Gully Boy review: A glorious blend of asli hip-hop and assured filmmaking!

There is a two-second scene in Gully Boy when Ranveer Singh gets out of the car he is chauffeuring and catches his reflection in a posh building’s glass door. This is not who he wants to be. Later, he sees the same resigned look on the faces crowding the Mumbai local. Every now and then he encounters disheartening reminders of his place in the world.

It is the City of Dreams, after all. Give them up and where are you?

Except romanticising doesn’t feed empty stomachs and survival has forced the have nots of society to bury their dreams and live life on someone else’s terms.

Things are so ridiculously hopeless that one might as well make an extra buck from it. So when a party of tourists arrives to admire the compact lifestyle of Mumbai’s largest slum district and captures its residents like museum props, some vacantly wave; others set a price of admission. It is a deceptively funny depiction of a deeply disturbing reality.

Despite the depressing scenario, Murad (played by Singh) dares to dream — Zinda mera khwab ab kaise tu dafnayega?

The crammed Dharavi kholi he breathes in and the domestic discord it perpetrates may be unsuitable for his aspirations but fuels his poetry anyway. Like an artist finding solace in chaos, Murad finds his voice in despair. A little shy and sad of eye, as songwriter Eden Ahbez would say, the man weeps through his words: Is basti main sabki palke geeli kyon hain?

But when a bouncer outside a nightclub shoos him away, he makes a gentle vow, Apna time aayega. How he finds his way in is the journey of Gully Boy, inspired by the original rapper duo Divine and Naezy.

In true hip hop tradition, it is not just a cool genre of music; it is his medium of expression, his outlet where he quietly channels all his suppressed ire to make roaring, riveting statements.

Film-maker Zoya Akhtar, top of her game more than ever, is an expert at peering into souls, relating their inner conflict and sympathetic of their torment. She does so spectacularly and stylishly in Gully Boy while also bringing Mumbai’s underground rap scene into mainstream consciousness.

Between rap battles and hip hop competitions, the sledging showdowns showcase the might of Mumbai’s street slang, a lingo so one-of-a-kind, it is a privilege if you understand and pleasure if you speak it.

Teeming with socio-political heft and dark horse dynamism, the extensive soundtrack put together by an eclectic mix of wordsmiths and musicians is the heartbeat of Gully Boy. And Zoya’s script soaks its fierce energy to provide majority of the subtext. The underdog fairy-tale packs in such exhilarating sound and spirit, you’ll leave the theatre thumping to its beat.

Though much of the plot develops around Murad and Mumbai’s intimidating high-rises looking down at the people on the fringes, Gully Boy is many movies rolled in one. Every single character could be at the centre of his or her story and it would be still as fascinating.

It could be about Murad’s mom (a searing Amruta Subhash) having a meltdown after her husband brings home a second wife. It could be about his obnoxious father (Vijay Raaz, at his masterful best) refusing to accept his son’s wishes. It could be about Murad’s friend (a nuanced Vijay Varma offering a Ben Affleck to Singh’s Matt Damon in their Good Will Hunting-reminiscent chemistry) and his lawless pursuits concealing a world of darkness under a playful facade. It could be about Mc Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi, what a scene-stealer, what a rockstar!), Murad’s mentor-like mate forgetting his drunkard dad woes in swaggering music.

Mostly though it could be about Safeena (Alia Bhatt), Murad’s childhood sweetheart, a dragon in a lamb’s body prone to violent outbursts in fits of jealousy. Her hot-tempered side is in complete contrast to the sublime, silent moments of romance she enjoys in Murad’s company. He is timid. She is ‘tod phod.’  They have known each other half their lives, lug similar looking backpacks to college, share earphones and steal kisses. Nursing surgeon dreams, Safeena seeks respite from her conservative parents — a mom (Sheeba Chaddha on point) constantly nagging her to marry, a father (Ikhlaque Khan, all grace) too meek to protest. Alia Bhatt is like an irresistible imp mincing no words, pulling no punches in this nugget of a performance.

