Now don’t get me wrong. I think Netflix’s Sacred Games is a fantastic leap ahead for Indian digital content and I quite liked the first season of the series, starring Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte, in bits. But unfortunately, I also happened to have just read Vikram Chandra’s novel, on which the series is based. And the screen adaptation has frankly, left me disappointed.
Chandra’s 2006 novel tells the story of Bombay transforming into Mumbai, a time when business, politics, crime and religion came together as an organised force to simultaneously build and destroy this city of dreams.
At 900-something pages, Sacred Games is a modern Indian epic, and condensing the parallel stories of Sartaj Singh and Ganesh Gaitonde to roughly 50-minute episodes is no mean feat. Writers Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath have pulled off something incredible here as have directors Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane.
The screen adaptation necessarily has a lot of differences with the book, and rightly so. A lot of characters have been left out, a few introduced (Cuckoo for instance), narratives tweaked, the politico-religious angle deftly handled.
A major departure is the character of Parulkar. In the book, he is a slick, ambitious man - an ace player who rises and rises in the police force and manages to find favour with whoever is in power. But he is also almost a surrogate father to Sartaj, who is aware of his follies but in unquestioningly loyal to him. It’s their relationship and how it plays out that runs parallel to Gaitonde’s relationship with his “teesra baap”, Guruji.
But it is what the series does with its main characters that has really left me disappointed.
In the Netflix show, Sartaj Singh and Ganesh Gaitonde have been reduced to stereotypical good and bad guys - Sartaj is an honest police officer whose refusal to toe the line of corrupt seniors keeps him in the lower rungs of the force; Gaitonde is an evil, ruthless, sex-crazy don. But Vikram Chandra’s Sartaj Singh and Ganesh Gaitonde are anything but.
Sartaj is definitely the moral compass of the novel, but he is no hero. He has his heart in the right place but he takes bribes and cuts - simply because he has to survive. In the real world, you become part of small lies and corrupt cycles, so you can survive to deal with the larger ones. And Sartaj in the book is a very real character with numerous failings. But in the series, he is honest to a fault, a man who does some really foolish things to play a “hero”.
Gaitonde on the other hand is the heart and soul of the book. He is an evil, ruthless, sex-crazy don yes, but he is also a clear-headed visionary who is also something of a philosopher and a lover (I do hope the show pursues the Gaitonde-Jojo thread in the next season). He builds his criminal career from nothing on the vestiges of vision, ruthlessness, leadership as well as benevolence. This arc is completely missing from the series.
We see a bit of his ruthlessness and heart (Cuckoo is a brilliant addition to the show), but how did he become the king of Gopalmath? Where is the Gaitonde thinking ten steps ahead to build an empire? How does he get the allegiance of not only “his boys”, but the common people of Gopalmath, which he builds from scratch? Where is the guy-from-nowhere who becomes a “Hindu don” only for business, and teaches himself everything from English to computer so he can take on the world?
At the end of Sacred Games, the book, you realise that in essence, Gaitonde and Sartaj are similar people, the only thing setting them apart and driving their actions being ambition. By watering down the characters, there’s little chance that the series would be able to showcase this.
Chandra’s book is also extremely realistic and well-researched. And that’s what made me question several points in the series.
- Sartaj Singh, for instance, seems to be totally clueless about how the police force works despite being several years old in the job. Doesn’t he actually put Nayanika’s life more at risk by disobeying orders and trying to take on Bunty alone?
- How do Parulkar and his force even think of taking on RAW? It’s simply not conceivable in terms of the power structure and how it works in the real world.
- Anjali Mathur makes her way into several dangerous situations without ever calling for back-up, till the very end.
- Why do both Bunty and Malcolm not kill Sartaj when they had ample chance to do so, and when killing him would clearly make things easier for them?
- Gaitonde knew from the beginning how Parulkar works. Yet, he is shown to become a close ally till tables turn again. And then, Parulkar has a sudden change of heart as well!
It’s almost always the case in a book-to-screen adaptation that the book wins in the end. And Sacred Games seems to be no different. But then again, I am as excited about the second season of the show as you are!