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Ever since its release on Valentine’s Day this year, Gully Boy has been feeling the love from the box office, where it has collected in excess of `100 crore thanks to the large audience grooving to its hip-hop beat.

Much has already been said about Gully Boy’s theme and impact, as also the stellar performances of its cast, but given the specialized profile of our readership i.e. the enlightened film trade, we are using this note to celebrate the film’s success by highlighting some astute moves made by the film’s makers that are worth learning from:

Leverage Stars’ Trade, Not Their Trademarks

Few would argue that the presence of superstars Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt propelled Gully Boy to the biggest opening day of the year so far. That said, we are in the midst of a volatile and transformational phase for our industry, a phase in which the audience has tired of time-tested tropes and is ruthless in its rejection of formulaic fare, irrespective of the stature of the cast and crew involved.

Quality of content and positive word-of-mouth, therefore, are increasingly becoming more important than star value for films’ success. The catch is that to have that positive feedback rolling, a critical mass of viewers needs to first sample the film before they can spread the good word. Gully Boy managed to tick both boxes by getting a good opening thanks to the huge fan bases of the two stars involved, and then, with the content being as good it was, this bloc of delighted viewers became the film’s most effective and credible evangelists.

Where the film also scored was that it cashed in on its stars’ fan following, not their perceived images. So if a certain larger-than-life flamboyance has come to be associated with Ranveer Singh, the superstar, his Murad was understated, reflective and vulnerable. Similarly, while Alia Bhatt may already boast a very versatile repertoire as an actor, her feisty Safeena was something we hadn’t seen before from her.

Ergo, a win-win situation for the audience – the comforting familiarity of watching their favourite stars coupled with the thrill of discovering new facets of their talent.

 A Chain Is Only As Strong As Its Weakest Link

It’s among the oldest truisms in our business and yet one that is so often ignored: filmmaking is a team effort. On this front, Gully Boy got it right on both counts – the construction of its narrative as also the execution of that script to a motion picture.

In addition to not pandering to star images, the film’s screenplay (Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti) also steered clear of the temptation of focusing solely on its popular and charismatic main leads. From MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi), Sky (Kalki Koechlin), Murad’s family and friends (Vijay Raaz, Amruta Subhash, Tina Bhatia, Jyoti Subhash, Vijay Maurya, Vijay Varma, Nakul Roshan Sahdev) to Safeena’s family (Sheeba Chadda and Ikhlaque Khan) – it is hard to recall the last time we saw so many characters make an impact in at least one memorable scene each. The result is a dense and layered narrative that is soundly supported by multiple beams instead of being propped up by just its central pillars.

A similar complementarity is evident in the rock-solid contributions by the technical crew – be it the cinematography (Jay Oza), production design (Suzanne Caplan Merwanji), editing (Nitin Baid), music (supervised by Ankur Tewari), sound design (Ayush Ahuja) or any of the other departments – all of which must have necessarily worked in sync in the service of the script for the end result to be so harmonious.

While a captain is only as good as his/her team, the reverse holds true too and all credit to director Zoya Akhtar for orchestrating such an accomplished piece of art.

Horses For Courses

While we are not privy to all that transpired before and during the making of this film, we got a glimpse into the group dynamic at work when we interviewed dialogue writer Vijay Maurya for last week’s edition of this publication. In that piece, Maurya noted that when he received the screenplay, it already had fleshed-out dialogue, albeit in English. Even though a literal translation of the same would have sufficed, the makers were very clear that they wanted their film to have an authentic voice, and that led to the dialogue writer coming on board.

Maurya, in turn, didn’t rely just on his own skill but also listened extensively to the rap of Divine and Naezy (on whom the film is loosely based) to ensure that the film’s spoken word was true to its milieu. Finally, once the working draft was ready, the dialogue was run through a group of current rappers to weed out outdated slang and weave in contemporary lingo before the shooting script was locked.

The lessons here are manifold, chief among them being the need for filmmakers to have the humility to acknowledge that someone else may be better equipped to handle certain aspects of a film, as also the ability to listen and learn from others instead of ensconcing themselves in self-satisfied cocoons.

Commercially Compatible Controlled Creativity!

For a film aiming at realism and catering to today’s Netflix generation, and one whose story revolves around the often politically incorrect realm of rap music and is peopled by characters rooted in the underbelly of a city not exactly known for its social graces, it is amazing that Gully Boy doesn’t have a single cuss word throughout its 156-minute duration. That is admirable not from any moralistic or puritanical standpoint but simply because by avoiding an ‘A’ certificate, the film was able to have unrestricted access to the entire market and not miss out on its main leads’ considerable popularity among kids and young adults. 

The fact that it has been able to do so without making the audience feel that it is watching an unduly sanitized or airbrushed version of reality drives home perhaps the film’s most important lesson: striking that very delicate balance between commerce and creativity is often the toughest challenge for filmmakers but it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game in which one must necessarily be compromised to accommodate the other.

Three cheers, then, for Team Gully Boy... and we mean that quite literally! The first, for the joy we derived from watching this masterpiece; second, for its commercial contribution to our trade ecosystem; and the third, for the constructive lessons it has taught us.

- Nitin Tej Ahuja

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