Sacred Games was a book screaming for a screen adaptation; will Netflix original do justice to Vikram Chandra's novel?
With the screen adaptation of Sacred Games come the challenges of staying true to the drama, fantasy-like element, detailing and scale of the source material
Recent photos from the Sacred Games shoot have piqued everyone’s interest — even before the series starts streaming on Netflix on 6 July. For a highly anticipated novel that reportedly earned its author, Vikram Chandra, a record advance of 1 million USD but did not find readership, Sacred Games, the Netflix series has done a better job at getting people engaged.
The book has earned a cult following over the years. Making a series based on its unique cast of characters makes it worthwhile to analyse just how its makers will actually crack its elaborate plot.
I recall a conversation after an interview with filmmaker and producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra, married to Vikram Chandra’s sister Anupama Chopra. When I had casually discussed books that must be made into Hindi films, Sacred Games popped up as the most suitable, also given the personal familiarity that Vidhu has with its author. But the astute filmmaker pointed out accurately — how does one film capture all that happens in this, multi-character, inter-meshed plot?
So an eight-part series is ideal; and the space that Phantom Films embraces is right up the alley — neon-flicked and labyrinthine — for a screen interpretation of Sacred Games. Interestingly, Ridley Scott had made an offer to Anurag Kashyap to make the series in English for an American network. Kashyap did not agree as he felt that the series could be done justice to in Hindi. Yet there will be challenges in converting this story to screen, and battles to pick.
The book builds upon the ambience of nasty surprise and shock that Indians got during the early '90s. The Hindu religious Right was sturdily paving its way to power and organised crime was literally running the show in Mumbai. Legitimate businesses like films, real estate, movie theatres, discotheques and hotels were funded by black money. Mafia dons ordered businessmen and local administration around, posed with starlets and cavorted with powerful politicians. This is also the decade when Pakistan and India become nuclear powers in their own right.
Enter Gaitonde, a son of the soil, Maharastra-born don who has decided to build himself a nuclear shelter — a cube in the middle of Mumbai and has basically locked himself in there. Gaitonde’s life has dealt with injustices of poverty, jail time and exponential growth from petty crime to a Mafia power center. His confessional, cut short by a suicide and murder of his lover, a Miss India, interrupts a violent, engrossing life story peppered with deadpan humor. Gaitonde faces difficulty in dealing with an ambitious, local politician, unable to cope with his manipulation, lies, and the specter of communal violence. He also has Zoya Mirza by his side, a Miss India winner and a seductress. Gaitonde’s voice returns from the dead to continue with his narration of his life story. Listening to him is Inspector Sartaj Singh, a 40 plus Mumbai cop whose marriage is over and career is on the slump. Getting the Gaitonde collar could turn things around for him.
Sacred Games unfolds with massive scale — as a female Indian intelligence agent reaches out to Sartaj Singh to determine why Gaitonde killed himself; what transpired here. The plot traverses espionage operations from the era of NEFA (now, Arunachal Pradesh) to infiltrations of insurgencies across India over the decades, to the looming threat of a nuclear-armed violent neighbor. Towards its conclusion, the book tends to derail with improbable elements like a nuclear weapon parked in the heart of Mumbai, and a plot involving sinister global criminal businessmen and Gaitonde’s gang. At times, it overdoes the focus on luxury yachts and glitzy showbiz, veering off context. But it does draw complex linkages, based on oral history and thorough research, to establish the underlying clout of corruption and money in shaping India’s reality. Its warp and weft captures change, continuity and regular injustice that has marked our country’s story till date.
Sacred Games released with fanfare but failed to draw readership. Its massive size and weight might have been a factor. As reviews of leading Western publications like The New York Times and The Guardian establish, dipping into colloquial Mumbaiya lingo and local cultural references made the book dense for the reader non-versed with the city’s story. Drawing inspiration from 19th century crime and epic drama novels, Sacred Games traverses drama and mystery in settings drawn from reality.
Bringing Sacred Games to the screen will have a few challenges. First, capturing its scale and element of drama requires elaborate writing and plot development. The novel dips into India’s history of brinkmanship with its neighboring nations, assuming awareness of certain Indian historical truths. That brings me to the second challenge. Engaging the current 16 to 35 about realities that they did not live in will not be easy. Cell phones, social media, the Internet and SUVs were not around in the era of Gaitonde. Also, recent revisions in academic curriculum in Indian schools have severely limited what one learns as the nation’s postmodern history in school. So this becomes a strange India, and a stranger Mumbai that this age group will see in the TV series.
Third is the element of visual drama and near-fantasy that the book evokes. Building a white cube that is actually a nuclear shelter in the heart of Mumbai toplines some visual challenges that Sacred Games presents — authenticity being essential to make this story believable. And the fourth challenge is perhaps the trickiest. Chandra’s epic novel captures layers of Indian espionage and understated political wheeling-dealing across real events. It draws linkages that defy imagination and yet, are real. Capturing this aspect of the book is essential to getting its tone right. This can be achieved by a well-written and credible script, which can connect with a Netflix audience that does not limit itself to Indians alone.
With a star cast of Saif Ali Khan, the star that does grey roles brilliantly, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte, Sacred Games the show has gotten a decent team in place and adequate recognition. In 21st century India, it is easy to forget of our reality before economic liberalisation and the defanging of the Mumbai mafia. Ram Gopal Verma has unsuccessfully tried to recreate the era onscreen for some time now.
But with the sensibility of Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane in play, Sacred Games has the right contemporary storytellers in charge. Keeping with methodical international style of working, both filmmakers are in charge of four episodes — four focus on Sartaj Singh’s narrative and the other four tell Gaitonde’s fascinating tale. Now it is a wait and watch for this promising game to begin.
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