Sacred Games: Saif Ali Khan on playing a troubled cop, and why the series could work globally

Neerja Deodhar

July 09, 2018 09:10:17 IST

(Editor's note: On several dusty, balmy afternoons in Mumbai, two directors and Netflix India recreated a world that the city was familiar with during the 80s and 90s — of mobs, drugs, shootouts and rampant crime. This would serve as the backdrop for the recently released series Sacred Games, releasing on Netflix on 6 July. During tea breaks and in the middle of re-shoots, Firstpost caught up with the cast and crew of the show for a five-part series of conversations with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane and Saif Ali Khan. In Part 3, a solemn Saif Ali Khan talks about bringing prose to life on screen.)

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I distinctly remember the moment when a movie theatre full of people saw the first glimpse of Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui from Sacred Games. A slightly bulked up Khan, wearing ordinary clothes but made memorable by his Sikh turban and the scar on his cheek, looked very different from his usual self.

I also distinctly remember the day when I saw Khan on the sets of the Netflix series. Turban and scar intact after a shoot, he walked towards the press desk with a gait that is characteristic of the actor. He has played a Sikh before in Love Aaj Kal; his Veer Singh was soft-natured but strong-willed. Sartaj Singh, the character he portrays nearly a decade later in Sacred Games, is a departure from Veer Singh, and Khan the actor seems to hang somewhere in the balance. He speaks with pauses; it seems like he is speaking with thoughtfulness rather than using measured words. "I like the character a lot. The two words that best describe him are 'troubled' and 'honest'," he says.

Saif Ali Khan in a still from Sacred Games. All photographs courtesy of Netflix

Saif Ali Khan in a still from Sacred Games. All photographs courtesy of Netflix

In a story that is anchored by a gangster's life (played by Siddiqui), it can seem like every other character pales in comparison. However, Sartaj Singh's inner conflict and the moral conundrum he is confronted with ensures that he remains etched in the viewer's memory. "He's a slightly damaged character. He developed an angst which has led to a dependency on sleeping pills, which he chews like chewing gum throughout the day. He's divorced, but unlike some other characters that I've played, he's not at all comfortable with it, because he doesn't know anyone else who's been divorced and he can't understand it. He's also got problems with regards to his integrity. He just wants to be an honest cop, but that's not good enough for many situations that he finds himself in," explains Khan.

But the one fact that the viewer is constantly reminded about in the first three episodes is that Sartaj is a cop without a big case; all he has ever done is catch a pickpocket. "He hasn't been successful, and then one day, this case drops into his lap. He finally has a chance to define himself. He starts out as being a depressed, dejected and lost man, and he now has a chance to rise. How he approaches that chance makes him an exciting and interesting hero. He's trying to do his job while dealing with personal and professional issues. I think people will be able to relate to a vulnerable guy who is just trying to survive."

Portraits out of prose

Khan is perhaps the only actor who has read the source material for the series. The directors mentioned that they did not expect their actors to acquaint themselves with the book, because the script was expansive and different. Khan, however, says he decided to read up because he enjoys prose. "There's a book there, and lots of very beautiful prose. It is very easy to read... Reading the book to understand the character helps, provided it is the same character the director wants, which is not always the case. If you want to play a character, you have to create a novel in your head anyway. Sacred Games is a long novel, and we've made quite a few changes in the process of adapting it. But there's also a short story that Vikram Chandra wrote called 'Love and Longing in Bombay', where you are properly introduced to Sartaj," he explains.

Neeraj Kabi as Inspector Parulkar and Khan as Sartaj Singh

Neeraj Kabi as Inspector Parulkar and Khan as Sartaj Singh

All the same, Khan says that a lot of thought goes into translating the ideas in a book into a form suitable for the big screen. "It's very poetic stuff, but books happen in characters' minds. To translate them on screen requires a very different process." His Sartaj is different from Chandra's in that he is a more 'active' character. "If you have a passive character on screen, it's a bit boring to watch, whereas you can understand the inner workings of a passive character in a book. Nuances you can write down are not easy to perform or watch. My character is more active; there's a lot of drama, action and movement." He adds that the departure from the book began with the physique itself; the book describes the Sikh cop as tall and thin.

To prepare for the role, Khan had to slow down and calm down, because he himself is an energetic, upbeat person. Sartaj is very different from him, and he says that playing a character like Roshan Kalra in Chef was easier in comparison. "He's a simple, honest Punjabi cop. Playing him involved adopting a different kind of body language. It's a little more difficult to understand the mindspace of this character. You get to know him after playing him a few times."

Creating a cinematic world

Khan talks at length about the effort the art direction team has put in, and how important the setting is to the story. "The locations for the Sacred Games shoots have been better than most movies I've worked in and more authentic... There's something very unique about Bombay, Mumbai and India. There's method, but there's also chaos. I think this chaos is very cinematic, from the slums of Dharavi to the incredible mess you'd find in a records office, filled with files and files wrapped up in cloth. Sometimes we try to clean things up for the screen, but this time we're showing it for what it is. It is revealing," he says.

Khan and Radhika Apte in a still from the series

Khan and Radhika Apte in a still from the series

Shooting the series took Khan to some uncomfortable places. "You know I've shot in a lot of locations that would make people uncomfortable, and my threshold is pretty high, but the lavatory we shot in was the smelliest one I have been in. I greatly appreciate the fact that they cleaned it! Being exposed to dysentery is not my idea of a good time," he says with a chuckle.

Netflix vs films

Khan asserts that Sacred Games is a show that can compete at the international level. "It's got top talent at every level — my co-stars are massively talented, the directors are passionate and interesting people. The fact that Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane are directing split stories and that they haven't delegated it to someone else is important." He says that this is the reason why he didn't think of the series as a gamble which could possibly dent his career.

He says he has been afforded certain freedoms as an actor because the show will be released on Netflix. "I think there is a certain quality associated with the Netflix brand already. Yes, there is freedom, but with that there is responsibility. I don't think we're being gratuitous — we're not too violent or too profane, except Inspector Katekar grabs a man by the crotch. I've never quite seen anything like that!" he says, and the sense of bewilderment is evident on his face.

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Read part one of this series: Nawazuddin Siddiqui on playing a gangster in Sacred Games and avoiding Bollywood's 'hero' mould

Read part two of this series: Anurag Kashyap on working with Netflix and his 'street cred' as a director of dark, intense films

Updated Date: Jul 10, 2018 18:10 PM