Guns & Gulaabs Review: A Mixed Bag of Bollywood Nostalgia, Thrills and Black Comedy

The series, starring Rajkummar Rao, Dulquer Salmaan and Gulshan Devaiah, is available on Netflix.
Guns & Gulaabs Review: A Mixed Bag of Bollywood Nostalgia, Thrills and Black Comedy
Guns & Gulaabs Review: A Mixed Bag of Bollywood Nostalgia, Thrills and Black Comedy

Directors: Raj Nidimoru, Krishna D.K.

Writers: Sumar Kumar, Raj & DK, Sumit Arora

Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Dulquer Salmaan, Adarsh Gourav, Gulshan Devaiah, Krish Rao, Tanishq Chaudhary, Suhani Sethi, T.J. Bhanu, Vipin Sharma, Pooja Gor

Streaming On: Netflix

Guns & Gulaabs is director-duo Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K.'s fourth long-form outing in four years, after Farzi and two seasons of The Family Man. In other words, the Indian streaming space is Raj & DK’s black-comedy-crime-thriller world and we just live in it. The seven-episode series is replete with Raj & DK-isms: Finding humour in the exasperations of everyday life, the poetry of Hindi profanity, a mega plot filled with idiosyncratic characters, satire parading as realism, old-school conflicts disguised as modern crises, dysfunctional cops, a terrific pan-Indian cast. The performances are at once spoofy and self-serious. The action doesn’t flaunt the choreography and cinematography. The film-making is skillful in a very matter-of-fact manner. 

There’s also the wry nod to the fact that characters should not exist in isolation of their setting. Scenes aren’t limited to their narrative identity; random bystanders and ‘unscripted’ reactions keep popping up as visual punchlines. An impatient carpenter interrupts a drug lord’s monologue. A kid witnesses a murder and lights the dying man a cigarette, only for every puff to make the smoke stream out of his torn neck. A lovelorn mechanic is rejected on the road only to be spotted by the client whose motorbike he’s using; the client goes from angry to desperate when the mechanic walks away in a huff. The camera follows the sound of wailing at a funeral, only to reveal that it’s actually a long yawn. In that sense, Guns & Gulaabs is just as alive and self-aware as the creators’ previous titles – it locates chaos in mundanity, and every moment plays out like something that happens between bigger cinematic moments. But is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? On paper, the answer is yes. On screen, however, it’s a mixed bag. 

Nostalgia Trip to Gulaabganj

Guns & Gulaabs unfolds in a fictional town called Gulaabganj. Everyone in it wants to be the star of their own story. A modest mechanic named Tipu (Rajkummar Rao) believes he is nothing like his late gangster dad, but struggles to escape his shadow. Jugnu (Adarsh Gourav), on the other hand, tries to impose his identity as the heir to his father Ganchi’s (Satish Kaushik) opium empire. The new Narcotics agent in town, Arjun (Dulquer Salmaan), arrives to disrupt the ecosystem. A fabled hitman, “Chaar Cut” Aatmaram (Gulshan Devaiah), stylishly slashes his victims to gruesome deaths. A teen-aged Gangu (an excellent Tanishq Chaudhary) is obsessed with his English teacher Chanda (T.J. Bhanu), a woman who is also the object of Tipu’s unlettered affections. Gangu is jealous of the ‘rich’ newcomer, Jyotsna (Suhani Sethi), a topper who steals the heart of his best friend Lalkrishna (Krish Rao).

The series opens with a rival ruining Ganchi’s largest deal, setting off a chain reaction where disparate characters hustle to seize the deal. Nobody comes out unscathed. The kids eventually get sucked into the mess (like in The Family Man), but I like that they also feel like childhood flashbacks of the adults. Juxtaposing their innocence against the grown-up lawlessness around them is a nice idea, because we’re watching them as well as the dangers of who they might become if not for this story. 

Dulquer Salmaan in Guns & Gulaabs
Dulquer Salmaan in Guns & Gulaabs

The definitive element of Guns & Gulaabs is its relationship with nostalgia. The series – like many contemporary Hindi productions – is set in the early 1990s. As a result, retro pop culture looms large over the crowded narrative. Some of it is physical, a bit like TVF shows. For instance, the quaint end credits appear over different ‘artifacts’ from the era (old television screens, a stereo, faded walls), the best of them being the late Satish Kaushik’s name printed on a paper calendar, an ode to his Mr. India (1987) character.

The title of the series is a nod to the iconic rock band, Guns N’ Roses. The 82-minute finale is divided into two halves, complete with an intermission slate. Every episode is named after an old song or film quote. Infatuated students are seen playing FLAMES in their notebooks. A debutant called Sachin Tendulkar is mentioned. A Kapil Dev hat-trick is called on the radio. Campa Cola and Gold Spot bottles have cameos. A late-night screening of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) plays a role in a tragedy; a character claims to have watched it twice, but when told that it was another Asian actioner, he insists that all kung-fu movies look the same. 

Bollywood is in the Details

But a lot of the pop culture – as in a Sriram Raghavan film – is internalized by the setting. For one, the absence of technology allows the plot to be far more flexible and busy. Letters matter, meetings become crucial, cars reach their destinations with a screech, and impulses take over. Phone booths (and their pay-per-minute quirks) become a motif in how people communicate – or don’t – with each other; Aatmaram, in particular, enjoys the timer when he speaks to his entitled employers. You also sense that the people of Gulaabgunj are shaped by the cinema and music of the era. They know no better. Arjun chucks away an audio cassette the second he notices that it’s a ‘Jhankaar beats’ (remixed) version; at one point, he parks his car but doesn’t exit till he finishes listening to his favourite part of a song. 