Kalki Koechlin offers some shiny distraction as Sky. It’s almost as though she fell from one to paint the town red with Murad. Perhaps the idea is to feed on his curiosity but the only worthwhile thing to come out of it is a lovely scene — where he measures her bathroom’s mammoth size — and lovelier realisation — Safeena ke bina meri zindagi aisi ho jayegi jaise bina bachpan ke bada ho gaya.

Ranveer Singh’s exuberance contributes to bulk of his personality. In its absence, he is a brand new person and I dare say someone you’ll cry for, root for and rap with. 

Though his poor little poor boy vulnerability makes him an easy target for disapproval ranging from rude (Naukar ka beta naukar) to ribtickling (Tujhe gaana hi gaana hai toh ghazal gaa le), his power-packed renditions are as potent as his peaceful rumination. Those longing eyes and mopey-faced sadness, captured keenly in cinematographer Jay Oza’s unblinking gaze, crush the viewer to the core every time he’s forced to compromise. Similarly, the confidence he gains when fellow rappers applaud his ‘bahut hard’ creativity is all kinds of feel-good.

Because Gully Boy has Zoya and co-writer Reema Kagti at the helm, it deftly reflects their politics and worldview in both subtle and sturdy tones.

Be it in redressing casual sexism in a rapper’s reproach, sneering at skinny ideas of beauty, directing sly snark at the government, revelling in pop culture or mocking the Indian way of seeking connections across caste and community when a character explains how he got into a relationship with his Caucasian girlfriend, ‘In log mein sirf aankh mein aankh dekhte hai (Dialogues by Vijay Maurya).’ 

Like Secret Superstar, Gully Boy doesn’t make a big deal of its milieu’s predominantly Muslim identity. Murad offers namaz in a mosque, Safeena duly wears her hijab, polygamy exists but nothing is played up for effect or turned into a melodramatic tussle.

At more than two-and-a-half hours, the subplots get heavy and copious — wrapped up more hurriedly and happily than deemed possible — but they raise the stakes and make Murad’s triumph both significant and necessary.

Asli hip-hop and assured film-making, Hindustan could not have asked for more.

Rating: 4

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Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga Review: Missed opportunity

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is an ingenious title. It alludes to the attractive imagery playing in the beholder’s imagination as well as our assumptions on learning those eyes are hers and not his. 

Same sex love isn’t a frequently broached topic in Hindi cinema. More often than not, it’s an exercise in caricature to score distasteful laughs. To that end, Shelly Chopra Dhar’s directorial debut is quite welcome. Her subtle hand and gently moving characters share no resemblance to Bollywood’s outlandish perception of homosexuals.

Sadly, Dhar doesn’t go beyond the subject line.

A demure lesbian romance that tests waters rather than root for same sex love, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is a missed opportunity let down by writing (Dhar and Gazal Dhaliwal) so meek in its assertion, it defeats its purpose of awakening. What comes forth isn’t a revolution but lazy, hollow symbols showing little resistance and too much dependency. For all its love in the new age claims, the rom-com ultimately resorts to the age-old Bollywood formula where the hero does all the rescuing.

Rajkummar Rao, an out-of-inspiration playwright, bumps into Sonam Kapoor and falls for her at first sight. His infatuation prompts him to set a play in a small-town of Punjab, which eventually turns into a platform for Sonam to speak up about her sexual orientation to her conservative family.

The latter includes a toxic brother (Abhishek Duhan) who does nothing besides keeping tabs on her, a grandmother (Madhumalti Kapoor) who taunts her son’s love for cooking as zanana and believes a man should enter the kitchen only when he needs to change the gas cylinder and a father (Anil Kapoor), who is far too busy bonding with Rao’s caterer mom (Juhi Chawla) over tomato tricks to snoop into his daughter’s diary.

