Gully Boy, a film that follows the rags-to-riches tale of a rapper pursuing his dreams, has swept South Asia and its diaspora into a fervor, helping bring Indian hip-hop into the mainstream conversation. Directed by Zoya Akhtar and starring Bollywood heavyweights Alia Bhatt and Ranveer Singh, Gully Boy has become the year’s highest-grossing Bollywood film overseas. Singh portrays Murad, a college student on the cusp of graduation who writes lyrics to express the many frustrations of his life: his abusive father marrying a second, much younger wife; living in Dharavi, a Mumbai slum; his lack of opportunities to escape. Over the course of the movie, Murad becomes renowned as the ‘Gully Boy’ — “gully” loosely translates to “hood” — a rising star in Mumbai hip-hop circles. Alongside newcomer Siddhant Chaturvedi — who captivates in his portrayal of Murad’s mentor, MC Sher — the movie, of course, charts Murad’s rise to stardom.
New Delhi-based MC Kode, who is credited with starting the (real-life) battle rap scene in Delhi, and arguably the country, is irate. As the founding member of New Delhi-based rap battle crew Spit Dope, he’s a foundational member of an underground scene in which battle rappers meet and trade vicious bars. “Rap battles are the main driving force of the story [in Gully Boy],” he tells NPR. “We don’t have battles like that. We have schemes, we have metaphors, we have similes.” Kode explains how, before he goes toe-to-toe with a rapper, he will research them, adding, “nothing is too personal.” (For a recent, but non-improvised, example of this effective, homework-based approach, see Pusha-T’s “The Story of Adidon.”) Instead, what audiences hear in the battle rap scenes of Gully Boy are pallid lines like (loosely translated): “Your sister listens to your songs / thinks they’re mine.”
Over the last few years, underground Indian hip-hop has become bold and assertive, deviating away from the party anthems that have dominated and driven the genre towards the mainstream. The genre is still relatively small compared to the behemoth of Bollywood, but its artists have been weaponizing their lyrics to express opinions about Indian society — MC Kode has received death threats for his. “I got a call from a political party in the Northeast [of India], then on the same day, their local police station called.” In a rap battle with BK, the son of a political leader in Tripura, Kode asserted that BK’s father, as party leader, was responsible for attacks in 1980 that are believed to have resulted in the deaths of about three thousand Bengalis. Having taken down the videos that got him in trouble, he continued to face harassment both from political parties and strangers: “Someone found my college and called, seeking information. I then got two more police phone calls from the Northeast [of India] threatening me, before I got one from here [in New Delhi].”
Ahmer Javed, a rapper and producer from Indian-administered Kashmir, has had endless problems. He’s from one of the most volatile regions in the world, a place divided between India and Pakistan, to which both have laid claim. “All the people who raise their voices in Kashmir get suppressed,” Javed explains. “Authority plays a huge role in it. MC Kash’s studio even got raided.” In 2010, Kash, one of India’s premier political rappers, released an anthemic song titled “I Protest.” An overnight sensation, Kash has been arrested, detained by police and had studios refuse to allow him to record.
Despite resistance, underground hip-hop artists in India continue their work. Take Prabh Deep’s seismic, culture-shifting album Class-Sikh, released at the tail of 2017. Rapped entirely in Punjabi, the album is an honest portrayal of the 1984 riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s death. (Gandhi, the prime minister of India, was killed by her two Sikh bodyguards in the aftermath of her ordering the Indian army to storm the Golden Temple, the holiest place for Sikhs. In retribution for her assassination, thousands of Sikhs were killed, most notably in New Delhi.) Class-Sikh is, perhaps obviously, told from the Sikh perspective, when that period in Indian history is often cast from an upper-caste Hindu lens; rarely is Sikh story taught or seen in mainstream media. The reception to the album was decidedly mixed. “Maybe it’s a language barrier,” Deep muses. “People don’t understand Punjabi, they understand Hindi and don’t want to listen. People that understand Punjabi f*** with my music hard.”
