Loved ‘Gully Boy’? Don’t Forget the Murads and Safeenas Among You
An irony gripped me as I watched ‘Gully Boy’ on the weekend after the Pulwama attack.
Roti, kapda, makaan, and internet, painted Murad Ahmed (Ranveer Singh) on a city wall in Mumbai. The scene resonated and an irony gripped me as I watched Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, on the weekend after the Pulwama attack.
A curfew was imposed in Jammu on 16 February, after reports surfaced of Kashmiri students being threatened and attacked by mobs. Internet services were suspended in many parts, as they always are during curfews, which are now quite common in J&K.
My Twitter timeline soon filled up with messages from Kashmiri — mostly Kashmiri-Muslim — friends and acquaintances. There was a sense of panic and fear.
Amid acts of verbal and physical hate towards Kashmiris and Muslims — propelled by trending hashtags like #BadlaKab and #ExposeDeshDrohis — thousands in India sat in cinema halls, applauding Gully Boy’s Murad — taking part in his anger and sorrow, his passion and joy.
Gully Boy Is the Coming-of-Age Story of a Muslim Boy
Murad is a Muslim college student from Dharavi, Mumbai, who dreams of becoming a hip-hop star. The dark cinema hall may allow some to suspend their Islamophobia, but the film serves constant reminders of Murad’s religious identity.
From Murad’s pathani kurta to him applying kajal (kohl) in front of the mirror, from the taqiyah (skullcap) that he wears before namaaz to the taweez (amulet) his mother ties on his arm for luck, the markers are everywhere.
What’s more, Murad is always aware of this. He asks Sky (Kalki Koechlin), “Tumhe pata hai na main kahaan se aaya hun?” [You know where come I come from, right?]. Sky replies that Murad is an artiste and, therefore, these ‘associations’ don’t matter.
Sky enjoys the comfort of distance — she’s a music student from Berkeley, her accent and mannerism signal a ‘progressive’ and privileged upbringing. But Sky too is shown fighting her own battles against societal norms; her struggles converge with those of Murad and Safeena (Alia Bhatt).
Safeena Firdausi — whose character sadly doesn’t get much screen-time — challenges the intersecting structures of gender and religion.
Brought up in a partly conservative Muslim household, Safeena convinces her parents to allow her to finish her Medical degree and dreams of having a practice of her own.
Safeena’s ‘badass-ery’ received a few whistles from the audience in the cinema hall and she was celebrated by critics in many-a-review for her strong sense of freedom.
Singing the Song of ‘Azadi’: Intention Vs Interpretation
Ranveer and Alia may confess to being ‘apolitical’, but the film is mostly sound in its politics. The threads that bind Safeena, Murad, and Sky are made apparent in the ‘Azadi’ song. The dynamic song has been a part of several protest movements in India, recontextualised to suit the issue at hand.
The ‘Azadi’ chant also has an unmistakable association for the Kashmiri people. The political situation in the Valley is far more complicated than the black-and-white picture painted by some mainstream media and online influences.
It is perhaps true that the makers of Gully Boy did not intend this association or meaning. Murad and Safeena are not Kashmiri Muslims and the ‘Azadi’ song has been taken out of Kashmir to Mumbai’s Dharavi.
However, watching this film, at a time when targeted hate towards a specific group of people is being propagated, opens it up for interpretation, for we cannot ignore the strong religious context and the Islamophobia that underlines this hate towards Kashmiris.
So, as we sing ‘Azadi’ with the characters of Gully Boy, let’s challenge this ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative, our convenient political apathy, and limited understanding of conflict. As instances of mob violence against Kashmiri students are reported, let’s not forget the Murads and Safeenas among us.
About time we take this sensibility outside the dark cinema halls and hold ourselves responsible for the way we think and act in the worst of times.
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