There are copious flashbacks of Sonam’s childhood to express her alienation and disenchantment around classmates and family, repeated giveaways in her drawings and diaries.

The simplistic, spoon-feeding nature of these manipulations would feel heartfelt if there was evidence of actual bonding between the father and daughter or even Sonam and her secret suitor as they connect in the most hasty, charmless, coy fashion. There’s no spark, chemistry or conversation. It’as though they decided to be with each other simply because there wasn’t much choice.

Dhar simply draws on Anil and Sonam Kapoor’s real-life relationship to communicate their obvious fondness but doesn’t give it any limbs in context of the uniqueness it poses.

Though inhabited by a cast high on winsome charm and natural talent, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga‘s guarded approach at bold matter means it goes delaying business and beating around the bush through a series of roundabout subplots that do nothing to enrich the experience.

The deal with Rao’s famous parents who he regularly avoids, the dull betting between Kapoor’s domestic help (Seema Pahwa, Brijendra Kala) and a budding flirtation between Kapoor and Juhi Chawla over their common love for cooking is deeply lacking in wit and weight. 

This sort of token characterisation is particularly glaring when it comes to the core theme. 

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga wishes to lend itself as a significant voice of change and support towards the LGBT community, but its woefully apologetic tone regarding individual choices repeatedly negates it when characters — both traumatised and enlightened — spew things like, ‘Yeh janam se hi aise hai‘ or ‘I wish I was normal’.

Funny how a woman can fall in love with another woman and still need a man to ensure she gets her happy ending.

That’s normal enough for Bollywood.

Rating: 2.5

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Manikarnika review: Kangana Ranaut is savage, spellbinding in a ho-hum historical

The sight of Kangana Ranaut singlehandedly slashing a swarm of men against the backdrop of feverishly chanted Sanskrit shlokas and a towering Durga idol looks like an ultimate feminist fantasy.

It is savage. It is spellbinding.

Though her fury unleashes too little and in between, when it does, she devours it like a hungry actor and action star. And so for those fleeting seconds, her furious bloodbath evokes the kinetic aggression of South Korea’s The Man From Nowhere‘s final fight in will if not skill.

I wish Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi would explore more of this brute force and go all out in its mutinous pursuits of eulogising a 19th century symbol of honour, valour and tenacity instead of dawdling away precious time to preen in cosmetic grandeur and muddled politics.

I am not sure who is to be blamed more for this inconsistency given Ranaut and Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi are sharing director credits after the latter bowed out to work on another project leaving the actress to wield the baton in addition to her sword.

A vanity project of unclear authorship is not exactly the best way to judge someone’s capability, so the jury is still out on Kangana Ranaut the director.

The legend of Jhansi’s Rani Laxmibai is immortalised in Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s poem Khoob Ladi Mardani Woh Toh Jhansiwali Rani Thi and Vrindvan Lal Verma’s novel of the same name.

In 1953 film-maker Sohrab Modi, a champion of the genre, adapted Jhansi Ki Rani, but the movie starring his wife Mehtab proved to be an expensive flop. Nevertheless, it is still a rousing classic whose secular, progressive, ideas of leadership and crackling dialogues are worth their weight in gold.

Based on K V Vijayendra (Baahubali, Bajrangi Bhaijaan) Prasad’s script, which admits to cinematic liberties, Manikarnika has ambition and passion but certainly not vision.

A historical with an identity crisis, initially the period drama cannot decide whether it wants to chronicle facts or fictionalise them in the tradition of a crowd-pleasing fantasy. After some uncertainty, it settles for the second.

So you have a dramatic entry of Bithoor’s ace archer Manikarnika (Ranaut) and her poetically flying pallu like an unruly-haired Disney princess aiming at a man-eating tiger. He is hardly Sher Khan but the patronising tone of elderly noblemen Kulbushan Kharbanda and Suresh Oberoi deciding on Manikarnika’s marriage to Jhansi’s Raja Gangadhar Rao is no different from Bagheera and Baloo debating Mowgli’s return to the man village.

