With the release of the second seasons of ‘Heartstopper’ and ‘Made in Heaven’, and the bubbly gay romantic film ‘Red, White and Royal Blue’ in August, the OTT platforms have been flooded with queer content for eager audiences. While all of them have their own way of justifying the queer presence in their respective shows, it somehow contributes to the discourse of queerness spreading among the masses. Although the three above mentioned are exclusive to an English-speaking audience, the new release ‘Guns and Gulaabs’, directed by Raj & DK, could certainly have an impact in spreading the queer conversation to a wider Indian audience. Therefore, the time is ripe to talk about the location of queerness in Guns and Gulaabs.
Filled with crime and a thrilling plot, ‘Guns and Gulabs’ takes the audience on a journey to the lively and intricate world of the 1990s. In this world, landline connections, letters, tape recordings, campa cola, and more weave their way into the narrative. This crime drama offers comic relief amidst its suspenseful moments and portrays the genuine emotions of the so-called gangsters. Through this portrayal, the audience closely observes their feelings and fears. The series subtly hints at the directors’ efforts to depict the dilemma of male characters between the facade of gun-toting masculinity and their true selves. Unlike typical crime dramas, the show avoids excessive violence and adds humour to the plot. It features an ensemble cast without a single protagonist, intentionally avoiding clear lines for the audience to judge characters based on morality. Subsequently, as the show progresses, the boundary between heroes and villains becomes increasingly blurred.
The show’s narrative is a unique bend of traditional masculine energy challenging the standard notion of a crime drama. It introduces a motor mechanic who becomes emotional when his friend is killed before his eyes, pushing him to seek revenge by joining the gang. A kidnapper who, despite his villainous appearance, employs a quintessential Bollywood threat “agar tumhari beti ko zinda dekhna chahte ho…” in a low voice, ensuring no one overhears. A policeman, initially portrayed as an ideal government servant, becomes involved in the illicit opium business due to his discreet personal affairs. And the son of the gangster, with his soft masculine traits, prompts the audience to ponder for a while and spot him as the weak link in the narrative.
From the onset of the narrative, the character of the son of the gangster, Jugnu (played by Adarsh Gourav), has been portrayed as different from the crowd of violent masculine energies. He is taunted by his father (played by Satish Kaushik) when he refuses to have more alcohol that is offered to him. This prompts his father to question his masculinity, asking what he is doing if he can’t even finish a bottle of whiskey at his age. The notion of associating masculinity with the ability to drink alcohol is indeed an Indian phenomenon. In contrast, women caught with alcohol are often ridiculed. In the movie ‘Pathaan’(2023), Deepika’s character, Rubina, is mocked by Khan’s character, Pathaan, when she downs a glass of whiskey in one go. Similarly, in this show, the character Jugnu is depicted as struggling with activities such as drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes, which are traditionally considered masculine traits.
The character has been developed in such a way that the audience begins to question his place within a family where violence is a way to display power. Jugnu diverges from this path by actively avoiding such confrontations. In one instance, at the Dhaba, when conflict arises between the goons of Gulabganj and Sherpur, Jugnu leaves the conflict area, goes downstairs, and discreetly fills the enemy’s fuel-tank with gold spot soft drink—a method of causing harm stereotypically resembles the women’s way of revenge.
Simultaneously, Jugnu has been shown sharing a close bond with his friend Nirmal (played by Sanchay Goswami). When Nirmal brings the wedding card of his marriage, Jugnu advises him against marrying. This prompts the audience to ponder whether Jugnu’s apprehension comes from his desire to preserve their friendship or there is something else. After Nirmal’s marriage, Jugnu visits Nirmal’s house. At one point, an encounter gives the impression of Jugnu sexually harassing Nirmal’s wife, a clichéd element often used by Bollywood villains. However, as the narrative unfolds, Jugnu’s persistent pleas for Nirmal to stay with him reveal a different motive; he was, in fact, threatening Nirmal’s wife for being married to his friend.
The character’s journey, though unclear and filled with uncertainty as he navigates his relationship with his father, effectively explores the idea of his queerness throughout the narrative. The distinctive costumes assigned to this character set him apart from the rest of the cast. The way Jugnu walks, his vulnerability when he’s with Nirmal, and his fondness for colourful cars and their maintenance—despite not being shown driving them—appear to covertly but stereotypically suggest queerness, but reducing its representation to an oddity and not something normal or everyday average.
Similarly, the way the character’s story concludes requires analysis. While the character’s portrayal effectively incorporates the ambiguity of queer possibility and soft masculinity within a mainstream crime series, the final scene involving the character raises questions about the narrative’s direction. The need for the character to appear before his father in a salwar kameez and assert a new identity as ‘she’ seems abrupt. This abruptness appears to stem from the directors’ anxious desire to present an explicit image of a queer character (transgender character) in tune with ‘woke’ culture.
The directors could have realised that introducing a queer character merely for the sake of representation and expecting wholehearted acceptance is not attainable. The narrative should allow the character ample time to introspect and embrace their identity. The last scene feels unnecessary, leaving the audience to ponder the character’s motivation for coming out as a transgender woman, especially as the preceding narrative does not offer any substantial hints in that direction. The directors need to recognize that characteristics such as soft masculinity, emotional expression, close male friendships, and a preference for colourful clothing do not inherently indicate transgender identity. The concluding scene of the show reveals the filmmakers’ unease and anxiety in portraying queerness. This discomfort led to labelling and even mocking transgender identity for the sake of humour.
The show is likely to have mass appeal, and though it could have been a decent portrayal of queerness, it failed. And I am concerned that, like many other Indian shows, it might present an inaccurate representation of queer identity to the viewers. Therefore, it’s essential to engage in further discussions about these characters to develop a portrayal that is more responsible and reliable.