The recent surge in auteur-directed “mainstream” films offer tremendous insight into these filmmakers’ directorial abilities as opposed to their storytelling chops. The plots here are the least important thing, as the question of what is going to happen in the film is already answered for the viewer if they are aware of the typical underdog story, love story, or heist film. It’s the how that matters. Anurag Kashyap molded both the traditional boxer underdog story (“Mukkabaaz”) and the old-age love story for the modern day (“Manmarziyaan”) with his quintessential grayer shades, infusing them with purposeful messiness generally devoid in the mainstream. Vikramaditya Motwane, although successful to a lesser extent with his crack at the super-hero genre with “Bhavesh Joshi Superhero,” was able to meld the crowd-pleasing moments of the underdog story with the socio-political concerns of a “toota hua” (broken) India. With “Gully Boy,” Zoya Akhtar also takes a crack at the quintessential rise of the underdog story. Unlike Kashyap and Motwane, however, she doesn’t just seem to want to mold her style into the genre. Akhtar seems to want to transcend the trappings of a clićhe underdog story by presenting a gritty and realistic take on not only the hard-fought success of her protagonist, Murad (an effectively understated Ranveer Singh), but also by integrating this rise with her other commentaries on class, and gender politics in India. And, generational conflict. And, also cultural conflicts.
I genuinely admire a filmmaker wanting to explore all these issues within the template of the simple rags-to-riches story and in Akhtar’s hands, the expression of the divide that exists between people in India, particularly of social class, provides several memorable moments. One of my favorite moments comes in a scene which takes inspiration directly from Akhtar’s two films that examined the lives of upper-middle class in India, “Dil Dhadakne Do” and “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.” Except here, Akhtar expertly uses poetry (both audio and visual) to represent the perspective of her lower-class protagonist to evoke not a moment of emancipation that the rich feel in “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara,” but of heart-breaking observation about class divide. Tracking Murad’s silent reaction to watching his upper-class employer crying in the back seat of the car, Akhtar evokes the gulf between the classes by combining Javed Akhtar’s beautifully written poem “Doori” (distance) with a wide-shot that makes the physical distance between the front seat and backseat of car look like a wall separating the poor and the rich. It’s quite an inspired moment of filmmaking that reveals both the protagonist’s thoughts and the inequality persistent in society.
The only other sub-plot that carries a similar emotional impact to some of these moments is the one centered on exploring Safeena’s plight, focusing extensively on generational conflict, and the pressures that women have to face from their traditional families in Indian society. Again, here the insights made by the filmmakers are not ground-breaking. But, the way Akhtar, with the help of the quite sensational Alia Bhatt, manages to flesh out her character without necessarily detracting from the main plot of the film lends immense credibility to Safeena. Her vulnerability, her craziness, her manipulative tendencies – all feel earned in the way Akhtar shows her character has been brought up. In other words, she feels the most empathetically human to me, as opposed to a movie character.
Which is, unfortunately, what the large number of other sub-plots felt to me – seemingly interesting movie characters (with each actor giving great performances) trapped on the margins of a realistic story about a protagonist whose arc is all too familiar. My knock against Akhtar’s use of realism in her aesthetics here is because unlike say something like Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” her characters and story don’t quite feel so rooted in reality. In his heist thriller, McQueen used the blueprint of a real-world made up of these interconnected characters and then dextrously laid out the heist inside that world. Here, Akhtar’s attempted need to comment on everything in society provides a lot of poetry to the rap music she is representing but robs it of the very crowd-pleasing rhythm and focus that I feel is essential to feel in Murad’s eventual triumph.