When director Curtis Hanson died a few years back, there was an understandable outpouring of appreciation online for a few of his more notable films – titles as disparate as L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, and The River Wild. I was mostly on-board with this posthumous gushing for a fairly low-key studio director, but the praise that confounded me at the time was the effusive love for his hit battle-rap melodrama 8 Mile. I just can’t imagine a 2010s audience willingly looking at or listening to Eminem on purpose (especially not the Film Twitter crowd), no matter how rousing the film’s against-the-odds/rise-to-fame story of a trailer park rapper made good could be in the moment. One of the many miracles of the 2019 Indian melodrama Gully Boy – directed by Zoya Aktar – is that it’s finally enabled the world to enjoy the emotional triumph of 8 Mile without having to look at or listen to Eminem, something we sadly can’t always avoid. Detroit’s favorite White Boy makes a brief appearance in a magazine clipping pasted in the lyrics journal of Gully Boy‘s titular aspiring rapper, but that image is mostly just a get-it-out-of-the-way acknowledgement of 8 Mile‘s influence. It’s almost unavoidable that this lengthy Indian battle-rap melodrama will be reductively contextualized as the Bollywood 8 Mile, but I hope that descriptor doesn’t scare anyone off from giving it a fair chance on its own terms. No offense meant to the legacy of Curtis Hanson, but Gully Boy only borrows 8 Mile‘s basic structure in order to create something far superior in both craft & emotional heft. Its class politics hit harder. Its romantic drama is genuine & heartfelt. And, most importantly, there’s little to no Eminem to be found, which is always a plus.
Loosely based on the lives of “the original gully boys” Naezy & Divine (two rap-fame success stories from the slums of Mumbai), this sprawling melodrama doesn’t necessarily do anything narratively or thematically that you wouldn’t expect based on its early acknowledgement of its 8 Mile story template. That’s why I was shocked to find it one of the most emotionally moving, politically invigorating films I’ve seen all year. Half an aspiring street musician’s triumph against the odds of soul-crushing class disparity and half a Romeo & Juliet-style tale of doomed romance, Gully Boy fully utilizes its 2½ hour runtime to ensure that neither of those tracks plays as a rushed afterthought. An unassuming hip-hop nerd (played by the superhero-handsome Ranveer Singh), living in an overcrowded shanty with his overbearing family and facing a future of lifelong servitude, finds the courage to voice his frustrations with economic injustice in his YouTube-uploaded rap videos. His mentor & idol in the Mumbai’s minor-but-growing rap scene (whom he has a big, goofy boy-crush on) is phenomenally supportive of the new kid on the block, pushing him past class lines & familial roadblocks to a rapid, bewildering success he didn’t know was possible (not least of all because of his debilitating shyness). His efforts to maintain a lifelong romance with a childhood sweetheart under intense scrutiny & surveillance only complicates this rapid rise to fame, which explodes the scope of his world of possibilities from a cramped neighborhood to a global playground. Both of these simultaneous storylines are surprisingly effective, as both are ruthless in refusing to pull political punches in their discussions of class, gender, privilege, abuse, and – above all else – power. You already know every beat of the story this movie wants to tell, but there’s a heartfelt conviction to its messaging that makes it feel like an anomaly in the rise-to-rap-fame genre.
I suppose you could take an objective look at this film as a fascinating snapshot of American pop culture’s omnipresence as a global export. It’s alarming to see the full scope of how much of our bullshit makes a significant cultural impact worldwide: Eminem, Nas (who’s listed as an Executive Producer here), dabbing, Grand Theft Auto, conversations that inanely pit commercial rap against Real Hip-Hop, etc. Gully Boy is just as aware of that potential fascination as it is of its inevitable 8 Mile comparisons, though, staging scenes where wealthy American tourists treat our titular hero-rapper’s talent & poverty as a sideshow novelty. Mostly, there isn’t much room to objectively examine Gully Boy as a cultural object all, as it’s continually engaging on a personal, intimate level that more than transcends its potential Bollywood 8 Mile status. Translating the American rise-to-rap-fame story template to an Indian filmmaking sensibility only strengthens its merits as a genuinely engaging melodrama & an act of political Art, not at all reducing it to a novelty act the way you might expect. The lengthier runtime allows you to fully invest in both the rap-hero’s artistry & his rocky romantic life instead of either track feeling rushed or inauthentic. It’s amazing how well rap lyrics like “The lava of my words will melt my shackles,” and sweet nothings like “You let me be myself” land when there’s enough breathing room to fully flesh out their context. Also, Indian cinema’s built-in musical breaks from reality provide the perfect platform for Gully Boy‘s hip-hop music videos, which voice righteously angry class politics at full length & full passion in their allotted space. As much as I’ve enjoyed other 8 Mile improvements & revisions over the last couple decades (Hustle & Flow, Patti Cake$, Straight Outta Compton, etc.), this is now the definitive benchmark for the rise-to-rap-fame genre in my eyes. No offense meant to Curtis Hanson (but plenty of offense meant to Eminem, who remains The Worst and should be avoided whenever possible).