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


5 Reasons Why Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya is the Ultimate Love Anthem

“Why be afraid when you are in love?” is what Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya literally translates to. It appears in the iconic film Mughal-e-Azam which was released in 1960 after 14 years of production. Here’s why it might just as well be termed as India’s song of defiance.

1. It defies persistent gender roles

Gender, as Judith Butler (1960) contends, is constructed through a set of repeated performances. The dance by Madhubala’s Anarkali serves the male gaze appropriately- you will find the camera focusing on her many a time during the sequence. However, Anarkali does not shy away from this gaze. She confronts it and this is a major point of departure from what would otherwise be expected out of a woman of her times in India. She liberates herself from the framework of gender that she operates in.

2. A symbol for LGBT rights movement

Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya has now become a slogan for the emergent LGBT (Lesbian, Gay,Bisexual, Transgender) rights movement in India. It is an anthem about the triumph of love across social boundaries. The song surpasses time and space. It has gained significance as a form of protest voiced by more than an Anarkali. Madhubala’s Kathak is today a symbol of love against conservative forces. It is not long before this song can be an effective answer to those who are so worried about love-jihad.

A line from the song on a poster for Rainbow Walk on Delhi Road. Image Source


3. A Drag Queen of sorts?

A drag queen is a man who ostentatiously dresses up in women’s clothes. Going by queer theory, a male drag queen in stylizing normative femininity simultaneously deconstructs it too. Madhubala’s drag queen not only challenges dominant discourses of power contained within a patriarchal nation-state, but she also threatens the discourses on sexualization of the body. She is aware of her class, religion, nationality and gender, yet she chooses to digress from the destiny paved for her.

Like all women who do this, her demise in the tale is also not very surprising. The song is that struggle for the identity of the subaltern which keeps returning to the Bollywood celluloid.

4. Anarkali is a brave subaltern

She is a courtesan. She is Muslim and what’s worse is that she is a woman. In short, she embodies all that you would not like to be in a royal setup comprising men during the Mughal period in India. Salim had, in fact, just before the performance, accused her of being a bujdil laundi (cowardly slave). A play of power recurs through the song-and-dance performance but even that fails to deter the spirit of love in the status of a subaltern that Anarkali finds herself in. She is a woman with little agency dancing across an empire’s patriarch.

5. The sequence reflects India’s tryst with destiny

Anarkali’s performance for the court can be compared to Bollywood’s performance for Jawaharlal Nehru. The movie Mughal-e-Azam opens with a baritone proclaiming, “I am Hindustan”. The then Hindustan was associated with sentiments different from those it now is. The film was made during India’s period of nation-building. Despite being set in the Mughal period, the sequence vividly portrays what was despised by the nationalist elites of post-colonial India- films (they were equated with gambling). What is now called the Golden Age of Indian cinema was then not a cakewalk for the film industry because it used to be regarded more as a perversion or disruption to advancement than as a form of cultural expression. This hurdle is encountered by Anarkali as well.

The song is a breakthrough from several dominant social norms. This does not make it any less appealing to the masses. It enthralls audiences all the same despite being as revolutionary as it is. This is what makes it the ultimate love anthem.

Do share if you find any other reason why this song-and-dance should be called so.