Sacred Games: same soul, different body

Season one of Netflix’s first original Indian show captures the spirit of the book, says Prashant Rao

A mandala is a metaphor for the cosmos, or a city. An intricate geometric pattern, it consists of squares and circles, used in Hinduism and Buddhism to denote a sacred space, one which is representative of an entire microcosm. In Vikram Chandra’s definitive Mumbai novel, Sacred Games (2006), one of the lead characters Sartaj Singh, a middle-aged Sikh inspector in the Mumbai police force, observes some “Tibetan Sadhus” patiently and meticulously and gracefully creating an intricate mandala.

It is heartening to note that Netflix’s first Indian original, Sacred Games adapted from the book, creates the world of Singh, the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde and the city formerly known as Bombay, in much the same manner as the Tibetan monks — patiently, meticulously and indeed very gracefully. As a lover of Sacred Games, I was wary that the book’s inner voices and intricate patterns, didn’t lend themselves with alacrity to be adapted into a filmic medium. But after watching all eight episodes of the first season, I am happy to report that the Netflix show, is inhabited by the same soul as that of the book, but has its own distinct body.

Recreating an epic

The writers, Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath, take the story of a cop, a gangster and a city set in the late 1990s/early 2000s and retell it in, 2018, with a sense of urgency, impetus and sensitivity. What stands out is the inclusivity with which the writers re-imagine the book. A throwaway character in the book is the bar dancer, “Kukoo” and is no way significant to the plot, yet represents a distinct Bombay personality. The writers have instead elevated Kukoo in their narrative, giving her a share of the spotlight and the audience a beauteous Bombay character in the bargain.

The first season of the show, which roughly covers about one third of the 950-page book, moves briskly, but makes time to include the many back stories and inject atmospherics into the proceedings to make sure that you are watching an authentic Mumbai show. Bollywood, politicians, religion, the underworld, the corrupt, the rich, the high-rises, the slums, the chawls, the dance bars, the dives, the fine-dine, it has it all in its embrace, but more importantly, it’s been rendered in an aesthetic which is authentic. To cite two examples, I’d point to the multilingual nature of the show, where Marathi, Hindi, English Punjabi and Gujarati all co-exist like the many languages a true blue Mumbaikar uses to navigate the city. Or the respect and warmth with which the working class, their dwellings and their lives are shown.

Acting crew

Of course, Nawazuddin Siddique is a class act. He becomes Ganesh Gaitonde from the time he commits his first murder. This is familiar territory for Siddique, but Chandra’s writing had always brought to mind, a “Nana Patekar in his prime” kind of Gaitonde. Saif Ali Khan as Singh meanwhile executes a tough role — a forty-something overweight cop, he’s the “hero” fighting greys, not just in his beard, but also the bleak moral zones that his job makes him inhabit. He is divorced, on anxiety pills and is one badly executed encounter away from oblivion in the police force. Yet Khan brings alive his character’s midlife crises and the many compromises Singh makes to inhabit a “good cop” zone with skill and dexterity.

The book is about all the smaller characters and their arcs, against which the leads defined themselves. Therefore it’s the finely cast ensemble, which truly defines this show. Jitendra Joshi as Katekar, Singh’s loyal and long-suffering sidekick, Kubra Sait as Kukoo, Shalini Vatsa as Kanta Bai the moonshine-maker-turned-advisor for Gaitonde and Richa Sharma as Singh’s mother, Navneet Kaur. All of whom, add colour and bring alive the myriad plot contours and the city.

Past present

The show follows two strands, one which is set in the present, focussed on Singh, directed by Vikramaditya Motwane and the other which narrates Gaitonde’s backstory directed by Anurag Kashyap. The Gaitonde narrative seems a tad filmy, but then isn’t every gangster’s story just that? In comparison, Motwane’s narrative is taut yet sensitive — he directs thrills, confrontations, deaths and life with an inherent sense of place and more importantly, innate human dignity.

Aloknanda Dasgupta’s background score is atmospheric and moody, adding to the much needed texture which is created by the supporting crew, whether it’s the turban drapers or the costume designers. There are many Bombays in this city and it is to the crew’s credit that they bring them alive so evocatively. It’s fortunate that Sacred Games, has been created by an international streaming major, this means that life can be depicted as it is lived.

Besides the colourful patois, there are uninhibited and furtive sex scenes, nudity, random and planned violence, as it unfurls everyday in the metropolis. Interestingly the book was written when the NDA government was at the helm, and the Hindu right had entered cultural spaces with their ideologies. In 2018, the scenario is not very different, religion has invaded the popular discourse again and we are constantly made to calibrate individuals and actions against the binaries of religion. There is no better time then, to have this mandala of a show, which accords viewers a grand view of the city, its multifarious ticking parts and the several games which are played out in the name of religion.

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