Sacred Games review: Netflix sets an impossibly high benchmark with this gritty, quintessential Mumbai noir tale
Four episodes in, and I can already tell Sacred Games is going to be a game-changer.
"Do you believe in God? Well, God doesn't give a s***"
Ganesh Gaitonde has returned.
A gangster/crime lord (played by the effortlessly talented Nawazuddin Siddiqui) responsible for multiple murders and crimes in the gritty Bombay (now Mumbai) of the '80s and early '90s, resurfaces after years of being in hiding. He makes a call to Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan like you've probably never seen him before), a low-laying, anxiety-pill-popping, too-conflicted-for-his-own-good Sikh cop who is intrigued by this omnipresent antagonist.
Why did Gaitonde call Sartaj Singh? By his own admission, Gaitonde doesn't trust anyone: not the cops, not his aides or members of the 'G Company'. The only person he trusts is Sartaj's father — a righteous police officer who used to work for the force during Gaitonde's heyday.
He tells Sartaj that he has 25 days to save his city. Post-which, all will fall into shambles. The clock is ticking.
*Spoiler alert* Through the four episodes that I've seen of the eight-part first season of Sacred Games, it isn't clear why Gaitonde decides he's going to let Sartaj in on his final plans. In the masterstroke of a pilot episode, after a cat-and-mouse chase where he lures Sartaj into his den, Gaitonde kills himself in front of the cop, with the icy-cold demeanour of a true-blue villain.
The tone is set for the rest of the season, and we are told — in thrilling detail — about how each character of this multi-starring series got to this point.
Ganesh Gaitonde is dead and Sartaj Singh is left with a Pandora's box of a case that he doesn't know what to do with. What is Gaitonde's plan? Where are his aides now that he is dead? What is going to happen in 25 days and how grave is the matter? How are politicians going to react to this?
The next four episodes of Sacred Games masterfully fill in the gaps with a non-linear yet engaging narrative — one that charts the rise and fall of Ganesh Gaitonde against the backdrop of an ever-changing, multi-faceted, almost noir city.
There's so much to absorb, there's so much to ponder. It's not like there haven't been books about Mumbai before (Shantaram, Mumbai Fables, Maximum City to name a few), but Sacred Games is glistening and grim, wearing its fiction-laced-in-reality like a trophy. There's a reason why so many authors call Vikram Chandra's book the definitive Mumbai story. Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane give us a layered, stimulating adaptation in Netflix' Sacred Games.
Four episodes in, and I can already tell it's going to be a game-changer'.
It would be superficial to call Sacred Games the Narcos of India. This isn't just a cops-and-gangsters saga. Religion, morality, urbanisation, politics, the humanisation of the police force and spirituality are strong themes in the show. Sacred Games' most spiritual moments are captured between Gaitonde and Sartaj — in the most filmy way possible, the two characters seem to have what Bollywood would call a poonar janam ka rishta (bond from an earlier lifetime). They say the best protagonist-antagonist duos are an anti-thesis of one another. This is particularly true with Sartaj and Gaitonde.
This strange connection between the two, coupled with the episode names (Halahala, Aswathama, Brahmahatya), makes you you feel like you're part of a larger story that is beyond anyone else's control but the writers'.
Sacred Games unwittingly gives the title of God to its writers, and understandably so, since the source material is a 900-page tome. You will have nothing but respect and admiration for the writers Varun Grover, Vasant Nath and Smita Singh, who take this epic and turn it into an all-guns-blazing thriller with cliffhangers, meaty characters worth investing in and a story you are unlikely to forget in a hurry.
It is common knowledge that Anurag Kashyap has directed the Nawazuddin Siddiqui track — brutally honest, violent and eye-grabbing with relevant details. Vikramaditya, on the other hand, directed Saif''s track and he manages to make us root for Sartaj while showing us how cops have a rough time gathering their emotions. In a show that makes it hard to find one person to champion (there is so much to take in, you barely have time to form alliances), Saif and Motwane paint us a picture of a flawed protagonist who unravels mysteries just as the audiences do.
Sacred Games has a unique soundtrack. It is indie yet inclusive — quite literally, as most of the background score is fused with traffic and street noises from the city. It's so emblematic of the Mumbai-experience and so starkly real. The visuals are suspenseful, and yet the shots are stretched, taking their time to unravel but promising to be worth your time and interest.
These juxtapositions are what make Sacred Games. You can see them in the performances of each character, whether it is Sartaj Singh and his lonely existence as a barely-managing cop; Gaitonde's most intense lover Cuckoo (Kubra Sait), who has a short but oh-so-memorable role as a Delphic starlet aching to make it big; a no-nonsense RAW agent Anjali Mathur (Radhika Apte) who takes turns being neurotic and authoritative; Sartaj's right hand man Katekar and his wife Shalini, who are quintessential middle-class Mumbaikars providing the much-needed comic relief; the vulnerable yet intelligent TV actress Nayanika (played by the effervescent Geetanjali Thapa); and the token corrupt police officer Parulkar (Neeraj Kabi).
Ultimately, Sacred Games belongs to Ganesh Gaitonde, and by extension, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who is the glue that holds the narrative together.
Siddiqui gives us much to chew on, with a long-drawn-out rag-to-riches story that scopes the evolution of Mumbai through the days of rampant crime and smuggling in the early '70s, to the '93 blasts that shifted the religious axis closer to state politics, and finally bringing us to present day — where a much-older looking Gaitonde, even while in hiding, writes his own destiny.
The beauty of Sacred Games is in the details. Whether it is in the opening shot of the show, where a dog is thrown own of a high-rise and plummets to its death on the ground, fusing into the opening credits; or a shootout case that serves as the background for the relationship between Sartaj and his peers in the police force; or the fact that each character speaks the language they are comfortable with (from English to Hindi to Marathi and Gujarati); or that Gaitonde sips a bottle of 'Apna Cola' in the last few moments before he dies. You blink, and you miss.
So why is Sacred Games a game-changer?
This is a show that does not believe in mincing its words (each dialogue is peppered with the choicest of abuses). It isn't beautifying the city like a Coldplay song would. This is a fictional story set in a very real world.
These are people you and I know of, or have heard stories about. These are the people of Mumbai, and they deserve a decent story. Sacred Games is that story — and it would have never worked as a film. The episodic nature of a streaming service (which also allows you to binge) is perfectly suited to this epic narrative. Motwane and Kashyap know what they are working with and rest assured you don't end up with perfunctory cliffhangers.
Sacred Games is deliberately structured. With Netflix on board, the show is given its due diligence with high production value and an investment into the right parameters — writing, acting and direction. The pizzazz is merely a bonus.
Sacred Games will change how we make subsequent shows, and more importantly, how we tell stories. This is quite a high benchmark for India's first Netflix original.
All images from Netflix.
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