By Rahul Desai
Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy has a dense narrative with multiple threads. Murad’s villainous father turns it into an ‘80s generational-discord movie, his rap partner occupies a separate mentor-underdog movie, his shady best friend makes for a poignant slumdog-legacy movie, his rap battles hint at an inherent class/caste drama, his mother a socially relevant gender-disparity movie, and his girlfriend a modern-day love triangle. In a typical “artist” movie, we see every such segment of the protagonist’s journey isolated – coherently, in linear sequence – to define art as an escape from reality. One phase follows the next; the rise is “structured,” a systematic manifestation of disparate conflicts. You often sense that a character’s emotions are exclusive to a certain moment, as if there were no before or after.
But Gully Boy understands that art is a parallel consequence of life. Murad’s experiences are simultaneous; his psychology is more of a weighted average than a cumulative sum. His destiny is a division of reactions. When his father gives him hell, he immediately turns to his girlfriend. When his mother suffers, he turns to his friends’ survival instincts. When he works as a driver, he composes lyrics to bridge the silences. When nothing else works, he turns to rapping to defy those silences. There is no order; you can see he is thinking about one space while navigating another.
Which is where Murad’s love story with Safeena acquires significance. Theirs is the one space in which thinking about everything else is the same as thinking about each other. Unlike other quasi-biographical pictures, they make for one of the city’s innumerable faceless unions on the fringes of visibility; you might imagine them using rocky promenades to shield their identity just as much as the next burkha-clad couple defying the moral police. We don’t see them fall for each other or “begin” – a mid-love template hinted at in their first scene, where one is led to believe they don’t know each other until they hold hands. They are childhood sweethearts, already nine years together when the film begins. As a result, they are emotionally in the “informal sibling” phase – a phase where all their meetings are invariably triggered by the need to share. Either he has something to say first, or she does; they don’t have to worry about wooing each other for the sake of letting the film hinge on romantic passion.
The sociocultural shackles of their situation is ingrained into the geography of their meetings. Their primary spot is a flimsy footbridge over a sewage drain connecting two separate worlds – one side leads into the slums of Dharavi, and the other into the city she occupies. The train they hang out in with his friends is static in a railway yard – it is supposed to go places, but is dormant for now, waiting for the morning. The bus they meet in is already in motion between destinations, much like their relationship is during the film. His troubled family dynamic, as well as his friendship with Moeen, are also ongoing stories much before the title appears. The two new equations, MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi) and Sky (Kalki Koechlin), are music-oriented ones – yet, the first drives him to confront his voice and upbringing, and the second drives him to recognize the importance of Safeena’s familiarity.
This familiarity, though, is mental and not entirely physical. Due to the surreptitious nature of their equation, they are fortunate enough to still be discovering each other. In public, they cannot touch one another, and spend most of their love resisting rather than giving into their instincts: an arrangement that keeps them jumpy, like teenagers yet to fully express themselves. Their kisses are therefore tender, organic, not desperate. The lips savour the other with a non-rehearsed newness. Kissing is not just a medium of affection, but a mode of communication: She surprise-kisses him to cheer him up the first time, show her support the second and to wholeheartedly forgive him the third time.
This is perhaps why it’s Safeena’s jealousy that instead internalizes the pent-up energy. She reacts physically, succumbing to the kind of primal impulses otherwise reserved for sexual togetherness. She is territorial – not thinking twice about depicting her possessiveness with her hands, legs and glass bottles. Protecting him is, for her, as natural and unnatural as a peck on his lips. With its furtive glances and hidden messages, lying for love is a special kind of love, too. At stations, bus stops, windows. It’s what keeps them going. But what’s perhaps most remarkable about their “in-between” relationship in context of mainstream cinema is an acknowledgement of habit and conditioning rather than irrational feelings and lofty gestures. Murad shies away from Sky exactly when he realizes that he knows no other female company except Safeena’s, for better or worse. Because sometimes, “tu set hai? (you sorted now?)” means just as much as those other three words.