All kung fu films are the same, complains an important player in Guns & Gulaabs. What actually distinguishes The 36th Chamber of Shaolin from Enter the Dragon is the actor. So it is in Raj & DK’s new show on Netflix, where a dazzling cast blinds you to the disposable story, shallow shenanigans and predictable beats.
Raj & DK have found their metier after switching from movies to web series such as The Family Man and Farzi. The long-form format suits these sultans of slick, allowing them to elevate formulaic storylines through detailed world-building, deadpan humour, wily character sketches and pop culture references.
Guns & Gulaabs, co-written with Suman Kumar, is set in the early 1990s. Naturally, there isn’t a cellphone in sight, except perhaps your own when events drag.
It’s a time of landline telephones, love letters, and cassette tapes. Hindi films songs are being remixed, much to the irritation of Dulquer Salmaan’s government investigator. Petrol costs Rs 10 per litre. The price paid by men who step out of line is higher.
It’s also an era of extravagant coiffure (props to stylist Dhananjay Prajapati). Atmaram (Gulshan Devaiah) has a mullet to rival Chuck Norris. Jugnu (Adarsh Gourav) keeps running his hands through his silken tresses. Tipu (Rajkummar Rao) has a messy crop. Arjun (Salmaan), despite being the father of a teenager, has an enviably stacked scalp.
A drug deal brings these men in each other’s crosshairs. The fictional Gulaabganj town’s main crop is opium. Some of this is legal and is supplied to the government for export. The rest is strictly illegal and is claimed by Jugnu’s father Ganchi (Satish Kaushik).
Ganchi has struck a lucrative deal with drug-runner Sukanto (Rajatbha Dutta). Rival gangster Nadeeb (Nilesh Divekar) is snapping at Ganchi’s heels. Nadeeb has hired Atmaram to target Ganchi’s gang.
Atmaram’s victims include Tipu’s father. A mechanic who detest his father’s profession, Tipu is nevertheless sucked into Ganchi’s orbit.
By the time Arjun arrives in Gulaabganj to investigate opium smuggling, Ganchi is all set to deliver the poppy produce to Sukanto. A trio of schoolboys, one of whom is in love with school teacher Chandralekha (TJ Bhanu), arguably set a match to simmering fire through a misdirected billet doux.
Among the show’s themes is the burden of responsibility placed on its otherwise cool men. Tipu, who is also besotted with Chandralekha, is intimidated by her fluency in English. (This track makes TJ Bhanu the only noteworthy actress in a sea of men.)
Arjun has a dark past that follows him to Gulaabganj. Atmaram, a cross between Boris the Blade from Snatch and Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, has a reputation for being The Man Who Can Never Die.
Jugnu strives to prove himself to Ganchi, especially since he’s considered an extension of the furniture. In one of the best examples of how the show’s creators flesh out boilerplate characters, Jugnu is nearly always soldered to various sofas and chairs before he is forced to stand up for himself.
Every major and minor character has distinguishing marks. Tipu is a pile of mush evenly distributed between sentimentality and swagger. Rajkummar Rao is sensational as the hapless mechanic who simply can’t help himself, whether in love or crime. Rao’s comic timing is especially on point when Tipu is at his sincerest best, singing I’ve Been Waiting for a Girl Like You off-key or trying to be a fearsome avenger.
Salmaan’s Arjun is tantalisingly ambiguous, playing a dangerous game that involves an ex (Shreya Dhanwanthary) and an old adversary (Varun Badola). Gulshan Devaiah demands a spin-off episode on the legend of Atmaram, as deadly as he is superstitious. Among the secondary characters, Vipin Sharma stands out as Ganchi’s manager.
With so many wonderful actors acing well-written scenes, it’s easy to share in their evident enjoyment. Whenever Guns & Gulaabs sags from trying to move between so many characters and increasingly enervating plot turns, the creators provide distraction through a hilarious moment here and a deftly choreographed gunfight there.
Stylishly shot by Pankaj Kumar, the seven-episode series makes the most of its quirky set-up. The criminal class is too affable to be loathsome, best captured in Atmaram’s conversations with Nadeeb. Most of these take place over a near-forgotten artefact: the phone equipped with a subscriber trunk dialling service, which measured every second of the call.
Guns & Gulaabs slows down for moments like these. Fortunately, there are enough of them to overcome the feeling of being in extremely well-trodden territory.