Debate: ‘Gully Boy’ is Not About Identity – And That’s Okay

These pieces are in response to the piece”‘Gully Boy’ Strips Hip-Hop of Its Crucial Link With Identity”, published on The Wire on February 23, 2019. 


While I strongly appreciate the value of identity-based representations, Pranav Kuttaiah’s article fails to explain why identity formation cannot take place on economic lines, a unique and unifying element in slums across India. While Gully Boy may have passed over explicit caste references, it expressed quite well the entrenched occupational heredity, lack of legitimate opportunities, strains and social inequalities that characterise caste oppression.

Besides, a degree of homogenisation has value in unifying people and incentivising masses to accept an idea which they weren’t even exposed to earlier, even at the cost of an imperfect – but not inaccurate – representation. Why can’t we celebrate both Gully Boy and Mahershala Ali’s Greenbook for highlighting different nuances – the former about overarching structural hierarchies and the latter about social inequality that sometimes misses the eye?

Additionally, making genres of music such as hip hop which were meant to assert the value of inclusivity more and more exclusive is antithetical to the value it stands for.

Kuttaiah, in his piece, seems to feel that the movie fuels the narrative that low-skilled jobs are not dignified – but he may simply be missing the value that social mobility holds for Indians who live in slums.

 – Siddharth Sonkar


A few days ago, The Wire published an article titled ‘Gully Boy strips hip-hop of its crucial link with identity’ written by Pranav Kuttaiah. Although the piece was well formulated, I disagreed with it and have written a respectful rebuttal.

You can gauge the success of a film – and not just in terms of box office numbers – by the debates and articles it inspires. Gully Boy is a brilliant film, to say the least.  Zoya Akhtar weaves together an engrossing story with a complex mesh of bright characters which goes way beyond Bollywood’s usual narratives of hyper masculinity and women’s victimisation (see: Simmba).

While the film which was quite predictable in its plot, it did justice to what it meant to portray.

Identity was never in question, don’t force it in

Identity was not protagonist Murad’s (Ranveer Singh) main concern at any point in the movie. Every shot of the movie, especially the aerial shots of Dharavi, the bathroom shot in Sky’s (Kalki Koechlin) apartment–  signified a class divide rather than an identity crisis.

It’s highly probable that Murad, or any person living in Dharavi, views the world through the lens of class divides, not identity.

The movie shows Murad as someone who wants to move away from the suffocation and the rather toxic environment he lives in, it’s possible that economic deprivation, not individual identity plays a pivotal role in his life. When one’s basic needs are not met, then is it a question of identity crisis or is it more about survival?

The movie has been made at a time when identity is one of the central themes of today’s socio-political context, but that doesn’t mean that Gully Boy has to enter that discussion. Identity is not the only crisis that an individual endures during their lifetime and Gully Boy shows that. Let’s not try to insert the identity card forcefully, just because it suits our current socio-political narrative.

Hip-hop is about freedom of expression, don’t box it into historical context

In his piece, Kuttaiah uses Jay-Z and Kanye as examples and rightly observes that hip-hop has a history of addressing identity politics. However, just because they told the stories of their time and social context doesn’t mean the art form can only be the flag bearer of identity politics. For instance, by this standard, is it wrong if someone wants to rap about their experiences of illness or other struggles?

Hip hop isn’t just about identity, it’s also about freedom of expression. Some might use it to express a traumatic memory, while others might use it to talk about their economic condition, as Murad did.

If anything, criticising Gully Boy for “stripping” hip hop of its essence feels like a stretch especially when we see the ways in which Bollywood has actually mangled the form with a litany of Hindi rap songs that are downright misogynistic, offensive and not rooted in anything.

Let’s just enjoy the essence of hip-hop which is giving us so many different stories instead of trying to squeeze all narratives into complying with the music’s history with identity.

Ayushman Basu is a 25-year-old freelance writer currently in Mumbai, exploring the city. Find him on Twitter @ayushmanbasu