If there is an American art form that no longer feels out of place in India, it might just be the culture of hip-hop and b-boying. Over the last several years, hip-hop and b-boying have become hugely popular in big cities across the country, whether as graffiti, a performance on reality television, or the mainstream music of Raftaar and Baadshah.
One aspect of this culture is explored in the latest documentary by Shabani Hassanwalia and Samreen Farouqui. The 70-minute long Gali features musicians and dancers who take inspiration from their environments and neighbourhoods. Gali is set in Delhi, where the filmmakers grew up. The project began four years ago, when Hassanwalia and Farouqui visited the arts space Khoj in Khirki Extension. Something about its multi-cultural environment had always appealed to the filmmakers, and they wanted to explore it further.
Over the next year, the filmmakers began spending more time in Khirki Extension, meeting different rappers in the area. Initially, the dancers and musicians were hesitant, wondering whether this was another group of people who wanted to exploit their art without understanding its context, which they accuse reality television and advertisements of doing.
“We had to convince them that we were not a television channel, but were doing it for the documentary,” Farouqui said. “But once that was clear, they were very forthcoming.”
The film, which is funded by a grant from the India Foundation for the Arts, began with a group of b-boyers breaking in front of the Select City Walk mall. “It is such an alien art form, and what is it doing in this kind of neighbourhood: that is the first question we asked ourselves,” Hassaniwalia said.
Rather than exploring the back stories of the artists, the filmmakers focus on their feelings and thoughts and their often politically charged lyrics. The film includes unfiltered versions of their performances, long hours of lonely practice and rap battles that stretch into the night.
While Farouqui and Hassaniwalia, who have been making films together for the past decade, did shoot interviews with their protagonists, they did away the conversations during the edit. It was inspired in part as a rebellion against the internet’s “onslaught of information”, they said.
The directors also wanted to move from the narrative filmmaking that they had used in their previous films, including Out of Thin Air, about Ladakhi cinema, and Being Bhaijaan, about a group of obsessive Salman Khan fans from Nagpur.
“A lot of people wanted backstory,” Farouqui said. “Like most documentaries, we shot more than what appears on screen, but we wanted to only to contextualise the artists within their surroundings. They were owning the frame with what they were doing so, why bring in anything else?”
The world of bboying and rappers is often presented in a hyper-stylised fashion, particularly in music videos. The camera trickery and flashy editing are absent from Gali. Rather, the focus is on the pure athleticism of the human body and the aural rhythm of the lyrics.
“We didn’t want a music video aesthetic, that visual of hip hop doesn’t attract us,” Farouqui said. “We wanted to de-glamourise the music and somewhere look at things in its entirety, to keep it real. That’s what is important for the community, as well.”
Some of the reasons for the allure of hip-hop are unusual. Bboying is a route to joining the police force because it focuses on physical well-being for one artist, while others, it offers a ticket to Bollywood, reality television and a recording contract. For yett others, it is an artistic form of expression that they want to keep pure and free from any kind of commercial exploitation.
Like Being Bhaijaan, which explores the fan culture around Salman Khan but also provided a mirror to masculinity in small town India, Gali looks at the role of gender in b-boying. Barring one, all the performers in the film are male. They are angry and their lyrics come from a decidedly male gaze.
“We are drawn to the performance of gender,” Hassaniwalia said. “And in b-boying, which is mostly a male word, gender is ubiquitous, it is omnipresent.”