Story to structure, Sacred Games is a game changer
Is Sacred Games India’s Narcos? In tone and texture, Netflix India’s first original series may remind you of the smash-hit show about the life and times of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, but Sacred Games — an eight-episode series based on Vikram Chandra’s 928-page 2006 bestseller — is rooted firmly in the Indian cultural, religious and socio-political ethos.
Streaming currently on Netflix, Sacred Games is a race-against-time thriller that has all the ingredients one would expect of the genre —nail-biting suspense, the war between good and evil and a feeling of apocalyptic doom, all of which are worked into a past vs present narrative. Having binge-watched all eight episodes in a day, here’s t2’s report card of the Vikramaditya Motwane-Anurag Kashyap-directed show that stars Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte. Our verdict: Sacred Games is a game changer.
THE PLOT: 8/10
The series mostly stays close to the novel, opening with the stomach- churning shot of a Pomeranian being thrown to its bloody death from a high-rise. That sets the tone for the series that’s primarily built around two principal characters — an upright cop and a dreaded gangster. Bombay is under threat, the gangster tells the cop before putting a gun to his own head. The cop has 25 days to save the city, struggling to put the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together even as he battles corruption and crime, the apathy of the system and a threat to his own life.
The plot lends itself naturally to a pulpy crime thriller and directors Motwane and Kashyap, working out of a script written by Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath, keep Sacred Games constantly ticking like a time bomb. The scares are real and the suspense leaves you claustrophobic.
THE PLAYERS: 9/10
Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) is a disgruntled cop who not only has to live with the burden of seeing his superior Parulkar shoot an innocent boy in a fake encounter but is also queasy about having to testify in court in Parulkar’s favour. Sartaj aspires to be honest like his late father, a constable, but is dismissed as “low performing”. His wife has left him, but he spends hours staring at her from outside her apartment. Sartaj suffers from insomnia and pops anti-anxiety pills in fistfuls.
Pitted against Sartaj — and intertwined with his life story in a way — is Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a petty crook who graduates from garbage mafia to country liquor baron to a gangster with a large part of Bombay as his fiefdom. Even before his meteoric rise, Gaitonde has a god complex, brought on by a fractured childhood.
The third important player in the mix is Anjali Mathur (Radhika Apte), a sharp and astute RAW agent assigned to the case, who is battling gender bias at work.
The three principal players may come from different worlds, but they are linked through their “daddy issues” — Sartaj idolises his father but finds himself questioning his integrity when the going gets tough; Gaitonde has grown up hating his three fathers, one biological and the other two, his godfathers in crime at various points in life; Anjali’s father, also a RAW agent, went missing on duty several years ago, but she’s not ready yet to dismiss him as dead.
Sacred Games benefits from the details that go into each of its characters — from the transgender moll with a sob story to the abusive film star who snorts cocaine all day. Each player is important to the story and most often has a quirk that enriches the narrative. You root for some, you are repulsed by some, all of them intrigue in different ways.
THE SETTING: 8/10
Mumbai — or Bombay as the series largely refers to it — is a character in the show, like it was in the book. Bombay is the palette on which the action takes place, its alleys dark and its skies dull, with Gaitonde often colouring it red with the blood of those he kills. At one point, Sartaj refers to it as a massive garbage dump dotted with skyscrapers. At another, a character refers to it as a mother that looks over its children and never sleeps. Sacred Games wouldn’t have been half the series it is without Bombay as the backdrop, shot compellingly by Swapnil Sonawane, Sylvester Fonseca and Aseem Bajaj.
THE STRUCTURE & NARRATIVE: 9.5/10
Sacred Games scores most with the manner in which it chooses to tell its story. Though the series is more linear than the book, the writers ace the tricky screenplay, with Sartaj’s race against time in the present juxtaposed with, and shown as a result of, Gaitonde’s actions in the ’80s and ’90s. Gaitonde’s portions are shot by Kashyap and Sartaj’s by Motwane, but they seamlessly come together in the narrative. The scenes are crisp and short, with the tension built gradually.
Politics, past and present, is intertwined in the narrative. Religion is a catalyst for much of the action, with the directors — in the absence of censorship — hitting out against everything that plagues the country today: casteism to religious intolerance, refugee crisis to right-wing fundamentalism. There’s even a smart line or two worked in against meat ban. The dialogues are peppered with abuses, giving the series an authentic feel. The background music, scored by Alokananda Dasgupta, deserves a mention.
THE ACTING: 9/10
Nawazuddin Siddiqui makes Gaitonde the most compelling character in Sacred Games. This is a very complex man, and Nawaz gets every beat spot-on. He also has the best lines, most delivered in trademark deadpan. Like, “Aapne Valmiki ki Ramayan padhi hain aur maine Ramanand Sagar ki”. Or when a crony tells Gaitonde that he can give up his life for him, he shoots back with, “Pehle kaam seekh. Jaan jab leni hogi toh main le loonga”.
Sartaj is the moral centre of Sacred Games and Saif — an unlikely choice for the role — plays him like the role was tailormade for him. Sartaj wears his flaws on his sleeve and though he’s no hero, Saif (welcome back!) makes you root for him.
In contrast to the two, Radhika struggles to lift her Anjali above the unidimensional characterisation… hers is not a character you feel for.
But that’s taken care of by the side players, especially Neeraj Kabi’s morally corrupt Parulkar, Aamir Bashir as Sartaj’s overbearing colleague and Luke Kenny who plays a Bob Biswas-like assassin. The casting that made us smile? Lion boy wonder Sunny Pawar as a young Gaitonde.
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