Even some of the best shows with multiple narratives manage to get too convoluted in their own vision but Raj and DK’s latest Guns & Gulaabs’ strength is its sure-footedness. The show opens by introducing all of its parallel plots. Swimming through an opium field, the audience is taken to a group of schoolboys arguing about whose love is more saccha (true).
Moments later, a man is seen running across the screen with others in hot pursuit. This is the world of Guns & Gulaabs.
Set in the fictional town of Gulaabgunj with the neighbouring, rival town of Sherpur mentioned frequently, the show primarily features two gangs battling over an illegal opium business. One is led by Ganchi Sr. played with ease by the late Satish Kaushik and the other is run by Nabeed (Nilesh Divekar). The Ganchi family’s scion Ganchi Jr aka Jugnu (Adarsh Gourav) struggles to make his own mark in his father’s business.
There are other players in the game. There’s the soft-spoken mechanic Tipu (Rajkummar Rao) who wants to take a path in life that is as far from his father’s as possible. He spends most of the first few episodes trying to express his feelings for the local school’s English teacher Chandralekha (TJ Bhanu). A new Narcotics agent Arjun (Dulquer Salmaan) also enters this little world with his seemingly picture perfect family.
In this world rife with violence, the most intriguing character (even for those within the story) is that of ‘Chaar Cut’ Aatmaram (Gulshan Devaiah) who kills his victims with four strategically placed slashes of his knife.
Raj & DK take these delightfully asymmetrical characters and place them in different points of this ecosystem with each character’s motivations glaringly obvious from the very beginning. And so begins a game of cat-and-mouse and secrets and jealousy and changing plans that keeps you on your toes, constantly guessing.
The retro Bollywood nostalgia seeps through the screen because of writers Raj & DK and Suman Kumar, DOP Pankaj Kumar, and Creative Consultant Shhyamali De. This setting also allows for the writers to take liberty with their storytelling.
The visuals of cars screeching to a halt and gangsters pouring out or characters catching others in secluded sites doesn’t feel out of place in this world that’s set in the past.
A radio croons a love song and Aatmaram takes the 60 second count of a PCO seriously (in a particularly enjoyable ‘bit’). It’s in these little details that the clever Raj & DK touch is evident.
Running parallel to this story is that of the aforementioned school students. Through the lives of a couple of kids, Raj & DK explore the ways in which kids’ school lives are affected by their family and vice versa. We get an insight into how male and female students are expected to behave and how failure to conform to these expectations can often result in damaging consequences.
Tanishq Chaudhary as a teenager Gangaram aka Gangu, the class troublemaker, proves he’s an actor to watch out for. Amongst the kids, he gets the most nuanced backstory and he carries that weight with aplomb.
Gangu’s character is used by the makers to delve into the way educational institutions paint students under archetypes and rarely attempt to address issues surrounding support and mental health.
While gang violence and an opium trade runs rampant in the towns, these coming-of-age scenes add a charm to the show.
When it comes to the cast, Rajkummar Rao as Tipu uses his brilliant comedic timing to add a spark to his character. He comes off as a man who is confident in his abilities but still questions his successes.
When he bursts into tears after convincing everyone he doesn’t care about something, it’s funny. His obsession with avenging his friend by conveniently forgetting that he must also avenge his father becomes an interesting running gag.
It helps that his frequent scene partner TJ Bhanu plays her character with restraint and powerful intent, making Lekha and Tipu a fascinating pair to watch.
Every character, even the ones on the sides, have something to do. If there is a person on screen, there’s a good chance they’ll become, albeit minor, parts of the scene; this adds an authenticity to the show. Another plus point is that there is no actual protagonist. There is no character plot that gets sacrificed for the service of another. The moral ambiguity of the characters almost feels like it’s part of the setting.
The show does however suffer from a danger of fatigue and pacing. The pacing of the first few episodes is inconsistent (though I would recommend staying with the show) and that affects the viewing experience. These pacing issues occur later in the screenplay as well.
The last episode (or the last two chapters) feel slightly convoluted because of the number of narrative threads that need to be resolved. The shifting timelines is a smart cinematic move but eventually gets a little tiresome. Some narrative arcs also seem too convenient, perhaps because they don’t serve any major role in the final climax.
Guns & Gulaabs is powered by an excellent cast, each person matching steps with the other. This skill sucks the audience into their world. The best performance comes from Adarsh Gourav, who adds subtleties to his character that later become obvious, but striking, discoveries. He steals every scene he is in; his idiosyncrasies become almost endearing.
Arguably, the way his character is written lacks nuance that is difficult to discuss without a spoiler. All I will say is that there are certain scenes that would’ve benefited from a deeper understanding of the material and a kinder touch.
Guns & Gulaabs is streaming on Netflix.