanic, is of course a car-thief and a drug-dealer (whom Murad, being the naive heart-in-the-right-place hero that he is, tries to stop from “making kids sell drugs”, but who is himself not seen having any direct interaction with his own younger brother of 14). For once, we have an all-Muslim set of characters – and, surprise – they don’t look or act very different from the all-Hindu set of characters we usually get to see. Win #1 for Bollywood. Aliyaa Bhatt is strategically sporting the hijab – perhaps, the first instance of such a thing by a lead in mainstream Indian cinema (doubling up as a canny nod to the Muslims beyond borders, within the Indian subcontinent, who are going to be watching too). Win #2 win for Bollywood. But this is where the good things end.
Since a movie about hip hop in India must, at all costs, also have graffiti (because never mind what rappers are actually into) – we are made privy to a nightly escapade made by the upper class Sky and her friends when one character is seen inscribing “Brown & Beautiful” on top of a fairness cream hoarding. This would have been a great idea if it hadn’t already been reminiscent of a huge campaign – but, because it is, begins to look eerily like yet another brand placement. Anyone from Dharavi watching the film is going to leave more flabbergasted than they were when they found out that Zoya Akhtar wanted to make a film on a Dharavi rapper’s life in the first place.
While watching, my concern was for counterculture, and for any authentic underground movements that had the misfortune of being discovered by Bollywood; what the film says about them or doesn’t. The film barely works on creating an idea of an “underground culture”, but does successfully appropriate its imported codes – such as graffiti – without context, and tries to sell you an idea of a Dharavi you expected to see and can bear to tolerate – all well-encased within the rags-to-riches fairy tale that is the central narrative story of Murad, who is loosely based on no one. Propaganda posing as protest? Sort of, yeah. At least those who consider themselves liberal should really learn to see through it by now.
In bringing Murad to the “world out there”, and in making him encounter a sexually “liberated” girl from the upper class studying musical counter-culture (albeit in a Western context), the movie does a lot to indulge our self-assurance that there is “good” in the world of the educated and upwardly mobile (and bad in the dangerous world of Dharavi. Where else?). That a star like Murad – or stars like Divine or Naezy whom reference – may really flourish at the mercy of one such privileged woman – shows what a great and fair world we live in. The revelation of Sky from a foul-mouthed trash-talking YouTube commenter to a sweet, smiling, privilege accented Hindi speaking woman, is another manifestation of the argument about how the women in this upper class world are “so free” and in direct contrast to Safeena, the female lead who develops outrageous abilities to lie and fight her own parents in order to get the same things. This leads to flat and facile feminism that does nothing but reinforce class boundaries.
Congrously, the conversation overheard by our titular gully boy when an elite young girl is being hounded by her parents to pursue a Master’s “because everyone’s got a Bachelor’s these days” – including our hero, their driver – serves to kindly make Murad learn how “even the privileged aren’t so happy”.
Why, it even inspires him to write a rap song. The rich must have it hard after all.
Mili Sethia is an artist based in Mumbai, India.
Medha Singh is Music Editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse. Send her your reviews at music [at] queenmobs [dot] com. Image: Gully Boy, AA Films, 2019