It is obvious from a title like Guns & Gulaabs that people will die. This Netflix series, unsurprisingly, does not skimp on the bodycount. I was however unprepared by how much I winced every single time some character was bumped off, because this show made me care for every thug, mechanic or small-time blackmailer. Made up of familiar and unfamiliar faces, this may be one of the best ensembles I’ve seen, where even a passing character gets some meat on the bone. I didn’t want any of them to die because I desperately wanted more of each one.
When streaming services came to India, the bar was set by the first seasons of Sacred Games (Netflix) and later Made In Heaven (Amazon Prime). Now creators Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK—after Amazon hits The Family Man and Farzi—have blown up the benchmark. Guns & Gulaabs is a highly flavourful and instantly iconic show, memorable to the hilt while being superbly, but also nonchalantly, well crafted. Here’s a series that wears its collar up.
Set in the 1990s—when the Aashiqui soundtrack competed with Bryan Adams for our tape decks—this is the story of a few bad eggs in the dusty town of Gulaabgunj. Tipu is a mechanic who doesn’t care about avenging his dead father but is constantly reminded that he should. Ganchi Jr is the son of an opium kingpin who wants to prove himself as a gangleader and outgrow that ‘junior’ tag. Arjun is a policeman who dislikes remixed audiotapes as much as he does bribes, but has painted himself into a sticky corner. And then there’s ‘4-Cut’ Atmaram, a locally mythologised assassin who gives his victims absolution while borrowing swagger—and mullet—from Sanjay Dutt.
If that sounds like a lot, let me assure you that… it is. Each character has their own mess to clean, and Guns & Gulaabs refuses to pick favourites. Only in the penultimate episode did I see the coalescing of two characters’ motives, finally suggesting which of these conflicted fools to root for. And that’s not counting lovesick schoolchildren, teachers impressed by murderers, Bengali ganglords tired of having meetings inside old ruins, sidekicks encouraging romantic overtures, and street-side magicians who know when not to negotiate. Lurid and delightful stories abound. This show is not a paperback, it’s a second-hand lending library.
It is also bloody spectacular. Ace cinematographer Pankaj Kumar fills G&G with gorgeous wide-shots featuring characters in conversation far from the camera, and lovely transitions—like a wipe that takes us from the back of a white sedan to a mechanic looking in the mirror. Production designer Parichit A Paralkar crafts a convincing 1990s world, and the show flaunts a comic-book heart: in a shot from the point of view of a patient in a hospital bed, a surrounding crowd looks down at the bed while a shorter man in the background hops up every few seconds, hoping for a glimpse.
The writing (by Raj, DK and Suman Kumar, with solid Hindi dialogues by Sumit Arora) is sharp and whimsical. There is a lot of plot—with policemen, opium deals, many a standoff—and the tone is defined by the visual wit. A mechanic outruns the bike he chases, and guns assembled by hand explode in reckless hands. Episode 7 features an impeccably timed shot involving men entering a compound and men leaving a compound, seemingly at different times, but the camera swivels so slowly and surely from past to present that it feels like time travel. Marvellous.
The soundtrack is delicious. Composer Aman Pant creates a theme reminiscent of spaghetti westerns and the Sholay theme, heightening the chaos. Pant’s score is well matched with the retro mixtape selection, featuring oddball songs like SP Balasubrahmanyam’s Aaja Aaja Give Me A Kiss.
The actors are superlative, right from the schoolboys: Tanishq Chaudhary’s teacher-adoring Gangaram is all heart and all flake, while Krish plays young scholar Lalkrishna with disarming sincerity. We open with them before moving on to the real maniacs.
Rajkummar Rao plays Tipu, son of a killer who finds notoriety as a spanner-wielding murderer, all while trying to learn English and keep up with a schoolteacher who dreams of bigger things. Naive but visibly growing into his own accidentally created aura, this is some of Rao’s finest work. Adarsh Gaurav is frighteningly good as Ganchi Jr, a young man with a feline walk and an improbably menacing air. He can lick a biscuit, or ask about jewellery, and make it feel sinister. Compelling protagonists with intense daddy issues. Sweet child o’swine.
Dulquer Salmaan, on the other hand, plays compromised cop Arjun with the straightest bat. The character and his arc are super conventional, like a young Jackie Shroff from a 90s movie, complete with overwritten dialogues emphasising the obvious. “All problems have one solution,” Arjun says, “Money. Everyone has a price.” Dulquer is a solid hero, but is this angle too old-school? Then again, is the choice to make this track so damn accessible and foolproof what expands G&G’s reach?
Gulshan Devaiah’s Atmaram is a killer who, legend says, has many lives. He thoughtfully buys talismans but, as he claims to hangers-on, they aren’t for warding away enemies but for style. This is a wildly outsized and unreal character, and the chameleonic Devaiah—fast turning into our own Steve Buscemi—makes the outrageous feel credible. Here’s a character who deserves a spinoff.
TJ Bhanu is instantly memorable as the hard-to-impress schoolteacher, Rajatava Dutta is most amusing as a Bengali gangster disdainful of the Gulaabganj ways, Shreya Dhanwanthary plays a mystery woman and keeps us guessing, while Goutam Sharma is awesome as Suneel, Tipu’s friend, pushing him toward romance but also taking ownership of it: “Woh humse pyaar toh karti hai,” he assures, making himself part of the picture.
Finally, Satish Kaushik. As Ganchi the drug lord, he is both rough and rollicking. The late actor is in form, and this is a fine swansong. It feels appropriate for a show fixated with plotting to do right by a calendar. He throws his weight around, is frequently exasperated, and—when asked to change his mind—rubs his hand elegantly, in almost musical fashion, across his bald head. He says the pot has been fired in the kiln too long, he’s been well cooked. He has an appetite for destruction.
The BBC is finally here. You can now subscribe to the BBC Player (through Amazon Prime) for a selection of documentaries, dramas and, perhaps best of all, old and new BBC comedies including Blackadder, Extras, Allo Allo and the British comedy Indians can never stop quoting, Yes Minister.