Synopsis – A link in their pasts leads an honest cop to a fugitive gang boss, whose cryptic warning spurs the officer on a quest to save Mumbai from cataclysm.
Episodes – S01E01 to S01E08
My Take – We live in a time where not even a single Indian fiction series can be lauded for its content, mainly as the medium is dominated by screechy family melodramas and make belief reality shows, hence when Netflix announced that it would be adapting acclaimed writer Vikram Chandra‘s crime novel as its latest international crime drama, potential storytellers around India have been rooting for it to succeed, in order to open a bigger platform to showcase their skills. While I personally web series streaming on YouTube has been doing a wonderful job on their own, the absence of a bigger budget and known faces, will always be a predicament they have to face. Here, backed by Phantom Films with Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane filling in the roles as directors and executive producer to the show and writers Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath on board along with a stellar cast, led by the evergreen and hugely-talented Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte, the series which marks the online streaming platform’s first full-fledged foray into the Indian digital arena, sounded like a sure shot success, mainly as Netflix, with Narcos and Money Heist, has already proven that an excellent crime drama can be a cross cultural hit.
Thankfully, it succeeds, that too extensively. This adaption of the 900-page novel is a result of a two of the country’s most talented yet underrated directors adapting to the demands of the smaller screen, without any form of strings holding their back. The 8 episode series is is tenacious and thrilling without giving the audiences an overdose of adrenaline with fast paced story telling. It grips you in the beginning, brings an unexpected touch which assures you that it will be a sensible narrative that takes you into a gripping web of religion, politics, conspiracy and corruption that entangles you slowly but surely. Acting, screenplay, story-line, the symbolism and naming of each episode, direction, cinematography, the background score, dialogues, every aspect of film making that I can think of is top notch. The only complain you will probably have as a viewer is that all the seasons are not debuting together henceforth you cannot binge watch the rest of it. If you are someone who gets offended by bold statements on religion, cuss words, violence, frontal nudity and drug use, I advise you to keep yourself away from it.
The story follows Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan), a jaded Mumbai inspector who just wants to use his position of power for good. However the corrupt system has left him disappointed and sore, were he cannot even speak the truth without getting beaten up by his co-workers. Probably it’s his defeated stand which makes him the perfect target for Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and his mysterious plan. After disappearing for 16 years, the crime lord has now re-emerged, and for his first move back, he contacts Sartaj due to an old connection, and warns him to save the city they both so love, in the next 25 days, or else no one would survive.
Considering this as the ray of hope he was looking for, Sartaj jumps headlong into the rabbit hole, ironically risking his job to do it right and finding an ally in RAW agent Anjali Mathur (Radhika Apte), who while working under the radar and at odds with their respective bosses, try to make sense of the threads that bind the home minister Bipin Bhosale (Girish Kulkarni), DCP Parulkar (Neeraj Kabi), sinister assassin Malcom (Luke Kenny), Gaitonde’s crippled former henchman Bunty (Jatin Sarna), leading Bollywood actress Zoya (Elnaaz Norouzi) and a mysterious man named Trivedi (Chittaranjan Tripathy). Meanwhile, Gaitonde lingers on as a voice in Sartaj’s head who speaks to him from beyond the grave, telling him about his childhood and formative years and the various men and women including Kukoo (Kubra Sait), who he meet and crushed on his way to the top of the pile.
Here, working with a far bigger canvas than they’ve had in their films, directors Motwane and Kashyap, create an absorbing cross-weave of ideas, characters, and events, that are beautifully produced, lensed, and scored. For this is an awesome show that relentlessly throws at you so many twists and interesting subplots, that you will end up watching the whole season at a go. It could be our answer to Narcos, benefiting greatly from excellent direction, terrific writing and fantastic performances from nearly everyone in the cast. The Indian original series starts as a standard cat-and-mouse game, but as the show’s mysteries unravel, the series starts to question whether this killer is just another bad guy, or something closer to a god. Being a Mumbai based noir, here, you are spared nothing — the grime of the gullies, gore from body parts scattered on the road, gloss of the silver screen, gangsters and their gunfights, as writers Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath highlight Vikram Chandra‘s critical prism of the socio-political scenario, which ironically carries the same relevance even today.
