Gully Boy : The Zoya Factor

Zoya Akhtar’s ambitious film is brought down by her inherent flaws as a Filmmaker, but salvaged to an extend by Ranveer Singh and the superb cast.

If i am  to go by the opinions (of the majority) of the esteemed Film critics of our country, then i am  forced to believe that  Zoya Akhtar has been invaded by the spirit of Satyajith Ray. In her latest film Gully Boy ,Zoya is supposed to have crafted the most realistic and authentic movie of recent times . She has pushed the cinematic envelope, to move out of her comfort zone of rich people in rich surroundings ,to craft an ultra honest film about the struggles of an  impoverished ‘underdog’ from the ‘lower class’  slums of Dharavi, to make it big as a Rap star. I should have known better

Well if  one judge a film, by the amount of squalor ,grime and claustrophobic surroundings  that can be put on screen as any measure of reality and authenticity , then Gully Boy is the zenith of authenticity. But if creating living and breathing characters ,whose character arcs are shaped by their genuine emotions and their environment,  is the measure , then Gully Boy is just your typical Zoya Akthar film – Superficial,cold and this time a a healthy dose of patronizing for the ‘underdog from the lower class – only this time set in the slums  as opposed to her usual SoBo landscape.



Thematically, Gully boy has a lot in  common with angry young man\Underdog masala films of the  the 1970’s  Films that were mainly set in Bombay of the time, like Deewaar, trishul,Amar Anthony, Muqaddar ka sikandar ,Suhaag etc of which Zoya’s father Javed Akhtar was one of the chief architects . Those were designed to be escapist films, but they had an amount of realism, a feel for the milieu of the lower class suburbs and gullis  chawls, dhabas and streets that was genuine. The same for those characters like Vijay, Anthony , Sikandar, the writing mixed with the talent and persona of Amitabh Bachchan created full blooded characters even if they were set amidst fantastic events and indulged in larger than life actions. The main reason for this was , the creators of those films like Salim and Javed, Manmohan Desai , prakash mehra all came from the same class, the same milieu, same bastis and streets. Their cinematic technique might have been cruder, their sensibilities less sophisticated, but they were successful in conveying the essence of those characters as well as the truthfulness of their environment as much as it was permissible in those commercial fantasies.Obviously, these sort of films are now anathema to both the critics and the the multiplex audiences , which explained the kind of derision an old fashioned film like Thugs of Hindostan received, Not saying that was a good film ,but it was bashed mainly for that  aesthetic it represented . No wonder  the same  film critics are praising this one to the skies.


To give Zoya credit, she has made efforts to be authentic , she has done extensive research about the characters and their environment, about the music, about the lingo. But there are things that are beyond research that the writer\director has to infuse into the film to make it feel real, particularly the characters and their thought process. This is something she is unable to do maybe because of her background and the kind of filmmaker she is..In Deewaar , when Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay is offered a chance to enter the smuggling business by boss Davar, He lapses into a lengthy monologue about their circumstances, about their pain and suffering, that will eventually make him say yes to Davar’s offer. Its not just performance of Bachchan, which is of course great, but its the writing , the build of both the narrative as well as of the character up to that point, that makes us feel the emotions, that makes us identify with him completely


Zoya Akhtar is a second generation film kid from a privileged background. She has always chosen to make movies about, either the ultra rich or the film industry, which is understandable. Every filmmaker should make movies ,about subjects and environments, one is most familiar with. Nor is there any unwritten rule that a filmmaker cannot pull off a subject that he\she is not familiar with. A lot of filmmakers do that successfully.  Just that, i don’t think Zoya has that talent. We really don’t get that Deewaar kind of identification or build up of either the narrative or the lead character to ever feel his angst, his pain, and what makes him do what he does.Its just some random chain of events that keep the film going.


Zoya drowns the films in details: The visual, the linguistic, the anthropological, of this particular world.. This is more of a Sci fi movie or a period film for her. Thankfully it doesn’t devolve into poverty porn , as in Slumdog millionaire. But they all remain just that, details. Sometimes this excessive emphasis on the details slows the film down considerably. It sucks out the film of any dramatic force. About half an hour into this film, there’s a scene where a bunch of foreigners come to visit the house of the protagonist Murad(Ranveer Singh) . They are most enamored by how every inch of  space in his small house is used . There is absolutely no space left. In some ways, These foreigners could be considered a surrogate for Zoya and her film crew.There are several other places too, in the film , where I saw Zoya. She is the upper class daughter of Murad’s employer who is crying in the back seat of the posh car, that is driven by Murad. She is also in Kalki Koechlin’s character Sky who becomes the savior of Murad, who is going to take him out of his pitiable existence.This is exactly the problem with the film. Zoya is attempting to make the film from the perspective of Murad , meaning to give it  an insider’s perspective, but it ends up being the view of the outsider looking in.  She is making a film about the driver sitting in front of her   but as the song goes , she is neither able to fully empathize with him nor appropriate his thought process. Her vision is that of the foreigners and what she notices is extreme claustrophobia, squalor : people arranged like matchsticks in match boxes , with match boxes piled over another , as seen in the many God’s eye POV shots that’s scattered throughout the film.


It’s not that I entirely disliked the film. I liked it quite a bit.  It must be paradoxical to say this , but for  a film that’s being celebrated for its reality, i liked it much more as a slight entertaining fantasy .  How else to take this film ? , Murad achieves everything very  easily relative to his  living conditions . People keep bringing things to him rather him him having to struggle hard to achieve it. One gets the feeling that we are watching the life story of Zoya rather than Murad here.


Zoya, the technician is in great form.and cook up some great cinematic moments like the first  scene between Ranveer and Alia, . The rap battles for the most part are also executed well and i loved the picturisation and the editing of Galli mein song. She creates a nice contrast between the dark claustrophobic  ‘underworld’ of Dharavi and the  ‘upper world’ of Mumbai city, which is lit like heaven.   But i also felt an overwhelming desire on Zoya’s part to keep things from getting too massy, too warm , too emotional. I am really really surprised how much of a niche film this is, when there was potential in it to go a lot more wide with the treatment of the subject.The final scenes are extremely underwhelming, because there is no proper buildup to the great contest and it just ends abruptly.Its like Zoya’s thinking  , oh god , if i turned up the pitch even a little, i will be called uncool by the multiplex crowd. This obsession to be  cool lends the film a coldness  that disconnects the film from the viewer at many points

And then there are the actors.  Their casting and their performances are the best thing about the film. Zoya proves again that she  is a great director of actors.The newcomers like Vijay Varma and  Siddhant Chaturvedi  make their mark.  Alia, i thought, was a little out of place . she gives a good performance and shares a wonderful chemistry with Ranveer, but her appearance and dialogue delivery does betray her sophisticated roots


Ranveer Singh is undeniably the star of the show. He looks and feels the part.If anybody has pushed the envelope on this film, its undoubtedly him.He  shows a completely different side of his talent here. Usually, in characters like Bajirao, Khilji and Simbba, he is already the Rockstar, the doer who initiate the actions  . But here he is the reactor , the absorber who respond as things are happening to him.As in  Lootera and Dil Dhadakne Do He’s the intense brooder , who takes his time in doing things. He supplement genuine emotion every time the film fails to do so. Particularly in the kaisi hai doori track, once he finishes singing it , his eyes well up and brings out the raw emotions of the scene .  He gives the film the heart and soul that it lacks sorely He breathes life into what is an unevenly written role and builds up his performance very well.. The other actors have the more showier parts and they will be much more appreciated by the general public but at the end of the day, Its  his performance that  will be the biggest takeaway from the film.



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