‘Gully Boy’: Behind the scenes of a Berlinale film that breaks taboos

With crisp commentary on class, love, and the power of pursuing dreams, 'Gully Boy' is a film that will woo viewers from Germany to its filming location of Mumbai. Its production team gave The Local an exclusive interview in Berlin at the Berlinale.

'Gully Boy': Behind the scenes of a Berlinale film that breaks taboos
A still from Gully Boy, starring Ranveer Singh. Photo courtesy of Sunny Malik

The best love stories transcend time, language and class. And the Hindi-language Gully Boy, which fully absorbed my attention for 2.5 hours at the 69th annual Berlinale, was this classic story with a contemporary twist – a tale of two people who overcome the odds to be together, and be themselves.

The film focuses largely on a young Muslim couple – as they are in semi-secrecy since childhood – from Mumbai’s slums who seek to rise above their class and religion-imposed restrictions.

“It’s an underdog story,” director Zoya Akhtar told The Local, near where the film would premiere on February 9th at the Friedrichstadt Palast to a swiftly sold-out crowd, many from Germany’s Indian diaspora. “It’s a story about someone overcoming his circumstances. It’s also a story of chasing your dreams, which is a universal theme.”

SEE ALSO: Berlin film fest rolls out red carpet for women trailblazers

The main protagonist, the 22-year-old Murad (Ranveer Singh) aspires to be a hip hop artist, and his girlfriend Safeena (Alia Bhatt) is studying to become a surgeon, even though her parents’ biggest plan for her is an arranged marriage.

The strong-willed Safeena has a fierce temper, but also uses it to encourage Murad. “If something good comes along, shut up and take it,” Safeena says to him in one scene.

But that’s not always easy. Murad lives squeezed into a small and squalid space with his mother and abusive father, who forcefully forbids Murad from practicing his craft.

“The more and more you see those conflicts, the more and more you start rooting for him,” producer Ritesh Sidhwani told The Local. “So by the time you see him succeed, you’re so invested in him you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I want to see something good happen.'”

Alia Bhatt with a fan of Gully Boy at its Berlin Premiere. Photo courtesy of Sunny Malik. 

Cutting through taboos

The film tackles several taboos, with ripe commentary on India’s class divide, and a host of strong female characters. In an unusually daring move, Murad’s mother leaves her husband when he takes a second wife.

The tension in Murad’s life – both personally and what he observes when working as driver for Mumbai’s jet-setting rich – also fuels his fervent lyrics.

When attending a beats battle for the first time, he simply seeks to pass on the poetry he’s penned to his local rap idol Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi), hoping the local star artist will incorporate the lyrics into one of his beats.

But Murad finds himself in centre stand when Sher encourages him to voice those words himself. His true talent – both for poetry and performance – stun the seasoned crowd, who hadn’t expected much from the cautious newcomer.

It is also Safeena who enables Murad, giving him the tablet that he uses to watch local hip-hop he admires, and record his own. Putting his YouTube videos online is what captures the attention of many fans, including Sky (Kalki Koechlin), a wealthy white woman who he sees as his ‘in’ to the music industry.

When Safeena and Murad briefly break up, he becomes closer with Sky, only to realize that letting go of Safeena is like “being without a childhood.” Despite Murad’s meteoric rise to fame by the end of the film, Safeena is the faithful force that keeps him grounded.

On the set of Gully Boy. From left to right, Kalki Koechlin, Ranveen Singh and Zoya Akhtar. Photo courtesy of Sunny Malik.

Akthar says she purposes chose a diverse range of characters to represent the population of Mumbai, a massive metropolis of 18.5 million people.

“We have people from all over which coexist,” said Akthar. “Their narratives cross each other, and in a very interesting way, you know. Your world touches upon so many identities.”

Yet while she was previously “a huge fan of hip-hop,” says Akthar, “I’ve always engaged the artists which is mainly American and British. And I hadn’t liked the rap scene in India.”

That all changed when she saw a video in 2014 by hip-hop artist Naezy, who inspired the film. “He was completely legit, his writing style was fantastic,” said Akhtar, one of the few big-budget women women directors in Bollywood.

It was then she learned about the phenomenon of Gully Rap – gully meaning street or lane – which has given a voice to urban youth like Naezy who aren’t typically represented in the mainstream, said Akhtar.

SEE ALSO: Berlin film fest turns focus on women, Netflix

A break-out film

The production of Gully Boy – which had its worldwide release on February 14th, itself breaks taboos, being both a rare blockbuster directed by a woman, and a Hindi film with a heavy and honest look at social themes, including with a sometimes non-verbalized expressiveness in its characters that capture their nuances.

“I think it’s important to not tell the viewer everything, which is what Hindi cinema tends to do,” said Akthar. “We tend to over-explain, we tend to cover all corners so that people can understand, so that they can hear. But people don’t need to see everything.”

SEE ALSO: European films out of picture for Berlin’s golden bear

Singh, a huge hip-hop fan himself, spent nine-months training to perform the original songs seen in the film – and surprised the premiere’s packed audience in Berlin with an actual performance following the screening.  

At the premiere of Gully Boy at Friedrichstadt Palast: Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, producer Ritesh Sidhwani and director Zoya Akhtar. Photo courtesy of Sunny Malik. 

The screening had quickly sold out, with many tickets snatched up by a handful of the 100,000 Indians living in Germany, or 175,000 Indian descendants.  Bhatt herself has German roots: Her grandmother Gertrude Hoelzer lives in Berlin, and Bhatt has said she feels an emotional connection with this city. Her grandfather fled to London during the Nazi era after two years in prison for publishing an underground newspaper.