For the last decade, mainstream artists like Yo Yo Honey Singh, Badshah Raftaar and Panjabi MC released anthemic tracks and featured in Bollywood movies. Honey Singh’s breakout song was a collaboration with Badshah called Choot Vol.1, which loosely translates to Vagina Vol.1. But it was his 2012 song, “Main Hoon Balatkari,” which loosely translates to “I Am A Rapist.” The music clearly promoted violence against women, with lyrics like: “I came from behind / removed her sari, tore her underwear…” The song was released after an infamous incident which took place in New Delhi in 2012, in which a 23-year-old woman was gang-raped on a public bus by a group of men; she later died of her injuries. Country-wide protests followed, along with an inquest into Honey Singh’s lyrics and songs. He was cleared of all charges and remains a mainstay in mainstream hip-hop in India.
Started in 2017, Delhi-based Azadi Records was a reaction to a perceived stagnation in Indian hip-hop. Azadi — which translates to “freedom”— is on a supposed list of banned words by the Indian government. Co-founder Mo Joshi explains: “I recall getting a letter asking to clarify a number of things when we set up the company, like an extra level of vetting. Then, when we get payments in from overseas, they also get flagged and delayed for scrutiny.” Uday Kapur, the other half of Azadi Records, elaborated, “From being a phrase that dominated the lexicon during the independence movement to its recent use by Kashmiri citizens, it [Azadi] is viewed a certain way by people in this country, and we really wanted people to confront that connotation. What we didn’t expect was that the state’s paranoia had reached this level towards these words.”
Young, internet-savvy audiences looking for their own version of an underground started flocking to rap battles put on by crews like Spit Dope, helping to sell out shows by Prabh Deep, Ahmer Javed and New Delhi-based rap duo Seedhe Maut. Encore, one half of Seedhe Maut, explains mainstream rap’s prominence. “Yo Yo Honey Singh, Gully Boy, their way of making music is completely unique to them. It’s more in the limelight.” Calm, his fellow band member, echoes that, reiterating that “rap has always been ignored in this country until now.” As evidence of their success, their recent album, Bayaan, released in January, did “500k+ streams within the first month,” according to an email from Joshi. Kapur elaborated on Azadi’s intention with its releases: “I think we speak to a different audience. I hesitate to say someone who is intelligent, but someone who wants to think with their music.”
No rappers, though — except for a few on Azadi’s roster — have a touring circuit. The actual people who have created the culture don’t see the profits. Stories like that of Sez On The Beat, a producer responsible for numerous hits including “Mere Gully Mein” — which tells the story Gully Boy is based on and recreates — are being exploited, as he continues to labor. Sez, who was portrayed in the movie by Kalki Koechlin as “Sky,” had his story as a rising producer played out, too. Yet, along with MC Kode, Sez did not see any profits from the film.
“People just talk about topics that are hot right now,” Prabh warned. “You will stay hot as long as the topic stays hot. Once that fades out, you will fade out.” Gully Boy may have come a few years too early for the hip-hop culture in India. “You have actors who have sold this dream now,” Kapur quipped. “They’re going to disappear. Will they continue supporting the hip-hop space? Will they continue supporting the artists? Brands are sharks — they’ll find the next trend that comes along and jump on that.”
Before the movie’s premiere, Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt gave an interview in which Singh stated that he was “apathetic when it comes to politics.” He continued, saying, “There’s a lot going on in my life as an actor. Now my personal life is going through changes. So I am very involved in my own little world.” As Uday Kapur wrote, “Bollywood is and has always been great at serving the masses empty rhetoric for change and progress while cozying up with and being complicit with the very people that divide us.”
None of the players in India’s hip-hop culture have lost their passion, though. “In hip-hop, there is hope,” Kode surmised. “Here, in India, hip-hop is a guest. The point is to grow and develop with the people that follow you. That’s the point with our music. We need an openness of the people towards rap and hip-hop. It’s about education right now rather than going hard, going in. Make sure that people know hip-hop is not just a movement. It’s more than that.”