Netflix's Sacred Games gets these five things wrong, when compared to Vikram Chandra's book

Siddharth Parwatay

July 11, 2018 13:02:05 IST

For the past couple of days, every other post on Facebook or Twitter has been about how “brilliant” Netflix’s Sacred Games is. While I agree that the show has indeed broken new ground in terms of production values for Indian “web” shows, it’s far from perfect — especially when you compare it to the book. Here are five ways the series falls short of Vikram Chandra's original story:

Radhika Apte as Anjali Mathur

Most of the ecstatic opinions surrounding Sacred Games have been quick to heap praise on the “excellent" casting of the show. However, many of these opinions are without a scale of reference. Audiences who are watching the show without reading the book are bound to like the characters — because they are encountering them for the first time. Characters are as good as the context they are presented in — and Mumbai’s dark underbelly is a pretty interesting backdrop to begin with. But are they true to the book? Not at all. Radhika Apte for instance, fails miserably as RAW analyst Anjali Mathur. Instead of being — as the book describes her — strong-willed, methodical and intelligent, Apte's characterisation comes across as impulsive, petulant and almost college student-like. Sadly the actor does not exude intelligence in this role. Her resting face is one of utter confusion. Even the juvenile naming convention Mathur is shown to follow, to store contacts in her phone, is indicative of this. I don't remember her having such a big chip on her shoulder about proving herself on the field (from the battle of the sexes perspective).

Character posters for Sacred Games. Netflix

Character posters for Sacred Games. Netflix

From my recollection of the book, Anjali Mathur is a somewhat severe lady who takes herself pretty seriously. The on-screen Mathur, on the other hand, is crass. In one instance she says, “Haan bhej de email” and while interrogating a suspect asks, “Yeh balance sheet teri company ka hai?” A Delhi RAW agent would’ve used “tumhari”. Either Apte doesn't have the acting chops to play a sophisticated RAW agent, or this brings me to my second complaint against the show…

The script is quite badly adapted for screen

At many points in the series, it felt like the characters were responding in the most unnatural way possible, just to keep the overarching mystery going. The book was so much better in comparison, not just at skillfully concealing plot-points, but even with the colloquialised portions. The only interesting dialogues occur when the on-screen characters were questioning God’s will or His very existence — and that was only because of the provocative nature of the subject itself. Speaking of being provocative, the use of gaalis too seems gratuitous, almost as though they were deliberately used to titillate Indian audiences.

Unidimensional characters

Unlike in Vikram Chandra's book, every on-screen character in the Netflix series is either doodh-ka-dhula or evil incarnate. There’s nothing in between. For example, the show seems to have deliberately glossed over Katekar’s womanising, and Sartaj’s petty corruption. In the book, Sartaj’s internalised justifications for accepting bribes, and his eventual dissonance with it make for a compelling moral conflict. We see none of that in the TV adaptation. The on-screen Sartaj (played by Saif ALi Khan) is a pure hero — a far cry from the layered Sartaj of the book.

Saif Ali Khan as Sartaj Singh in Sacred Games. Netflix

Saif Ali Khan as Sartaj Singh in Sacred Games. Netflix

Even Parulkar, as we’ve gotten to know him in the Netflix version, comes across as an outright psychopath, while in the book, he’s one of the most tactical characters written – certainly unethical, but with an unwavering sight on his end goal: money.

Also read — Sacred Games review: Netflix sets an impossibly high benchmark with this gritty, quintessential Mumbai noir tale

'Fokat ka masala'

Most readers of the book will realise that the script for the Netflix adaptation itself has been twisted for an added dose of masala, which it did not need. The expanded role for the assassin Malcolm, played by Luke Kenny, and the addition of a hermaphrodite consort Kukoo are just two examples. But more importantly, it was downright criminal of the show's writers to change the Sartaj-Parulkar dynamic. In the book, Parulkar is almost a father figure to young Sartaj. The eventual unravelling of that relationship as it happens in the book would've been more compelling in the long run, but it looks like Netflix chose instant gratification over the long game — eventually flip-flopping Parulkar from bad to good and maybe even good to bad in the coming seasons. This often confused and contrived narrative leads to weird inconsistencies like both Bunty and Malcolm not killing Sartaj when they have the chance. Clearly, both times, they had ample opportunity and no real consequences to fear.

Too slow

The series is clearly made for the millennial Indian, employing all the latest aesthetics and design sensibilities that we are now used to. Netflix's Sacred Games is undoubtedly visually appealing and slick. And while I’m happy it isn’t made keeping in mind the lowest common denominator, explaining every small detail so it’s easier to follow, I still found the pace too slow. I agree, 900-something pages is a lot to compress into one season, but Netflix seems to be determined to stretch the show's run to at least three seasons. Despite this lavish pace, it has still not managed to properly depict Gaitonde’s skillful rise to power. Sure, there was an element of luck in this ascent, but the lack of detail makes him come across as a bungling fool who just happened to acquire money and power. And yet, seemingly endless amounts of time seem to be spent developing Mathur’s character and backstory, without any payoff at the end.

On-screen adaptations rarely do justice to the source material. And considering all the hype, it seems like the makers of the show have taken an approach that has resonated with viewers who're encountering the story for the first time. My recommendation? Instead of waiting for the next season, start on Vikram Chandra's book as you can — and get a taste of the real thing!

Updated Date: Jul 11, 2018 16:54 PM