(This is a review of four episodes of Sacred Games.)
At 900 pages, Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games for many seemed like a baggy monster that was hard to pick up and then harder to put down - just like the city at the heart of the sweeping labyrinthine narrative - a tough beast to handle. Bombay and the underworld have largely dovetailed in popular culture. Little wonder that Netflix opted for this grandiose source material for its first Indian original series.
The eight-episode thriller traces the trajectory of Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan), a low-performing but upright and anxiety-ridden police officer, and Anjali Mathur (Radhika Apte), an intelligence officer, to the heart of a cryptic web woven by the criminal overlord, Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).
Directed by Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane and adapted by Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath, the show attempts to explore the corrupt underworld lurking beneath India's economic renaissance. The two directors have followed two different time periods of the underworld. While Kashyap steered Gaitonde’s course Motwane helmed Sartaj’s track.
The pilot ticks all the right boxes - a fiendish puzzle, the scale and performances. The narrative fluidly cross-cuts between the past and the present - Gaitonde’s confessions and Sartaj’s discoveries.
It is to the credit of the writer of the first episode, Varun Grover that the pilot does not settle for the well-worn cliffhanger and yet sustains the intrigue. Is Gaitonde really Sartaj’s father’s old friend? What’s the significance of the intricate motif that appears in the episode? What’s with Gaitonde’s delusions of grandeur? Braiding genres - the thriller, the mob drama and the police procedural, the pilot leaves you with a lot to mull over.
Peppered with some crackling lines, the first episode packs in a punch with its dialogue. “You wanted to be like Gawaskar but you’re handling Tendulkar’s security,” Gaitonde tells Sartaj Singh, economically letting us in on Sartaj’s motivations and offering up the underdog to root for.
The pilot plunges through many a paradox and makes some searing comments about religion and caste. The first episode begins with Gaitonde asking, “Bhagwan ko mante ho? Bhagwan ko l*#d farak nahi padta.” Later when he arrives in Mumbai, he talks about how being a Brahmin was conducive for him to get a job easily in a Hindu hotel, frequented by people not because it serves good food but because it serves pure food on account of everyone from the owner to the waiter being upper caste - the business of purity. The blend of religion, mythology and politics stirred mercilessly by an unsparing hand makes for a heady cocktail in the pilot.
In the episodes that follow, the whip-smart Gaitonde with an unshakeable confidence and an improbable appetite begins to strike as tad, insipid. His character quirks are traded in favour of plot heaviness. It’s the unravelling of Gaitonde’s love interest, Cuckoo that brings Gaitonde’s character back into focus.
Embroiled in the darker shades of the crime underbelly, the series veers away from the vibrant chaos that Bombay stands for and misses the joyous pulse of the Mumbai mayhem.
What one really misses is a rousing background score that makes the screen shiver - a soundtrack that captures the zeitgeist of the city. The manic energy in Divine’s promotional song, Kaam 25 does not translate on screen. We hope that the next few episodes make up with music!
If you still hold the gangsters from the Ram Gopal Varma canon as your reference points, the seriousness of the proceedings is likely to wear you down. Nawazuddin doesn’t fail to shine (this terrain is not unfamiliar for him) but Saif with his simmering desperation and his naivety writ large upon his face surprises with his intensity. Despite only a brief glimpse into his back story, you find yourself rooting for Sartaj. Populated with Maharashtrian characters, the series gets the milieu right and leaves a lot untranslated, with the sensibilities intact. But one wonders why the man at the centre of the action, Ganesh Gaitonde doesn’t speak in Marathi or at least have an accent, when a younger Gaitonde played by Sunny Pawar speaks entirely in Marathi. Radhika Apte hits all the right notes as the sharp RAW officer. When the show begins to take itself too seriously, Katekar (essayed ingeniously by Jitendra Joshi), Sartaj’s aide offers the much needed wit. It’s the kind of humour that quakes with truths and that’s accessible even in the darkest folds of existence.
What’s commendable is that Sacred Games chooses compassion over glorification. Without overt moralising, in one of the scenes Sartaj empathetically exposes Katekar’s racism.
Sacred Games ups the game of original series in India but somewhere after its second episode, it strikes a dissonant note. The parity in Sartaj and Gaitonde’s tracks seems to give away and I found myself more invested in Sartaj’s journey than Gaitonde’s ascent.
But the woods are lovely, dark and deep and I have episodes to binge and judgements to reserve.
Binge Meter: 4/5
Sacred Games will be available to stream on Netflix from 6 July.