Will Gully Boy bring India’s underground hip-hop scene above ground?

Zoya Akhtar’s film Gully Boy is set to bring hip-hop to the forefront of the Indian music scene. What does this mean for the Indian hip-hop community?

Considering that director Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy stars the most recognisable young actors of Indian cinema today – Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt – there’s no surprise that this movie has created an incredible amount of buzz. But will Gully Boy be a hit or miss? Does its music capture Indian hip-hop? And how will the Indian hip-hop community benefit from its success?

First, who is the original Gully Gang?

Gully Boy chronicles an upcoming rapper’s introduction to the industry of hip-hop. Though it isn’t a biopic, the setting is inspired a great deal from the lives of two rappers – Naved Shaikh, better known as Naezy the Baa, and Vivian Fernandes, better known as DIVINE. Even the name is inspired from DIVINE: Fernandes has been using the #gullygang for a while now. Ranveer Singh’s character lives in the slums and is pressured by his family to let go of his passion for hip-hop and get a “real” job. Naezy’s family also initially pushed back against his endeavours due to the stigma against rap in the Muslim community. Ranveer’s character and Naezy both started small, recording music on rudimentary equipment. Divine started from modest beginnings as well, narrowly escaping the pull of quick money and near-brushes with the law. When Naezy and Divine both discovered hip-hop, it gave them a way to positively express themselves and gave their lives ‘purpose’.

mere-gully-mein-divine-ft-naezy
Poster of “Mere Gully Mein”, a collaboration between Divine and Naezy.

The beats: Does Gully Boy stay true to hip-hop?

I have to admit, the first time I ever considered listening to DIVINE and Naezy is when I heard about Gully Boy. Though this is embarrassing, it may well be the truth for many of the people who will head to theatres soon to watch this film. People who can’t stand Honey Singh and his counterparts may have been so turned off by rap that they’ve sworn off the entire genre. Bollywood’s Gully Boy music album may, therefore, be the first time that many people will be stepping into the zone of hip-hop, period, let alone venturing into the zone of Indian hip-hop! A lot is undoubtedly riding on the release of Gully Boy – most notably, the acceptance or rejection of an entire art form by a whole new demographic.

Having said this, the record is quite rousing in and of itself. After you’ve heard it once, you’ll want to get up and change your life but the lives of others. You can’t help but remember catchy lines like, “Hum kaamyabi chheenenge/Sab kuch mila paseene se/Matlab bana ab jeene mein” (we will forcibly snatch success/I got where I am from my sweat and hard work/Now we’ve found a purpose to live for). But the entire album tends to “bling out” hip-hop – not by bastardising it, but by definitely adding some digestible elements to it. Between the hardcore raps, most of which are spit by Ranveer Singh himself, there is some of Javed Akhtar’s poetry recited to beats, as well as the lilting voice of Jasleen Royal, and the Carnatic takes of Vivek Rajagopalan that feature konnakol (percussion sounds performed vocally). The music producers clearly haven’t put all their eggs in one basket, which isn’t a bad idea at all! And to their credit, somehow, everything blends well together.

What are the implications of Gully Boy becoming big?

A great deal has been written and discussed about the implications of Gully Boy, about how it might bring underground hip-hop above ground. But by using the tag ‘underground’, one wonders: are we implying that these artists are waiting to come above ground? What’s so great about the ‘above’ ground scene, anyway? Is there a need to come ‘up’ in the first place?

Zoya Akhtar and the production crew seems to be doing everything they possibly can to include the existing rap community into their film; they’ve involved two actual ‘gully boys’ on the film, done a lot of hands-on research, and even released an app called ‘Gully Beats’ that encourages people to record their own raps to pre-recorded beats. But in the end, once the film is unleashed, one can’t control where it will run. Some negative effects are inevitable for a movie like this, which takes the work of a marginalized community and tells its story using faces other than its own.

For example, if you search Amazon India right now, you’ll find a host of Gully Boy T-shirts and other clothing bearing one of the film’s most identifiable slogans ‘Apna Time Aaayega’. Where is the money from these purchases going? Is hip-hop just going to become a passing fad? Is it going to help the people that Akhtar is shining the spotlight on? Just to put things in perspective: currently, the video of Mere Gully Mein released 3 years ago by Divine, featuring Naezy, has 15 million views, while the remake of it for the film, which was put out just 2 weeks ago, has garnered 20 million views already. Of course, there are a host of benefits that can result for the community as well, and maybe after the film releases, the number of upcoming rappers inspired to share their work will go up exponentially.

Finally, only the film and the audiences’ reactions will tell what new waves it can create. So go watch the movie, but don’t forget who the movie is ultimately about!

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