Tuesday, March 5, 2019

‘Gully Boy’ deserves both celebration and reflection

Rahul Vaidya
Amidst the manufactured fury and ‘josh’ of cinematic jingo-nationalist glory all through January (‘Uri’, ‘Thackeray’, ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’) and then somber moment of Pulwama terrorist attacks and counter (surgical) strikes being turned to new levels of political frenzy; was the recent release and commercial success of Hindi film ‘Gully Boy’ (directed by acclaimed director Zoya Akhtar).  No wonder that remarkable success of this film did little to shape the public conversation at large. The film which takes on serious issues of class, urban ghettos, patriarchy, and counter-cultural forms of expressions of the underground in a serious manner and gravitas was clearly at odds with cheer-leading Hindu Majoritarian consumer middle class mobs that matter for box offices. Cinematic critical acclaim and commercial success aside, this film deserves a larger conversation and debate and here is my attempt to pen down a few thoughts in this regard.

At the outset, ‘Gully Boy’ is a classic underdog, rags to riches story. Murad (Ranveer Singh) is a final year college student staying in Dharavi slum with his dysfunctional family. His driver father is abusive and keeps everyone on their toes, he fights with Murad and his mother and has got a second wife. Amidst all the chaos and harsh poverty; Murad has some fine support from his girlfriend Safeena (Alia Bhatt) who is feisty and comes from well-off family with her father a doctor. And of course, he has poetry and rap music. As with rappers all around, another rapper MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi) takes him under his wings, shares the techniques and tricks of the trade and fighting all hardships and abyss of bleak future of car stealing, mechanic, AC repairing, drug dealing etc. that is staring in the face; Murad goes on to discover his ‘self’, his identity as ‘artist’ and of course winning contest, popularity, and money.

No wonder that aspiring middle class, youth would identify with ‘Gully Boy’ which ends on the promise and confident proclamation of ‘apna time aayega’. Some commentators have criticized the film as ‘a markedly neo-liberal moment in Bollywood’[1] which fails to appreciate the crux of hip hop that is identity and harsh reality of urban ghetto life. The film fails to track political roots of the hip hop as protest music against discrimination and ghettoisation. Further, the rap songs in the film - ‘Jingostan’ and ‘Azadi’ (JNU protests) are poignant but they are stripped of the specific context and rappers’ reaction to it[2]. Apart from this, there has been criticism that how despite trying to distance itself from exoticising poverty, Dharavi etc., the film ends up doing exactly that.

I would like to argue that this criticism misses something critical that is at heart at this film (and Zoya Akhtar’s other films as well)- here’s a film maker which goes about her work not in a straightforward but in a layered fashion and treats the familiar tropes not just with sensibility and sensitivity but also deception and cunning grounded in realism. It is quite easy to miss the subtle elements in works such as this, and to only list out the usual offenses of commercial Hindi Bollywood.

That class is central to the film is accepted by everyone including critics. So what is it that requires our attention? That the ‘underdog’ story here doesn’t go along the lines of ‘angry young man’ themes of Bollywood is as much recognition of reality of 30 years of neo-liberal reforms and the shift in politics as well as identity of ‘working class’ as we understand and not only a political choice of playing to the gallery of aspiring middle class. If anything, it is important to underline that even ‘angry young man’ was also a trope with which cinema-going middle class of the 70s identified with and hence was as much an effort to play to the gallery if not more. What is more, that image of ‘angry young man’ (intricately linked to Amitabh Bacchan) had firm ground in upper caste, middle- lower middle class imagination of seeing oneself as savior, taking on the dirty world of mafia, corruption, politicians, worshipping ‘mother’ while displaying a nihilistic ethic otherwise. There was a cathartic pleasure involved in seeing ‘angry young man’ do the dirty job for you on screen while speaking language of authority and power. This language was captivating. It was poetic. But it was foreign to working class and the poor all the same. They definitely enjoyed it, identified with it. But it was world of sheer fantasy and escape. It was corruption of imagination. No wonder that it coincided with discrediting the idea of collective action and strikes. It spoke against big businessmen, but sought the easy way out of outwitting them via mafia. This Robin Hood politics was certainly regressive although the drapery it was cloaked in spoke of poor and systemic injustice.

