‘Guns and Gulaabs’: nostalgia and opium meet to create a heady show

I wonder what nostalgia will mean for Generation Alpha. Will it be a fond chuckle of how their favorite movie or TV show buffered while streaming a critical scene? Or how some rando photobombed their lit party pics? Are these even things that they’ll do or care about? Or will nostalgia be another folder in the cloud, accessible via a monthly plan, no longer a sepia-tinged sigh of wistfulness? How would they relate to a show like Guns and Gulaabs (Guns and Roses) dunked in 90s references, all physically haptic?

The show has cassettes that get stuck in the player just when a vital song segment comes up. A struggle to understand the lyrics of English songs (damn those accents!) means rewinding repeatedly until the listener comes as close as possible to the original word intent. A race to hang up calls in STD booths before the minute ends, so there’s no charge. A desperate metric of ‘FLAMES’ to calculate if that girl is meant to be. Playing book cricket that’s as tense as today’s IPL last over. The world of jhankaar beats that overlay the original tracks with thumping octapads smashed with the vigor of a banzai charge. And men with atrocious hairstyles. 

Based in the fictional town of Gulaabgunj, where the gulaab (rose) is actually the opium flower, one of these men is mechanic Tipu (Rajkummar Rao), whose sole ambition is to own a repair shop so he can marry the girl of his dreams, schoolteacher Chandralekha (T.J. Bhanu). There’s just a minor impediment of what she wants. But sincerity is the best blinder to one’s shortcomings—that, and friends who goad you on. Here, it’s Suneel (a superb Goutam Sharma) who may or may not be in love with Lekha himself. But there’s a schoolboy who’s crushed by his feelings for Lekha as well. Tanishq Chaudhary plays the feckless backbencher Gangu with an endearing energy that’s at once roguish and helpless, a clash of hormones and financial fetters that hover over his character like a misguiding light. Is it boys like Gangu that grow up to be Tipu in Gulaabgunj? Unwittingly stuck between Gangu and Tipu is English love-letter scribe Lalkrishna “Nannu” (a delightful Krish Rao), whose heart—and class monitor status—are usurped by newcomer Jyotsna “Jo” Varma (Suhani Sethi is absolutely tops). 

Rajkummar Rao: if looks could chill.

Jo’s not the only newcomer in Gulaabgunj. There’s narcotics officer Arjun Varma (Dulquer Salmaan)—a man with good hair, just for the record—who detests criminals and jhankaar beats in no particular order. As he heads toward his new posting office, he plays the Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai cassette that spurs the Rahul Dev Burman ode to trains and love, Hoga Tumse Pyaara, where the hook line is the mountainous choral “O Kanchi.” There’s mischievous writing afoot here, for Arjun will soon head into the world of local druglord, whose name is a homophone for that musical refrain: Ganchi (Satish Kaushik). That writing is courtesy of directors Raj NidimoruD.K. Krishna (Raj-DK), and Suman Kumar, who have a rollicking time pulling out those nostalgic references and making them part of the plot, character quirks and arcs. But there are even more characters than you think a small town can hold. 

Ganchi’s son Jugnu, who wants to create his own spotlight out of his father’s imposing and disdainful shadow; played by Adarsh Gourav with a simmering air of uncertainty, those eyes thoughtful and pained, seeking acquiescence and approbation, both slipping out of his sight with the velocity of reputational dust. That’s thanks to a deal gone awry with Calcutta-based Sukanto (the terrific Rajatava Dutta) and the resurgence of rival gang headed by Nabeed (Nilesh Divekar). But with a dollop of unwanted assistance from a manic assassin hired by Nabeed—Chaar (Four) Cut Atmaram (Gulshan Devaiah)—Tipu (remember him? Our mechanic with love as his ambition and mission) gets dragged into the burgeoning gang war. Atmaram’s character is the stuff of rural legends, who wears his amulets lightly but takes them seriously: he’s also the other chap with the 90s hair, inspired by Sanjay Dutt’s mullet style, walking with the same half-neanderthal lope. Devaiah’s act is a highlight, mixing a goofy laugh with a menace that’s braced by a four-cut blade graceful action. And his move to the Aaja Aaja, Give Me a Kiss number is tongue firmly in cheek, feet planted rigorously to the floor. Also, another top act is Vipin Sharma, who, as Ganchi’s right hand, Mahendra, is a poker-faced riot. As is Manuj Sharma, playing Bunty, Ganchi’s gang member and Tipu’s new-found friend.

