Gully Boy director Zoya Akhtar on why the inspiring story of the two underground rappers moved her to make a movie that she hopes will change the rap scene
It was while editing her 2015 film, Dil Dhadakne Do, that director Zoya Akhtar's editor Anand Subaya made her watch the video of young rapper Naezy's song, Aafat. "I was like 'this is legit!' I just wanted to meet him." So she called up musician Ankur Tiwari, who used to work at MTV Indies at the time, and asked him to arrange a meeting. "He came over to Ankur's house and Reema [Kagti, the writer of the movie] and I chatted with him for hours."
Cut to a few days later, when she went to the erstwhile BlueFROG to watch Naezy perform. It was there that she met Divine, an upcoming rapper then who had then opened for Naezy. "I went backstage and my reaction was 'who you!!!' He was such a kid when I first met him. I asked him to come over to meet Reema and me as well, and that too, ended up being a five-hour meeting," says Akhtar.
Zoya Akhtar with Divine on the sets of Gully Boy
Today, Divine could be considered the biggest rapper in India, after his stint with Sony Music, with whose support he released Jungli Sher, that catapulted him to mega fame. Naezy, who is considered one of the pioneers of the Indian underground hip hop scene, went off the grid for a few years, but is back on the scene now.
Four years later, those meetings have culminated into Gully Boy, inspired by their stories but not a biopic, which releases on February 14. It tells the story two Mumbai underground rappers trying to make it, and stars Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt. Akhtar says she did listen to hip hop artists like Tupac and Eminem, but had never interacted with the Indian scene ever before.
"Both Naezy and Divine have very distinct styles - their singing, writing, flow is different. What's common is that they both are from the minority community and have come from hard places. But, Naezy grew up with a lot of family, while Divine didn't. What was also appealing was that they speak the truth, and they engage with their socio economic space - they really speak for a lot of people."
For Akhtar, who has been vocal about the #MeToo movement, what was most attractive though was that she thinks both the rappers are hard-core feminists. "I don't think they know the word. But it's in the way they talk about women, and also in the way they don't talk about them. There is also no cynicism in them, and they are all about making a change."
But the story finally shaped up when Akhtar sat down with Kagti to write it out. "You have to create the drama, juice it - there needs to be a girlfriend. It's not a biopic, but it couldn't be authentic without them. We just kept doing drafts after drafts, and kept developing it further." She also spent a lot of time in the gullies to get the tapestry of her movie right. "I have been there before. I worked on Meera Nair's Migration, which I wrote and have done ads there as well. At the end of the day it depends on your aesthetic, and your eye, and your design team."
For Akhtar, though, the point of the movie was to also get some attention to the indie music scene, which she feels is grossly neglected. "I hope after the movie, there is an interest in the music scene that doesn't depend on a star. I hope the rap scene grows. I hope the boys get whatever they want, but remain as authentic and true as they are. I hope they don't have to sell out, but still get the perks of everything. And in the end, I hope people understand the importance of the art, and how vital it is for society. That's what I hope," she says.