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Ranveer Singh, master of ceremonies

  • ‘Gully Boy’ throws the spotlight on two things the actor loves dearly—Mumbai and hip hop. How could he not be part of it?

Ranveer Singh. Photographed by R. Burman; styled by Vijendra Bhardwaj
Ranveer Singh. Photographed by R. Burman; styled by Vijendra Bhardwaj

Singh’s scrolling up and down on his phone, looking for a message a “co-actor" sent him after the Gully Boy trailer dropped. “‘I have just one question for you’," he reads out, “‘Are you exploring your range or just trying to destroy the scale altogether? What are you on?’"

Loosely based on the extraordinary lives of Mumbai rappers Naezy and DIVINE—“and some other boys in the scene, with some drama written in to push the narrative"—Gully Boy looks to be your archetypal streets-to-stage, rags-to-riches story. One that’s an ode to Mumbai’s many dichotomies; and one Singh loudly lay claim to way back in 2014, when Zoya Akhtar first narrated the story to him while he was shooting for Befikre in Paris.

“To play Murad was to deliver a reactive performance," Singh says, swigging from a bottle of water. “There’s a lot happening around the kid and he’s just reacting to all of it. He’s almost voiceless until he finds expression in rap."

Instinctively, he’d known the part had to be his. Mumbai and hip hop, the two things he loves and identifies with most—how could he not? Just so you knew it too, he proceeded to build himself a street-wise public profile, by putting in a series of sartorially out-of-whack public appearances, uploading crowded selfies with the bantais of Dharavi, scripting conceptual ads around rap and turning up anonymously in top hats and overcoats to hip hop gigs. He even remembers having a “very hard" 1990s Versace phase: “Very baroque, a lot of gold." He grins. “Very gangster."

Also read: The voice of the Gully

Singh’s earliest memory of listening to hip hop involves a US-resident cousin who returned for the summer armed with a cassette tape of 2Pac’s music. “Even though the themes were beyond my years, I was able to connect because I’d never heard anyone express themselves with such authenticity. Up until sixth grade, I’d only listened to pop and rock ’n’ roll," he says. “When I heard The Prodigy for the first time that year, that sound—that grimy, angry, electronic sound—just blew my brains. I went from The Prodigy to The Chemical Brothers to Apollo 440…"

After 2Pac, “there was Coolio, Will Smith, Blackstreet and,"—don’t say it—“Vanilla Ice!" I groan, he laughs. “If you’ve been a pop person, you’ll experience the hybrids before you get in deeper, right? And then, I had a very hard Notorious BIG and Diddy phase—he was Puff Daddy back then!" These days though, he’s listening to “only Mumbai underground hip hop". What’s he discovered? “These two kids, who are also on the Gully Boy soundtrack: A 19-year-old called Spitfire (Nitin Mishra) from Madhya Pradesh, who wrote Asli Hip Hop; and a Kandivali boy with the moniker Kaam Bhari. I just can’t get enough of their unreleased music."

Also read Zoya Akhtar: ‘We wanted to be on the inside, looking out’

Singh’s rapped on four of Gully Boy’s 18 songs—a boisterous soundtrack supervised by indie darling Ankur Tewari. But this is about more than just the rhymes Singh can whip out at whatever speed; it’s also a chance for him to contend with his experience of Mumbai’s “other side".

“I’ve grown up in this unique geographical spot in Bandra, right there between East and West, on the cusp of the class divide," he says. “I’d go to a private ICSE school but I’d play cricket and football with the boys from the waadi. Bambaiya is just one more language that I know. It’s just how we speak here."

Days before we meet, Singh turned up at the Gully Boy trailer launch with no less than seven colours in his attire—yellow, purple, black, green, orange, grey, beige—as if he’d walked out of a Basquiat painting. Of course, he freestyled and twerked and jumped into the media pit and shouted “bohot hard" one too many times. But this is what they’d come for, hadn’t they? And Ranveer Singh, who instinctively knows what they want, is always happy to oblige.

“I wear my entertainer hat almost like a weird security blanket," Singh says, eyeballing a Chinese food stall as we speed down Marine Drive. “Like a reverse defence mechanism. People go into a shell when they’re coping with being in a social scenario. But me? I’m always breaking out."

An excerpt from GQ India’sFebruary 2019 issue, now on stands.

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