popular culture

Alia Bhatt Runs the Streets in Gully Boy

In an instantly iconic film, it’s the ‘gurl’ whose actions define the streets.
alia bhatt kickass gully boy ranveer singh
Image: Gully Boy

Spoiler alert.

The most singularly powerful moment in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy that released on February 14, occurs independently of Ranveer Singh aka Murad rapping on Apna Time Aayega or brooding about his father’s shitfuckery. It materialises when we see Alia Bhatt’s Safeena put two and two together in her head upon seeing Murad and Sky (Kalki Koechlin) exchange glances and walk out of a party.

Safeena acquires information which the audience is already aware of i.e. Murad and Sky be fucking. But her reaction to it—eyes turning wide, cheekbones suddenly higher and body engaging in frantic action—is thrilling. There’s an agency to her physicality usually only displayed by women in films directed by women, with the sequence ending with her unapologetically whacking Sky with a bottle of beer. And when that glass met head, a female friend sitting beside me erupted in joy, joining the other screaming masses in a single-screen theatre in Mumbai.

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Alia Bhatt’s performance in Gully Boy is astounding, born purely out of her barnstorming ability to flex her facial muscles in different ways. Safeena, who is more than just Murad’s love interest, is dressed particularly bland—lots of greys and dark greens, even her ‘party’ clothes comprising a dull maroon suit—forcing audiences to focus on her face even in long or mid shots. It results in most of our time being spent with Safeena in close-ups, a trick Akhtar employs to create a mystery about the rest of her frame. So, when Akhtar’s camera does go to her body, already weaponised by our lack of interest, the screenplay goes bedlam, with lightning striking Akhtar’s sad-evening-Insta-filter-hued film.

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We see Bhatt turn all that physical potential energy into kinetic energy in seconds, going 0-100 faster than we can say, “Apna Time Aayega”. The results are exhilarating, with Akhtar’s usually steady camera suddenly gaining steam, following Safeena into whatever hell is about to break loose. Sometime she ‘dhoptos’ people, sometimes she blackmails nonchalant boys into marrying her, and other times she kisses Murad like he’s her plaything.

It’s like Akhtar took the raw power of Katrina-Getting-Off-Bike scene from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, injected it with cocaine, and extrapolated that vibe for the entirety of Safeena’s presence on screen. The aforementioned friend I watched the movie with said to me in a state of delirium, “No one has ever written a part like this for a woman in mainstream Hindi films.”

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Gully Boy is a coming-of-age story based on the lives of street rappers in Mumbai. But unlike other underdog films, it’s fairly disinterested in wallowing in feelings which might propel said boy to stardom. Akhtar’s camera cuts away quickly to emptiness whenever it encounters an emotion we might deem as motivational for our hero Murad. We see this when his mother is crying after an especially bad fight with his father, or when Murad sees a couple listening to music from a single set of earphones in a bus like he and Safeena used to.

Alia’s Safeena is the biggest beneficiary of Akhtar’s decision to not linger, which leaves the audiences shook—with laughter or fear—every time we leave Safeena to go somewhere else in Akhtar and co-writer Reema Kagti’s astonishingly well-crafted world. The film’s rhythm is built around Ranveer Singh being a literal ‘vulcano of talent’, where we wait for 150 minutes for him to finally do what we all knew from the first trailer he was going to do i.e. become a rap god. But it’s Safeena who goes through this dormancy-eruption-dormancy cycle every two minutes on screen which keeps the predictable plotline chugging along.

Akhtar’s film is interested in a myriad of themes, including isolated genius needing propellants to succeed (MC Sher!), the state of maleness in the post-woke India shown in the movie, and an impending culture war aided by technology about to shake up its tier-1 gatekeepers. Different characters engage with these themes by thrusting themselves in the dream vessel Ranveer’s Murad carries in his heart, but the vessel is allowed to exist because of Safeena’s strength, protected by her brutishness.

Gully Boy has 18 songs on its soundtrack, but none have Alia Bhatt’s voice, who remains distant from rapping. But it doesn’t really matter, as the entire film is Safeena directing her rage at the world, a heavy metal revolution at its doorstep.

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