The long-haired and chain-smoking Aatmaram brings to mind Sanjay Dutt’s Khal Nayak (1993) character; he has a signature move as well, almost like he’s a WWF (World Wrestling Federation) fan in the contract-killing field. 

Even the smaller details convey this impact. A dhaba is split down the middle (including the cash counter) for two sets of customers – one side of the ‘border’ is for Gulaabganj thugs, the other is for Tejpur’s baddies. Lalkrishna is hired by his classmates to write love letters in English; he simply plagiarizes the lyrics of Western pop songs (including a Bryan Adams track that triggers the show’s best scene). A Bengali mob boss is bemused by the fact that the town’s drug dealers keep holding their secret meetings at an abandoned warehouse. A kidnapper uses a staple Bollywood threat (“agar tumhari beti ko zinda dekhna chahte ho…”) in a low voice so that nobody overhears him. 

Rajkummar Rao in Guns & Gulaabs
Rajkummar Rao in Guns & Gulaabs

Fiction Collides with Fictional Life

What distinguishes Guns & Gulaabs from other nostalgia dashes is its ability to poke holes in the genre. It’s like watching the real world defy the neat binaries of art. Every vintage trope is humanized a little, as if fiction were constantly colliding with life. For example, a stranger memorizes the final words of a dying man, but forgets those words by the time he speaks to the person they were meant for. There is also no single protagonist, which evokes a moral ambiguity that merges heroes with villains and primary characters with secondary ones.

Then there are the men, who are torn between notions of movie masculinity and their actual selves. Jugnu is hell-bent on making a statement as the new boss, with actor Adarsh Gourav doing a fine job of channeling Succession’s Kendall Roy. Yet, Jugnu’s menace is not only performative, it also has a queer edge; at one point it looks like he’s sexually harassing a woman – like most sleazy villains do – but he’s actually threatening her for being married to his friend. A running joke involves Tipu’s desire to avenge the murder of his best friend, only for others to remind him – like subconscious fans of masala cinema – that he must avenge the murder of his father too. After all, what is a future Don without a “baap ka badla” arc? 

It’s also hinted that the hero’s best friend might have fancied the same girl as the hero, a funny way of acknowledging the agency of a sidekick who sees everything through the protagonist’s eyes. Tipu is averse to a career of crime, but in a classic subversion of the hero-heroine template, he embraces his calling when he realizes that his violent streak turns on the woman he loves. She gets interested in him the moment she learns that he might have killed two people. Most retro heroes clean up their act due to love, but Tipu does the opposite – a twist that Rajkummar Rao aces with his superb grasp of tragicomedy.

Arjun, like every honest-cop stereotype of his time, is introduced as the perfect family man. But we soon notice cracks in his image as well as how far he is willing to go to protect that image. The series opens with two macho schoolboys trying to prove their love by carving the girls’ names into their palms. In the end, it’s the third schoolboy – a geek – who frames love as something more than the stalkery one-sided emotion sold by the movies. A kid like Gangu, too, is inspired by the class rage of underdog stories; his hostility towards Jyotsna is rooted in her English-speaking and jean-wearing ways. There are also sub-plots about nepotism and outsiders, which suggests that even tabloids have found their way to the bookstores of Gulaabganj.  

Adarsh Gourav in Guns & Gulaabs
Adarsh Gourav in Guns & Gulaabs

An Uneven Ending

That’s not to say Guns & Gulaabs masters this tone. It’s a tough sell, especially in the last few episodes, when the writing goes too far to dismantle the tropes. Many scenes bristle with narrative tension – like Aatmaram punishing a rude shopkeeper or manifesting the essence of his name; and Jugnu ‘chatting’ with his rival – only to fizzle out in conventional ways. Some conflicts and character traits are resolved too easily in pursuit of alt-entertainment. A cop gets swayed by a criminal’s love story and sets him free. A kid hurtling towards the dark side is redeemed in one emotional moment.

The climax is quite a slog, stranded somewhere between levity and gravity – you can’t tell if it’s aiming for Andaz Apna Apna (1994) or The Departed (2006). You can see what it’s going for – sending up the visual subterfuge of heist stories that trick viewers with flashy editing – but not all of it hits the mark. The urge to play with timelines and curate the chaos of a shootout is cute, but not in line with the cultural identity of the series. The series commits itself to making confusion look cool rather than avoiding confusion altogether. The integrity of an ending hijacks the irreverence of the treatment. Consequently, the whole is reduced to the sum of its parts. 

Given the context, it’s safe to say that Guns & Gulaabs is Raj & DK’s fourth best show yet. Which isn’t the same as stating that it’s the worst or weakest of the lot. The bar is so high that it’s often about how good their new show is, not whether it’s good at all. There’s no failing, just different degrees of success. Speaking a novel language of nostalgia today is no mean feat, even if the expression doesn’t always match the intent. Projecting the clashing influences of art onto a land in the throes of liberalization – where Western pop culture is aspirational and Indian pop culture is inspirational – is no small deal. But the bottom line is that Nineties’ fatigue is real. That decade has been milked dry. It’s reached a stage where I’ve mentally recalibrated the moment in The Truman Show (1998) in which a teacher dissuades little Truman from a career in exploration because “there’s nothing left to discover”. So unless this series harks further back to the Seventies in a pig farm under the title Gulaabi Floyd, it’s hard to look past a third season of The Family Man or a second of Farzi as the next Raj & DK binge-watch.  

Watch Guns & Gulaabs - Official Trailer

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