The makers avoid the creepiness of child marriage by pairing off an adult Manikarnika and acceptably older Gangadhar (Jisshu Sengupta) who dress up in such overwhelming finery only Midas could approve.

The mystery behind Gangadhar wearing bangles in particular is so laughable and bogus, I am willing to forgive Mohammad Zeeshan Ayub’s snarling, throne-thirsty relative stereotype. All the bling cannot weigh down Manikarnika’s (post-marriage rechristened Laxmi Bai) rebellious streak, which sparked off after a series of personal losses preceding the British desire to annex Jhansi.

Rani Laxmi Bai’s spirited patriotism and freethinking ways must have obviously rankled bigots and misogynists. But I cringed at her suffering through overdramatic rituals of widowhood.

Luckily, Kangana’s warrior mode ends the pity party and veers Manikarnika to Mission ‘Main Apni Jhansi Nahi Doongi‘.

A Sir Hugh Rose (Richard Keep) in particular, arrives on the scene like a Sherlock but his pompous Hindi and snappish attitude like a landlord having a hard time getting his obstinate tenant to leave the house screams caricature.

All the British officers are cardboard evil growling incessantly about ‘Woh Aurat‘ and her resolve to flout the Doctrine of Lapse, which forbids her adopted, minor son from inheriting the throne.

There is blood and battle.

Significant characters from history are ruthlessly sidelined into token presence (like Danny Denzongpa’s Ghulam Ghaus Khan) to focus unabashedly on the Queen.

Debutant Ankita Lokhande’s Jhalkaribai gets the worst deal since you will remember her little for the blink-and-miss bravado and more for a gratuitous item song choreographed by Ganesh Acharya (a terrible choice for historicals).

Shankar-Ehaan-Loy’s soundtrack is sublime. But the death-or-glory sentiment is the soul of this heroine, which is sorely missing in Prasoon Joshi’s dull lines. Instead quite a bit of its 148 minutes throw up derivative imagery. I could draw up a long list of similarities.

Manikarnika shows off her fencing skills to brother figures Tatya Tope (Atul Kulkarni) and Nana Sahib like Aishwarya Rai and Sonu Sood (originally cast in Zeeshan Ayyub’s role) in Jodhaa Akbar.

There is a bitter, authoritative, widow making life hell for the new queen like Ila Arun and Tanvi Azmi in Jodhaa Akbar and Bajirao Mastani. The Baahubalihangover is unmistakable in Manikarika’s archery prowess, a la Devsana and Sivagami’s boss lady pose on the throne.

The pulsating background score by Sanchit and Ankit Balhara and production design aesthetics are reminiscent of Padmaavat. Manikarnika and Gangadhar’s rendezvous in a massive library is not too different from the one in Beauty and the Beast.

Manikarnika leaps into battlefield a whole lot like Wonder Woman did in no man’s land. And the final battle heavily borrows 300‘s visual style down to the gnashing teeth in slow motion.

Kangana Ranaut exudes toughness. Whether she is leaping off a fort on her horse in a tacky CGI sequence or burned down to an Om shaped figure, there is a wallop in her daredevilry.

In one of Manikarnika‘s profoundly bizarre moments, she bursts forth as Sir Rose’s Kali-shaped nightmare; it is both — bonkers and ingenious.

Her oddly growing grim baritone seems to be going for a Vijay Dinanath Chauhan vibe, incidentally Amitabh Bachchan pitches in the mandatory voice over. Except her cries are filled with chants of Har Har Mahadev not Agneepath Agneepath Agneepath.

In director Modi’s version they are immediately followed by slogans of Allah Ho Akbar. But Kangana’s political leanings are partial to politician Modi. So you’ve got right wing ideologies on cow meat, minority communities, women empowerment, mother tongue and even a jibe on ‘Scindia’ slipped in for effect.

Is this the Queen we know or need?

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