The beauty here lies in the writing, which deftly weaves out a smooth narrative from author Chandra‘s dense book. While it’s essentially a thriller, this series is also a poignant commentary on the equalizing power of hatred, perhaps the only emotion that is truly “secular” in India. It questions why we associate ourselves so deeply with our religious identity, why we place allegiance to an invisible god over our intuitive humanity, and why in spite of so many years of betrayal and bloodshed we just can’t seem to kick our addiction to our God, who as a character says, got sick of us long ago. Spanning four decades from the 1970s to the present, various historical milestones pass in the background, including the Emergency of 1975, but one political event that has shaped and reshaped India’s immediate past and present stands out: the rise of Hindutva as a political force.
Curiously, the directors shot the series in unison as opposed to episode by episode, with Motwane taking Singh’s track and Kashyap focusing on Gaitonde, narratives overlapping as Singh investigates a doomsday scenario, while the backstory—revealed in Gaitonde’s voice—gets us up to speed. He is an unsolicited narrator who talks slowly and self-indulgently about things we may not have asked to know, but which, perhaps because of Siddiqui’s magnetism, always appear vital. More importantly, this series is also a testament to two of the country’s most talented directors showing an inclination to adapt to the demands of the smaller screen and its audiences. Unlike a host of generic web-series populating the internet, Kashyap and Motwane take the challenge as seriously as a feature film.
Every episode comes together as a unified immersive experience, even though their distinct styles stand out, with each episode of the series named after an element of Hindu mythology further tying the series to its Indian roots. Though there is a clock ticking, the exposition is luxuriously paced, setting up all the major players in the game and laying out their connections without any spoilers. The pace picks up soon enough, and as the dots join and the mystery unravels, politicians, police officers and starlets struggle to keep their immunity from his dark legacy. Gaitonde’s rise from the garbage dump to the King of Gopalmath serves as a definitive recap of how religion and politics became mutually satisfied bedfellows in India.
Gaitonde isn’t a standard villain — you can see his different hues in his heartwarming romance with a transgender he believes is his ladylove, his democratic set-up within the gang where brains and bucks rule the roost, his steely faith that religion is a weapon that divides. He narrates his story in the context of landmark events like the Shah Bano case, Babri Masjid demolition, Mumbai bomb blasts and the rise of the Hindu right wing in the country, recalling how each of these events affected his life, his gang, and the place where he grew up, Mumbai. There are even mentions of the partition and the 26/11 terror attacks, creating a timeline of intolerance and terror that continues to add new dates to its tab. He also gets the best lines, some of them full-blooded lessons in Hindi cuss words, including the opening line where he convinces you that he is God.
The film cleverly invokes this argument in an early scene where Gaitonde hides pieces of chicken in a vegetarian thali at a “pure Hindu” restaurant run by a Brahmin. All Gaitonde wanted was revenge from the restaurant owner, who refused to pay his wages for the last two months, but its end result is the owner getting lynched to death. In the show, this scene unfolds in the ’70s, but in real life, several similar scenes are unfolding every day in various parts of the country. The only difference is, right now, lynchings don’t even need a reason. It’s a good thing that the series marked its debut on Netflix, a medium seemingly without any censorship, not just because it can let its protagonists cuss with abandon or have ample nudity and sex scenes, but because it can extend the very premise of how faith is being used as a pervasive and political weapon in India currently. It’s the kind of freedom of expression that neither the country nor its CBFC board is literate in. By contrast, Sartaj is a worrywart, bursting out of his uniform in anxiety.
