Ranveer Singh, it seems, can do no wrong. He wowed critics with his intense performance as the marauding king Alauddin Khilji in “Padmaavat”, tasted box-office success with “Simmba”, and even married his dream girl, the actress Deepika Padukone – all in the space of a year.
In 2019, Singh is back with “Gully Boy”, a Bollywood version of Eminem’s “8 Mile”, which takes an unusually gritty look at India’s fledgling underground hip-hop scene. (Gully means narrow alley)
Shot in Mumbai’s claustrophobic slums, from which most of India’s rappers have emerged, “Gully Boy” will premiere at the Berlinale before releasing in Indian theatres next week. Singh spoke to Reuters about the film, India’s hip-hop scene and how to make a mainstream Bollywood film about it.
Q: What was it like collaborating with Zoya Akhtar again?
A: Zoya and I have collaborated before, so there was a certain familiarity there. But while working on “Dil Dhadakne Do”, because it was an ensemble film, it was almost an unsaid thing between me and Zoya that we would work together again, because there was so much left to explore.
We wanted to do something where there’d be lots more for us to do together. We bounced various ideas and all of them were amazing. But one day she called me over and showed me the video of “Meri Gully Mein” and said, “This is the world that I want to set my film”. To me, it was amazing, because I love so many of these things – the hip-hop scene, the ‘bambaiyya’ language. It is all part of my identity.
Q: Of course, it is Mumbai, but it is a very different Mumbai from the one you inhabit…
A: That’s not entirely accurate. I had an amazing vantage point growing up. Where I lived was on the border of Bandra (East) and Bandra (West). It was almost as if I was in the center of the class divide. If I went towards West, there’d be private schools, huge apartments, the upper middle-class, affluent part of Mumbai. I used to go to the private school during the day and play cricket with the boys from the slums. I grew up with them – they are my bum chums.
One of the most amazing parts of this city is that it is two worlds in one – like a line from a song in the film says “ek duniya mein do duniya” (one world inside two worlds). The first 25 years of my life were spent right on the border of both these worlds. It really helps me as an actor to have a life experience that encompasses a broad spectrum of society.
Q: How do you approach playing a character whose life experiences are so different from yours? Do you trust the director’s vision?
A: There are parts of an actor’s own life experiences that you have to tap into and mould around your character. It’s already within you – you have to pluck it out, twist it around and use it. Whatever dark experiences I had in my life, I tapped into for Khilji. Whatever struggle I have had in my life, whether it comes to career or relationships, I used that for “Gully Boy.”
The language came very naturally to me. The street lingo is very much my style. I am also the kind of person who is equally comfortable at high society gatherings and hanging out with the boys from the yard. This kind of experience I have had growing up allows me to be comfortable with people from all social strata and that is the largest contributor to my being able to do “Gully Boy”. Me hanging out with the real “gully boys” growing up shaped my life and helped me make this film.
Q: When you met the rappers and musicians on whom “Gully Boy” is based, did you already have your character formed in your head? How much of Murad (his character) did you draw from them?
A: You usually draw your cues from the script. Of course, it was helpful interacting with the boys, but it was not entirely based on one person’s life. All the cues for my character were there in the script, but I am a huge fan of Divine, so it was just enriching for me to sit and interact with him during the making of this film. He is a very generous artist and he contributed so wholeheartedly to this film. He understood all too well that this film is going to be significant in bringing the underground hip-hop getting mainstream exposure. I was blown away by his vibe, his music; and I was a fan before I even met him.
Q: Hip-hop culture is niche in India. How do you make a mainstream Bollywood film about a genre of music that most audiences haven’t even heard of or relate to?
A: The challenge itself presents a very unique opportunity – to present something to the mainstream that they have not sampled before is very exciting. One of the most significant things before the release of the film is the success of “Apna Time Aayega”. It is number one on the charts.
That means the mainstream audience has accepted the music and that is a sign that it is matter of time before they engage with hip-hop culture.
Editing by David Lalmalsawma
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