Adarsh Gourav: papa is no peach.

With sharp writing that has it in cross-hairs subtle detailing—Arjun’s cassette plays songs from Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai and Yeh Vaada Raha— both soundtracks by Rahul Dev Burman and released by Music India Limited and a popular combo cassette in that period—and character development so powerful, you feel for each Gulaabganj citizen. Dulquer Salmaan plays Arjun with panache, and the story unravels his clean act into desperation no thanks to a past (Varun Badola and Shreya Dhanwanthary in important cameos) that now demands tough choices. In that sense, Arjun slowly dwarfs from a position of heroism to one of practical survival. The two are incompatible; the show makers and writers know this tension well and use a marital weight (Pooja Gor plays Arjun’s wife, Madhu) to up the threat. Using licit opium farming (they’re allowed in some Indian states) as a background for the goings-on is a terrific touch of real-life scenarios melded with illicit (or is it?) fiction. 

Dulquer Salmaan: headlining trouble.

Raj-D.K. and cinematographer Pankaj Kumar use wide-angle cinemascope shots to stunning effect. It almost feels like we’re in Sergio Leone’s dusty, godforsaken, yet hypnotic Once Upon a Time in the West Country. In that sense, even the pace of this show is more thought, less action. There’s a certain human stillness even amidst the chaos, and that’s because the writing elevates each central character to their separate podium, making them part of your living room. Despite its nifty title, the series takes its time to settle you in the opium-driven countryside, letting you soak in the patriarchal overtures, the irony of the gold-producing farmers who’re left with little but the smell of fertilizer and fear, the Stranger Things (another nostalgic doff to a nostalgic doff) and Hardy Boys-like sense of liberating adventure. 

Manuj Sharma, Satish Kaushik, Rajatava Dutta: AM or PM, only opium.

With composer Aman Pant using the 70s brass style, a sudden swig of symphonic sounds, and Rahul Dev Burman’s trademark panting breath to pep up the action, Guns and Gulaabs is a ton of fun and tension. The only weak point? When, in the last episode, in a breathless ride, Arjun’s assistant, Ramprasad (Sachin Kathuria), offhandedly mentions the fate of one of the gangsters to Arjun: knowing how deeply invested the officer is in this mess, that comes off like a cop-out, especially when Arjun responds with an “Accha?” (“Is it?”)

But for the rest, the show’s a winner buoyed by Rajkummar Rao’s nuanced performance as an unwilling and unwitting assassin, and the actor delivers Sumit Arora’s ripping dialogues with breathless timing—look for a crackling “jo” dialogue between Tipu and Arjun. And Satish Kaushik, in his swan song, is outstanding. I’d written in my Thar review the actor could play the role of a bumbling aide with his eyes closed. Here, he finally gets to chew on a meaty, nuanced role. He’s at ease here, knowing he owns the space as Ganchi and as himself. He’s measured, giving each actor their marker and then reclaiming his own with a relaxed, upbraiding punch line. His name appears on a calendar in the smartly thought-out end credits. If that doesn’t evoke a painful tinge of nostalgia, you might as well sign up for that cloud plan to store your memories.

Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers. Guns and Gulaabs is streaming on Netflix and rated A (For adults only)

Guns and Gulaabs
Directors Raj NidimoruD.K. Krishna Time~ 50min
Writers Suman Kumar, Raj NidimoruD.K. Krishna
Stars Rajkummar Rao, Dulquer Salmaan, Satish Kaushik, Adarsh Gourav, T.J. Bhanu, Gulshan Devaiah