Is it possible that Indian television can produce first rate global content which has the capacity of being palatable to various nationalities. It may well be argued that Indian television did'nt bother to pander to the non household audience much. "Sacred Games" is possibly India's first attempt at creating an authentic fast paced thriller with global appeal. Helmed by disruptors Anurag Kashyap and Vikram Motwane and based on Vikram Chandra's best selling novel, SG has enough firepower to shake up the Hollywoodian stereotype of "Narcos" , "24". The series features extraordinary performances by Nawazuddin Siddiqui who clearly in his top form. Although the central characters are similar to Popeye Doyle and Alan Chanier from "The French Connection", the show chooses an Indian literary precedent as a similar metaphor of Atapi and Vatapi.
In this review post, i will give character sketches which will automatically give you a bit about the series and then i will do a short binge watch review. So there will be no major spoliers....
Based on the emergence of Mumbai from the late 1980's to 1990's to the present, Sacred Games chronicles the lives of two central characters: Mafiosi and gangster Ganesh Gaitonde and Inspector Sartaj Singh. The plot is set into motion when Sartaj Singh receives a tip off about the whereabouts of Gaitonde who has been missing in action for over 16 years unlocking disturbing secrets of the underworld and the deep religious divide between itself . Gaitonde and Sartaj are living in different time zones most of the time. Following this trail is RAW Agent Anjali Mathur. Gaitonde and Sartaj are operating in a 25 day period at the end of which Mumbai faces a imminent threat. Its this run against the clock which defines the narrative in "Sacred Games". In between flashbacks which looks at the rise of Gaitonde from a street peddler to a renowned mafiosi....the story enacts itself in Sartaj Singh's present and Gaitonde's Past largely. Anjali is featured in the present day.
Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui):- He is a true product of the Indian system. Born in grindingly poor family, he travels to Mumbai a better life and finds excitement and social acceptance in being a criminal/gangster. Page by page in the script Gaitonde transforms effortlessly from a minnow to a criminal mafiosi and Nawazuddin brings the poise of the street crass with great effect. The viewer is almost submerged in Gaitonde's world where the exploits range from having an evolved taste in his sexual partners to an extremely vindictive strategist.He is frequently seen as In every way, Gaitonde is a symbol of what is wrong with our country's opportunity universe, where people pick up a gun and feel socially important. His chemistry with Cuckoo, a glorified asset of the gangsters is to watch out for. Sacred Games narrative also brings to light Gaitonde's long distance relationship of love letters with Sartaj Singh. And here is where the centre of the story is, the story of two parallel leading men not meeting each other but close on each others heels.......very similar to Popeye Doyle and Alain Chanier in "The French Connection". One is a rockstar in his midst and the other is a sort of a unsuccessful cop with personal issues. Its this fire and ice combo which keeps the interest alive in the story till the end. But Gaitonde's insecurity about the loyalty of his own people is what drives the story forward and his never ending pursuit to be a "Bada Saheb" like his arch rival Suleiman Isa provides the spice to his character. He wants to live like Isa, acquire similar girlfriends, build the aura of a big man. Its reflected in a scene where he is consummating with a prostitute and she remarks that Isa's perfume quality is better! Its this ghost that Gaitonde fights.
Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) :- Sartaj is the other end of the line in Sacred Games. A conservative Sikh in the Mumbai police force. He is mostly out of place and a bit ahead of his thinking than other police officials. He comes across as antithesis of how Sikhs are portrayed in Indian films. Usually they are all bravado, energy and fun loving. Here Sartaj is a studied, very cautious and deeply emotional in a subtle way. His unexpected fascination with a TV actress in the show is quite compelling. Sartaj's righteousness stems from his father who too was a police official and had offered support to Gaitonde in his prison days. In his righteousness he stumbles many times especially when stomped by his boss Parulekar (played by Neeraj Kabi brilliantly). He gets hit by mobsters but in the end despite his subdued presence becomes the hope of Mumbai.....A beautifully etched out character who will emerge bigger in the upcoming season i feel.
