According to Manuj, Rajkummar and him had a lot of freedom to improvise on the characters they play in the new Raj & DK gangster series
Manuj Sharma and Rajkummar Rao
Best known for his performance in movies like Vikram Vedha, Phone Bhoot and Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari, Manuj Sharma is currently in the news for his quirky camaraderie with Rajkummar Rao in Raj & DK’s new black comedy crime thriller Guns & Gulaabs, streaming on Netflix. The seven-episode show also features Dulquer Salmaan and Gulshan Devaiah in key roles.
In a freewheeling conversation with OTTplay, Manuj opens up about playing contrasting characters in his recent projects (from a constable to a gangster), his take on AI, why he thinks it’s useless to drag shows on OTT, and more. Excerpts:
Q. How did Guns & Gulaabs happen to you?
A. Raj & DK have created a very interesting world. Not because I am acting in it, but I have not seen a series like this on Indian screens yet. They have recreated the 90s world with a very refreshing approach and treatment, and an incredible star cast.
For me, it all began when I was shooting for Vikram Vedha. I got a call from Gulshan, saying that Raj & DK are making a new show that there’s an interesting role, if I would like to audition for. Obviously, I jumped at the opportunity. I have always been a fan of their films - be 99, Shor in the City or Go Goa Gone. It was Covid time, so I recorded the screen test and sent it to them. Then, I got shortlisted and there was a meeting with the makers. Eventually, I landed the role.
The only problem was that the schedule was clashing a bit with that of Pushkar-Gayathri’s Vikram Vedha, and both the projects were important for me. In Vikram Vedha, I was playing the role of a naive cop (Constable Dubey), while Guns & Gulaabs constitutes a quirky and humorous gangster world. In fact, shooting for the series was completed before that of the Hrithik Roshan and Saif Ali Khan starrer. We did it in one go in Dehradun, in a span of three months.
Experience-wise, the Vikram Vedha set and sequences were more or less pre-determined, while there was a lot of scope for improvisation in Guns & Gulaabs. There was a lot more freedom on the set here.
Q. You have quite a few scenes with Rajkummar Rao in the show. How was it working with him?
A. Working with Rajkummar Rao was a memorable experience, more so because we come from the same theatre group, and he has always been a huge inspiration for me. In fact, I have not met a better co-actor than him in my career so far. And I am not saying that just because he was my senior in the theatre group or that we have worked together in this new series. He’s an actor who is never insecure about anything. We both have discussed our scenes at length and have also improvised on them together. It kind of gave me the theatre-wala feel, where the final outcome is always a combined effort. You don’t just work on what is assigned to you. You work together to make it better. I feel, as an actor, that’s a great opportunity to have the liberty to improvise on things, a co-actor to help you through it and the right platform for it to all work out.
Q. Tell us about your character. Any anecdotes from the set that you would like to share?
A. I play a gangster named Bunty, who’s part of Ganchi’s (played by the late Satish Kaushik) group. But he eventually starts working with Panna Tipu (Rajkummar), and an interesting camaraderie is created between the two characters as they support each other in the narrative. In one of the scenes, which was originally planned for no longer than two minutes, went on for up to 10 minutes, as Rajkummar and I kept improvising on it, unravelling the variations which were not thought of earlier. It was an interesting moment on the set that day, paving the way for several other such sequences. Here, I would like to make a special mention of DoP and cinematographer Pankaj Kumar. He’s been associated with films like Tumbbad and Haider, and I have been a huge fan of his work. Pankaj was very supportive on the set and there was a lot to from him too, as he’s an FTII graduate and has immense knowledge about lighting and other stuff.
Working with Satish sir was another memorable experience. Because the plot of Guns & Gulaabs was based on the 1990s, he would often tell us stories about working in films during the 80s and 90s. When not shooting, we used to gather around him and listen to his purane kisse. It still feels strange that he is no longer amid us. It’s a huge loss for the industry.
Q. There is a newfound love for crime thrillers among the audience. What do you think is the reason behind that?
A. I think an increasing number of people are finding crime thrillers very intriguing. They are probably seeing it as a good break from the usual romantic dramas. Earlier, for films like Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya, there was a limited or niche audience. But such movies are becoming more mainstream now. Even in television, shows like C.I.D. and Crime Patrol have enjoyed a huge fan base for a very long time. The ‘thrill’ is what continues to entice the audience. They find this genre more realistic and less predictable, as opposed to romcoms.
That said, even within crime thrillers, there are several subgenres. For instance, Farzi and Guns & Gulaabs are also dark comedies. Kohrra, again, is a mystery thriller focussed on human relationships. But, as an actor, I really hope Indian writers and makers also dabble in sitcoms. There are so many iconics ones, like Friends, Two and a Half Men and The Office. I think audiences here would also love that. Of course, we have well-loved shows like Gullak and Panchayat, but we are yet to crack that genre in a full-fledged manner.
Q. As an actor, who has been part of theatrical projects as well as OTT shows now, how important is the script for you?
A. I think the script and the character I play in the story are the most important factors for me while picking a project. For me, the screenplay writer is like Brahmā, who creates that world and its characters . He or she is the one from which the story originates. From the director to the actor, everybody depends on the script. So, it’s very important that the script comes out well.
The ongoing Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) protests in the US are a lesson for people in India too that we should push further to preserve and encourage the talent and creativity of writers. Only when there will be good writers in the industry can we expect to see better films and shows for the digital space and even otherwise. And if you notice, there are a lot of filmmakers who are also writers. Raj & DK, for instance, co-wrote the script of Guns & Gulaabs and so did Pushkar-Gayathri for Vikram Vedha.
Of course, generative AI - or ChatGPT - is a threat for large sections of the creative/entertainment industry. But I am still not convinced that emotions created by a human mind can ever be exacted by an AI tool. Even today, the demand for a handmade painting or a handicraft is way more than those replicated by machines. Cut to cinema, Christopher Nolan ditching VFX for Oppenheimer in itself became a plus point for the film. So, in the future, making a film without the help of AI may actually become its biggest selling point.
There is another line of thought, especially in the context of Bollywood. Sometimes, there is a lot of pressure to come up with a script quickly, even though it is a given that creating a world through the written word takes time. Thus to reduce the turnaround time, one may resort to ChatGPT. But that may leave room for mediocrity or a lack of human creativity.
Q. The sudden emergence of OTT is hailed by many, while several others blame it for diverting people’s attention from the big screen. How do you perceive its pros and cons?
A. Be it an actor, director or writer, everyone has benefitted from the OTT space. Things have become more democratic. People have more work now, as power is longer concentrated with just a handful of production houses. We are also getting to see many OTT stars coming up now. Series like Paatal Lok and Scam 1992 have made a huge difference.
That said, the digital space has also kind of distorted the way we used to perceive cinema or make films. Given the lure of long-format content, we are trying to convert stories into web series which would have been better off as a film. And so we get to hear things like, the ‘plot is unnecessarily getting dragged’; ‘they could have easily wrapped up the story in four episodes, instead of seven or eight’. We should try to treat a narrative according to the demands or requirements of the story, instead of trying to do it in a certain medium or format. While second-third seasons of series like Mirzapur and The Family Man have worked in that respect, there are many series that have failed to create the same momentum after the first season. We need to adapt and innovate the manner in which we write and direct shows/films for this new medium.
Q. Any future projects that you would like to mention?
A. My next project is Pooja Meri Jaan, by Maddock Films, which is likely to release this October. Then, there is a new web series, titled Paan Parda Zarda, that I am working on, helmed by the makers of Mirzapur. I am also part of Dushu, an independent film which is currently making its festival runs. I really enjoyed working on this project.