How Gully Boy appropriated Azadi from the marginalised

On the eve of the launch of Gully Boy, the much-awaited Bollywood biggie of this quarter, “Khane ke bade bill se Azadi! #GullyBoy,” read a notification from a food delivery application on my phone as loud chants of “Azadi” raised by students protesting (against the detainment of AMU students on charges of sedition) resounded through the streets of my residential campus at JNU. Now this slogan is not the reserve of JNU students; it never has been. Chants of “Azadi” have been raised in women’s rights movements, anti-caste movements and other movements seeking social justice. We, the students of JNU, unlike Zoya Akhtar and the cast of her film, do not attempt to appropriate the cry of the marginalised to suit any of our whims.

Gully Boy is the rags-to-riches story of Naezy (Murad), a slum-dweller in Mumbai’s Dharavi. The musical drama follows him as he struggles his way out of class oppression, familial discord and relationship problems to achieve his dream of becoming a rapper. His rap captures his angst against a society which impairs his creativity with financial burden. All he has in his support are his doting girlfriend Safeena and his mentor MC Sher (whose uncanny resemblance to Drake is hard to be ignored). His lyrics are sympathetic to the pain of class immobility, but the film is not.

For a narrative which criticises economic disparity, Gully Boy fails to uphold the very ideals it encashes on. The motif of class inequality it seemingly revolves around, falls through in the numerous marketing gimmicks such as the not-so-subtle presence of a JBL headphone here and a Bira mentioned there. If you were to watch a YouTube video around Valentine’s Day, chances are that you did come across a Cadbury Dairy Milk Silk commercial starring Alia Bhatt and Ranveer Singh. Ironically, they do this to promote a film which valorises the rise of an underdog and depicts the everyday negotiations made by a female medical student in a conservative patriarchal family. This sadly renders the story apparently themed around class oppression into yet another instance of romanticisation of poverty by Bollywood.

Ultimately, the film is no better than Slumdog Millionaire (which allegedly exoticises the poverty of Indians in Dharavi, Mumbai) which it explicitly cries down in its rhythmically charged rap number. Unlike Slumdog Millionaire, the protagonist does not win a lottery here; instead, he rises up the class ladder through hard work and grit. This further enshrines the neoliberal doctrine that if one is industrious enough, one shall succeed. Material success is the ultimate goal in this framework and it seems as though once it has been achieved, all problems in life will automatically be alleviated. It completely ignores that the collateral damage which, according to the film, poverty brings along – polygyny, domestic violence, drug peddling, child labour and theft, are related to larger structural issues. Poverty is the villain of the story and it is expected that once one gets rid of it, peace content will ensue gradually in all spheres of life.

I am not certain which is more surprising – the fact that Zee News vehemently attacked (by branding as “anti-national”) such students of JNU as Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid three years ago for raising slogans of “Azadi”, or that the same Zee Music has commercialised a carefully doctored version of a speech by Kanhaiya Kumar into a form acceptable by majoritarian forces. The song “Azadi” astonishingly does not comprise the phrases originally used by Kanhaiya – “bhukhmari se azadi” or “jativad se azadi” or “punjivad se azadi” or “brahmanvad se azadi” or “manuvad se azadi”. The filmmaker argues that she has excluded these words from the song because they do not pertain to the theme of the film. The actors conveniently state that they have nothing to do with politics. Their apolitical stance is a brazen reminder of privilege.

While the director, who has so far made movies about the ultra-rich (for example, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Dil Dhadakne Do), claims to come from a point of sympathy for the economically downtrodden, the actors are admittedly comfortable in being unaware of politics. They claim to be “happy bunnies” when asked how they reconcile their real life (where Ranveer Singh hugs Prime Minister Narendra Modi) with their portrayal in reel life. For them, “Azadi is yet another musical verse which they would like to hum once they wake up in the morning. They attribute their apathy for politics to their acting skills.

The privileged detachment of the actors from politics and their open refusal to engage with it is reminiscent of the bourgeois performance of the characters in the film who drive through Mumbai late at night spray-painting body positive slogans on billboards. Body positivity is not a theme the movie centres around, but somehow, unlike the omitted words from the “Azadi” chant raised by Kanhaiya Kumar, it finds its way in a well-orchestrated scene. This token act of political awareness stands for the stance adopted by its makers.

Politics pervades all spheres of life. To be apolitical in times of mass turmoil is synonymous with being on the side of the oppressor. A perusal of the political opinions of the actors and the director (who represent this movie) reveals that “Khane ke bade bill se Azadi!” is the most sense they could make of a powerful word like “Azadi”. However, as Akhtar herself proclaims – the chant “belongs to everyone” – I too hope the word does not lose its emancipatory potential by the time this film becomes a hit and the Gully Boy: Live in Concert hits Amazon Prime with the opening phrase “The revolution is here.”

Featured photo courtesy: The Free Press Journal