Anjali Mathur (Radhika Apte):- Anjali is the RAW agent who is close on the heels of Gaitonde and had been planted by RAW in Mumbai to handle this case. She is possibly the most intelligent casting by Kashyap and Motwane. Apte who has largely been seen as an alternate cinema star with mostly independent films to her credit effortlessly steps in to the show as a RAW agent. She looks like a typical next door girl and doesn't wear "boots, leather jackets, sunglasses etc" to impose the fact that she is a spy. Interestingly, she doesn't give any impression of an intelligence bureau official. She uses crass language, is dominating with Sartaj and in many ways is the soul keeper of "Sacred Games". Anjali looks like the most sane and balanced character of the show who despite her minuses gives an impression of a common human being. In the company of Gaitonde and Sartaj, she stands her ground. Sacred Games can be lamented the way the women in the show are portrayed ie. Shalini Vatsa as a local criminal, Kubra Sait as Kukoo, Rajshri Deshpande as Gaitonde's "wife", Geetanjali Thapa as the actress Nayanika etc are all portrayed as women with darker shades and as objects of desire for criminals. In this league Radhika Apte as Anjali does the balancing act by protecting the righteous side of the ensemble.
Mumbai (The City) :- If anything stands out in "Sacred Games" other than its central cast, it is the city of Mumbai. The city of dreams, the city of "never say die", the city of enterprise, the city of crime, the city of all kinds of humans....Its this landscape of the city which amplifies the story line really well. When you see Gaitonde's early years in a local restaurant serving "Hindu" food you get to know the nuances of making a livelihood as a small town guy in the metropolis. A lot of violence in the show happens on the streets and slums of Mumbai giving its crime "an authentic flavour" to the audience. The dance bars, glimpses of the sea necklace of Marine Drive, shooting through the lanes of Opera House, Zaveri Bazar... the city speaks to the audience all the audience. Mumbai is the mother and karmabhumi of "Sacred Games".
THEMES EXPLORED IN SACRED GAMES :-
As the Censor Board of India wasnt involved in the certification of the show, Motwane and Kashyap got the freedom of exploring graphic and riveting themes. In my view Patriachy, Misogyny, Transgenders, Raw Sexuality, Caste and wealth divide, Proletarianism, Religion based segregation of business, Corruption, Politics are seen all over the 8 episodes. But what is most startling is the usage of abusive language and the treatment of women. I think no other show ever on TV has pushed the envelope so far on these subjects as "Sacred Games".
KASHYAP-MOTWANE effect :-
Although both Anurag Kashyap and Vikram Motwane havent really delivered box office gold. They both have been reference points for alternate themes in Indian cinema as a whole. Kashyap who is a tireless crusader in his own right for independent cinema, has a great and productive career by belting out dozens of films as a producer and director in his 20 odd years career.
As it has been reported widely, Sacred Games two parallel story lines of Sartaj and Gaitonde are directed separately and then edited into one show. The Gaitonde segment was directed by Kashyap and Sartaj's segment was helmed by Motwane.
Its no secret that the Nawazuddin- Kashyap partnership has possibly been the most successful one in the alternate cinema in India. The duo have created memorable Nawaz characters in Gangs Of Wasseypur, Raman Raghav, Dev.D, Black Friday and even a small role in Mukkabaaz. Kashyap uses his understanding of Nawazuddin to great effect by creating Gaitonde as a chameleon like figure who keeps evolving with his success and becomes a like sponge who absorbs all kinds of emotions into himself.
Motwane chooses the more urbane and stoic Sartaj Singh played by Saif Ali Khan. You might see the studied silence of the leading man who is looking for acceptance in his own community which is highly corrupt. Motwane has displayed this in his movies "Trapped", "Lootera" and "Udaan" where the leading man is not a very vocal character but his mannerisms communicate for him/her.
THE SCORE :-
Alokananda Dasgupta has possibly given the most apt soundtrack for a saga like "Sacred Games". Dasgupta might possibly the first woman composer who has given a "score" for such a prestigious TV series of Netflix. She uses Nino Rota (Godfather), Gustavo Santaolalla (The Motorcycle Diaries) as reference points and uses her creativity to bring out the mystique of its central characters and above all the city of Mumbai. To encapsulate so many varied emotions in almost 8 hours of visual content, Dasgupta has been fairly successful. Sacred Games is gorgeous and its score is one of its strongest assets.
As Ganesh Gaitonde narrates his story, the show uses political references of the Babri Masjid demolition, Mumbai bomb blasts, Rajiv Gandhi as milestones in his life. This intelligent usage of these real life events make the Sacred Saga believable and relatable apart from a superb cast.
Despite being a bit stretched given around 8 hours of duration, Sacred Games holds its viewers tightly with each episode. It is an experiment which should set a new precedent for Indian television.
The Baniya Meter gives "Sacred Games" 7 out of 10