There is a huge excitement among Indian audience of Netflix in the first week of this month. After the Netflix India’s two original movies Love per Square foot and Lust stories, the first ever Netflix original Indian web series released on 6th July: Sacred Games, directed by Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane and adapted by Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath from Vikram Chandra’s thriller novel having the same name.
The significance of this series had already started building up from the trailer. Firstly because of the cast-Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Saif Ali Khan, Radhika Apte, along with the toppings of Neeraj Kabi and Marathi big shots Jitendra Joshi, Girish Kulkarni all together in the same place!-and secondly, because it is the first Indian Netflix original thriller series, curiosity was at is peak. From the trailer (I haven’t read the novel), the plot looked simple-same old story of a gangster’s rise and fall; a rather monotonous one, dealt quite a lot with in Bollywood. But while/after watching it, one can’t resist to get attached to it and want more of it. Its influence thrives per episode, and in the end of the season we are left with dumbstruck awe. It breaks a lot of stereotypes, which makes it a unique creation.
The season is entirely based in Mumbai. Saif Ali Khan, as the protagonist police inspector Sartaaj Singh who is honest but not very successful in investigations, is presented in an entirely different role which stands out from his usual carrier surface, apart from his notable contributions in movies such as Rangoon and Kalakandi. The so-called antagonist, Ganesh Gaitonde is portayed by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who has not only done an extraordinary job of acting, but also has owned the series in the way he says-”Kabhi kabhi lagta hai apun hi bhagwan hai”!. He tells us (actually, Sartaaj) his story in the entire season. He gives Sartaaj a big mystery to solve, which has a long list of sub questions-what is their connection? What’s going to happen in the next 25 days? Why and how was he betrayed? Was he scared? Where was he in the last 15-20 years? Why his third Baap is so important? and so on.. The episodes solve some of these and add a few new mysteries thereby making the viewers stick to their screens. It becomes interesting and thrilling because of his death in the very first episode. In each of the episodes we get introduced to different mythological terms–after which the episodes are named-from Mahabharat with respect to the characters in this story, which is a good change from the bombardment of foreign mythological series.
Four women play an important role in Ganesh’s life choices. First, his mother (Vibhawari Deshpande)-though for a very short duration-has a significant impact leading him to the first ever crime he committed. His infatuation with Kukoo (Kubra Sait) despite her secrets, leads him to the rivalry with Sulaiman Isa and his gang. His wife Subhadra (Rajshri Deshpande) has a small but major part in his life, her death makes him murder 80 random innocent people, which fuels the riots in 1992 and leads him to suffer in jail. Kantabaai was Ganesh’s strong acquaintance and a sort of guide in Mumbai (portrayed by Shalini Vatsa). All these women rise bright and strong, and even dominate over Gaitonde’s being. Whereas Sartaaj Singh is initially isolated and distorted by his divorce. He eventually evolves as a person bold enough to even risk his job by diving deep into Gaitonde’s case. Saif Ali Khan has done his homework well for this character so it doesn’t, at any point, look forced.
One of the appealing features of this season was supposed to be Anjali Mathur (Radhika Apte)-the RAW agent-who is shown continuously fighting the demons of patriarchy in the line of work and the tragic closure of the case of her missing father. Looking at the strong female characters Radhika has portrayed earlier, we might develop some expectations from Anjali, her being a female RAW agent. She is ‘shown’ to have been complaining that female agents, despite their abilities, are forced to do desk work rather than field work. At the same time, she is portrayed to be quite inadequate for her job-not vigilant enough-making her death look dumb. Whether it is the requirement of the character or not is another matter; but RAW certainly trains the agents well, so it’s not convincing enough. Same with Constable-and a friendly colleague of Sartaaj-Katekar’s (Jitendra Joshi) death, it looks slightly out-of-place (not so smart); but along with his family, he makes a significant presence in the season. His journey from the cop who is unenthusiastic about the missing Muslim boy to the cop who tells his wife, ”आज खूप दिवसांनी खऱ्या पोलिसासारखं वागलो (Today, I acted as a true policeman after a long time)” with satisfaction, is overwhelming.
Sartaaj and Ganesh Gaitonde, both are not originally from Mumbai, but still want to cherish it in their own ways. Ganesh’s character might remind us of the Joker from Batman, but later we realise that he is more than just a villain or anti-hero. They have done a nice job in showing the time evolution of Ganesh’s spirit, thought process and ambitions; but apart from that, we don’t get much visual input about what he is and does (i.e., details about his work and contribution to the world around him and his rivalries-which were important because he is a gangster). He talks big things through the narratives but looks idle except for the sex and killing scenes. Also, his contribution in maintaining the spirit of his gang crews is left up to viewers’ imagination. But in a way it helps in highlighting the psychology behind his choices and their consequences-the thing that’s worked out brilliantly through the narratives by Nawazuddin-without idolizing the antagonist. We also get a look at the history (of four decades) from his point of view. It is quite challenging to construct a fictional character taking part in actual history without molding it and constantly switching from flashbacks to present, but the directors and writers are successful in making it look natural.
The interesting fact is, Ganesh Gaitonde is a Brahmin by birth (with a pundit father having low self-esteem who does nothing but begs and a mother with extra marital affair-family background that is never shown for a Brahmin character in Indian fiction) and knows exactly how to meddle with and manipulate people’s religious sentiments, or if not, he doesn’t take additional efforts to sort the mess he made.
Whether the actual villain on a greater scale is Khanna Guruji (Pankaj Tripathi) or Malcom Murad (Luke Kenny) is an intelligent question. Guruji resembles the string of (Hindu) manipulators who trap people in the vicious mesh of religion. Malcom is a cold blooded and impassive assasin. Their connection with each other and with Gaitonde and his network is yet to be presented in details (their desription in season 1 is vague). So it is going to be a thrilling experience to see how these two characters evolve and use Gaitonde as a pawn leading him to his own-and possibly, the city’s too-destruction (all this will be decided only when the next season arrives!). The series would bloom if they elaborate the ‘sacred’ games between these parties. They released all the 8 episodes at the same time, so the viewers can do nothing but wonder about the next season till it comes; because the end of season 1 has put up a new list of questions!
Neeraj Kabi-DCP Parulkar-has efficiently portrayed a selfish and partial character. Girish Kulkarni, as usual, does a fantastic job even in the small duration of his role, to show the journey from a local bootlicking political aspirant to a gluttonous Home Minister. One more big difference is, the characters are not talking in Hindi forcibly-they talk in their respective languages (Punjabi/Marathi) among their respective peeps. This, along with the frank swearing helps in enriching the series’ authenticity and grip. After the epics like Masaan and Gangs of Wasseypur, watching Sacred Games is exhilarating. Those who berate it for containing inappropriate language and scenes, are possibly not evolved enough as sapiens to understand that these are the least important among all other positive elements of the series.
The overall experience is wonderful and such experiments are needed to be done more often. I’d say, everyone-who is bored to watch Indian serial drama and who is bored with foreign crime drama with hero-antihero crisis (Sherlock-Moriarty, Hannibal-Graham, Batman-Joker etc..)-should watch a good work of fiction like this.
PS: The translation into English, and the subtitles in Hindi are in-depth..! (In Hindi, they are very elaborate in letting us know when there is ‘कबूतरों की गुटरगूँ’, ‘रहस्यमय संगीत’, ‘रोमांचकारी संगीत’ or ‘रहस्यमय संगीत जारी है’; and in English the cursing seems as natural as it was in Hindi..!)