Tense is the night as Sartaj pounds the streets of Mumbai in search of something he hasn’t fully understood yet. Stuck with an odious chief, Parulkar, a mean-spirited colleague, Majid (Aamir Bashir), and a system that privileges short-cuts over principles, Sartaj grows only gradually into his preordained role as the moral center of the series. Sartaj Singh is an unusual cop when it comes to Bollywood standards – even though he wants to do the right thing, he has trouble standing up to the high-handedness of his own colleagues. He is also not a very good cop, per se, as he is inept at some of the police duties (like going stealth). Even his do-goodness is sometimes compromised by his opportunism.
All this helps in making Sartaj a flawed, ordinary human who is still the better of the lot, compared to the rest of the characters. The series also successfully explores various things which could have been censored if in film or even TV broadcast. For example, a female character actually being a transgender, much to the initial surprise of her love interest. The darker feel of the overall treatment in the series gives way to an arguably acceptable inclusion of expletives and also scenes of a sexual nature. Does the show have any flaws? Sure, like most of the Netflix shows, there is some bloat in the proceedings in the middle episodes, along with a plenty of loopholes and contrived drama. Some of the scenes feel repetitive and predictable and there are quite a few twists that are hinted early on, and I wish that the writers could have made them less obvious.
Season 1 ends on a high by ending with a cliffhanger, while managing to keep the viewer hungry for more. I feel this a rare accomplishment and the whole team behind the series should be congratulated for this amazing feat and of course, thank you Netflix for bringing this to us. I regret having missed the opportunity of not reading Vikram Chandra‘s book, despite being an obsessive bibliophile, before getting on to watch the series. Sure, by not doing so saves me from the various surprises the makers throw at us. I really want to know if the show has done justice to the epic scope of the book (or the half of it). However, without any tool for comparison, I can say with assurance that Motwane and Kashyap have passed the test with flying colors. In the performance department, Nawazuddin Siddiqui predictably owns every scene he is in. Here, he outdoes himself as Gaitonde, showing that he is not only capable but miles ahead of his counterparts who might think twice about this kind of role.
His character is not only negatively shaded but there are layers to him which audiences may also identify with, placing a very thin line somewhat between what audiences will feel towards him. This is familiar territory for him, who has traversed the rags-to-bloody-power journey for Kashyap in the Gangs of Wasseypur films, but the actor continues to hold our interest, seething with quieter, more lethal menace as he gets to play a better-rounded character. Complementing him every step of the way is Saif Ali Khan in fabulous form after a long time. His performance as the central character is intriguing because it is rare to see such an actor playing this kind of character. In a complex, tightly wound character with wearing persecution and righteousness in his eyes, he creates a leading man free of charisma, yet compelling enough to root for Saif makes his lackluster Sartaj Singh impress you with his sincerity. He remains faithful to the character who could even pass off as a loser, on most counts, but he makes you empathize with him.
Radhika Apte too manages to make her no-nonsense RAW agent role full of impact. Though her character has comparatively less to do, she does wonders in her role and is a natural on the screen, as anyone who has seen her previous work will vouch for. They are supported by a perfectly cast group of powerful actors who get into the skin of their characters effortlessly. Particularly impressive are Neeraj Kabi, Aamir Bashir, Kubra Sait, Luke Kenny, Rajshri Deshpande, Jitendra Joshi, Anil Charanjeett, Elnaaz Norouzi, Danish Pandor, Girish Dixit, Geetanjali Thapa, Shalini Vatsa, Jatin Sarna, Karan Wahi, Pankaj Tripathi, Surveen Chawla and Sunny Pawar to name a few, who are welcome parts to the overall narrative, each bringing through a different shade and aspect to the overall plot. On the whole, ‘Sacred Games’ is one of the best web-series produced in India, that manages to be gripping, fascinating, dark, thought-provoking and a chilling tale where every actor is top-notch.
Status – Season 1 (Completed)
Network – Netflix