There have been plenty of films in last 30 years which have not gone the route of ‘angry young man’ and yet either ended up glamorizing mafia or acquiring riches one way or the other. ‘Gully Boy’ resolutely stays away from either. It is striking to locate Murad and poverty and working class experience that shapes him. The sheer in-your-face inequality he encounters, struggles against system, abusive father, ghettos all are familiar experiences of millions of people. and it is equally essential to note that merely because these are all familiar, out in the open experiences has not led people to take up arms or rise in rebellion. The overarching thread that knits this unjust and unequal ‘system’ together is something that Murad is grappling with. Murad has seen both options on offer from the ‘system’: abyss of everyday life to make a living, or to make an acceptable dent in hierarchy through art to climb the social ladder. He is not joining mafia, or political party- which is curiously considered to exist somehow more ‘outside the system’ by some.  He is angry, but he is not naïve. He vents his anger through poetry but he understands the reality of something called ‘socially necessary labor time’ which capitalism neatly develops and determines the worth of each and every commodity including art. He is aware that capitalism has robbed him and millions like others to properly even ‘dream’. But at the same time, there is a possibility for someone in Murad’s position that capitalism opens up to reach out to millions of people which hitherto was impossible. Social media or otherwise, it is only under capitalism that music and other cultural forms develop and travel far and wide extending their influence in unimaginable forms. This exposure to information, culture, and media leads to democratization. It leads to and shapes up eco-systems which thrive upon cosmopolitan experience. Marx was enthusiastic about city life for this very reason. The city was to be praised for at least one thing, the escape it offers from what he called "the idiocy of village life". The ghettos working people in cities inhabit often resemble the villages and customs, caste and creed divisions. But the possibility of cosmopolitan experience and the process of individuation that capitalism offers is what Murad’s search is for. Murad is clear about focus of his struggle: roti, kapada, makan aur internet. Murad’s journey of rapping and hip hop is hence less about aspiring luxuries and riches and more about his struggle against the tyranny of everyday life of de-skilling and creative numbness that is enforced on millions of working people as capitalism warrants to have an army of cheap labor that is easily replaceable; men and women who have retrospectively taken spots of robots yet to arrive. In short, would Murad rap if there was no contest? Yes. He would. Would he continue to rap if he lost? Yes, he would. That is the puzzle many people seem to be completely missing.

Now let us turn to the question of identity. The objection that Murad is Muslim and believer is not central focus of the film has upset many critics, especially since hip hop and its association with Black resistance, and Black Panthers He is not joining mafia, or political party- which is considered to exist somehow more ‘outside the system’ by some. I would argue here is the case of critics simply projecting their preferences onto rappers/ artists to carry out certain political movements and tackle questions. Mumbai witnessed the riots in 1992-93. Sri Krishna Commission report has not been implemented even till date. No political party has taken up the cause of riot victims and Muslims thrown in ghettos in reality. Is it the case that ‘Gully Boy’ should have done a fantasy trip where Murad becomes a star rapper who waxes eloquent about Muslim pride and self-respect and demand abolition of ghettos et al? MIM and Asaduddin Owaisi have steered their politics in this direction, but it doesn’t resonate with larger oppressed minorities the way Black protests did in US. The correspondence between art and politics is such that politics inspires art or at least elevates and supports it and not the other way round. Dalit Panthers led by Namdev Dhasal and their protest poetry in Marathi certainly is great example of convergence of art and politics. But Dalit protests and politics could grow and reach out to other oppressed sections because of its ‘part of no part’ social identity which resembled proletariat. We have several examples of radical Dalit balladeers, singers (Anna Bhau Sathe, Sambhaji Bhagat, Kabir Kala Manch, Waman Kardak, Ginni Mahi to name a few). Unless something similar happens in Muslim social and political experience, it is cynical to expect films like ‘Gully Boy’ to start a fire when there is none. The film is shrewd enough to convey how ghetto has shaped up even the employment choices for Murad: AC repairing, driving, mechanic, car stealing, drugs, and music. (The double exclusion of Muslim women via patriarchy and ghettoisation is depicted even more sensitively- in Safeena’s fight for continuing her education and relationship with Murad as well as Murad’s mother having to struggle with her husband and then brother refusing to support her) On an aside, Do Naezy and Divine and other rappers in India, (many of whom are from minority communities and who have inspired this film) situate themselves in ‘Muslim/ Christian Pride’ frames? They do not. They speak of ghettos but also they speak of so many other issues and situations. And their rap is about local pride, brotherhood, everyday struggle as well.

Associated with this is the question of what constitutes rap? What constitutes art and what is its politics? Is rap mere noise and clever play of words with drum beats? Or is it song of the oppressed? Perhaps evolution of hip hop (and before that, art forms like Jazz) as protest music needs greater enquiry. It didn’t start with motto of intervening in overt politics; hip hop started to challenge the beats and tunes of disco in 1970s which sought to exclude the poor and marginalized and catered to glossy, well-to-do patrons in sophisticated dresses. Rap was born in streets and parks of New York suburbs like Bronx to come up with an inviting tune which invited all to join the party/ fun. Over the period, it integrated elements of soul, funk, techno, rock, disco; it also took more explicit shape of protest music. Indian rap and hip hop may seem like ‘foreign’ and exotic influence at the outset. However, as Indian rappers have time and again expressed, this ‘foreign’ sound is more authentic to their life which captures the beat and the pace, the frenzy, excitement and fury of their experience. This rap is protest against romantic/ cliched tunes of mainstream Bollywood music which ‘dumbs down’ working people from experiments in their art. The fact that Indian hip hop quickly evolved to speak the vernacular languages and many artists from slums are coming up is promising. In Althusserian terms, theirs is correct ‘working class instinct’; whether it leads them to reach fully worked out ‘working class position’ and lead to larger explicit political interventions is bit too premature. But, the very fact that a mainstream commercial Hindi film provides this experiment a solid, realist platform is heartening.

The Author is an Independent Researcher based in New Delhi 

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