The movie was one of a growing number of non-European highlights at the Berlinale – the world’s biggest film festival with 400 films – and a growing number which come from women directors.

Gully Boy nears its end with an hip-hop battle to be the opening act in Mumbai for US rapper Nas, who served as an executive producer on the film. Safeena is among those who eagerly look to the stage as Murad awes the crowd with his confidence.

With energy and exuberance, and repeats that “Apna time aayega (my time will come).”

Official video for the song “My time will come” from 'Gully Boy.'

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7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers

To celebrate the works of women in the German film industry, and at the conclusion of this year's special outdoor Berlinale, we have compiled a list of seven must-watch German films directed by women. 

7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers
A scene from System Crasher. credit: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Peter Hartwig

This year’s Oscars marked the first time in its almost 100-year history that two female filmmakers – Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell – were nominated in the Best Director category. Only five women have ever been nominated for this award. Zhao took home the gong, becoming just the second woman ever to do so.

In 2021’s Berlinale Festival, 60 percent of the films in the Generation category were directed by women — with 75 percent of female filmmakers making up the Kplus selection (a category for younger audiences).

Here is a look at seven films by some of the most influential female directors in German cinema.

Never Sleep Again (1992) — Pia Frankenberg

Featured in Berlinale’s Retrospective series, meant to showcase female filmmakers, this film is written, directed and produced by Cologne-born filmmaker, Pia Frankenberg.

The film follows three female friends through post-unification Berlin, who are making their way to a wedding when their car breaks down. They wander through the streets of former East Berlin, roaming in and out of bars meeting men. 

The dilapidated sites of the former Cold War frontier city, still scarred by World War II, become a place for sheer endless personal experimentation where the women begin to reconfigure their lives and loves.

Frankenberg’s impressionistic portrait of three women in the city reflects on the state of the newly unified Germany, where for a moment all possibilities seemed radically open. (Available on Mubi, Binged)

The German Sisters (1981) — Margarethe Von Trotta 

Considered one of the classics of the New German Cinema movement, The German Sisters tells an intimate story of Germany. 

Based on the real-life story of the Enslein sisters, it is an expression of director Margarethe Von Trotta’s combination of the personal and the political. It’s the story of Juliane, a feminist journalist and her sister, Marianne, who is a terrorist revolutionary. The film, which won six awards at the Venice Film Festival including the Golden Lion, was Margarethe Von Trotta’s third film and first collaboration with Barbara Sukowa. The director-actor duo went on to do six more films together. (Available on Mubi, Prime)

Margarethe Von Trotta on set in 1975. Photo: dpa | Bertram

Toni Erdmann (2016) — Maren Ade 

Toni Erdmann is a German-Austrian comedy which was directed, written and co-produced by Maren Ade. The film, which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, was named the best film of 2016. 

Meant to showcase the intricacies of a father-daughter relationship, the film pairs carefully constructed, three-dimensional characters in a tenderly funny character study. A hard-working woman reluctantly agrees to spend time with her estranged father when he unexpectedly arrives.

As a practical joker, the father does his best to reconnect by pretending to be her CEO’s life coach. (Available on Mubi, Kanopy, Prime, Vudu)

I Was at Home, But (2019) — Angela Schanelec 

I was at home, but (Ich war zuhause, aber) is a 2019 German drama film directed by Angela Schanelec. At the Berlinale that year, Schanelec won the Silver Bear for Best Director. 

The film is a story about a 13-year-old student, Phillip, who disappears without a trace for a week and suddenly reappears. 

It maps the existential crises his mother and teachers are confronted with that change their whole view of life. The film features several plots, which tell the stories of several people who are all connected to Phillip in some way. It has scenes with long silences, to contrast ones with heavy dialogue, which critics believe makes this film a cinematic masterpiece. (Available on Apple iTunes, Google Play Movies, Vudu, or rent on YouTube).

The Audition (2019) — Ina Weisse

This film has been described as a symphonic study of human behaviour. It’s the story of a violin teacher, who takes great interest in mentoring a student for an audition. Anna, the violinist and teacher played by Nina Hoss, shows plenty of compassion toward the boy at first, but their relationship becomes much more strained as the date of Alexander’s audition nears and Anna begins to put him through musical torture. Come the day of the exam, events take a tragic turn. (Available on Amazon Prime Video)

Pelican Blood (2019) — Katrin Gebbe 

Pelican Blood is written and directed by Katrin Gebbe, who won the 2014 Preis der Deutschen Filmkritik (German Film Critics’ Prize) for her first film.

It tells the story of a woman who trains police horses. She adopts her second child, a severely traumatised five-year-old girl. When the girl shows violent and anti-social behaviour, her new mother becomes determined to help her.

The film has been described as raising fascinating questions – how do you draw boundaries for a child who seems to ignore them or even takes a perverse pleasure in overstepping them? What can you do as a parent when you realize that your love and protection aren’t enough? (Available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime)

System Crasher (2019) — Nora Fingscheidt

Another film about a rebellious child, System Crasher picked up a whopping eight German Film Awards after its release in 2019.

The film has a powerful political message about the inadequacies of the universal child care system. The protagonist, Benni, is a violent nine-year-old girl who suffers from psychotic episodes. Her key social worker, Frau Bafané, tries to get Benni into special schools or facilities; dozens turn her down and Benni is too young to be effectively sectioned as an inpatient.

In an interview with The Guardian, Fingscheidt says, “There’s a very German dimension to the film in the obsession with bureaucracy, with rules that need to be adhered to. Rules like, ‘this child cannot stay in this home because they are getting too emotionally attached,’ when that institution may be the first place where a child has begun to open up.”

The film has received an incredible amount of international recognition, garnering 45 international awards. (Available on Netflix)