Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Surveen Chawla
Directors: Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
God is repeatedly evoked in Netflix's Sacred Games. But the interventions of faith in the world that this cops-and-criminals thriller unfolds in are anything but divine. Do you believe in God? That is an oft asked question across the eight episodes of the series. The answer is always ambiguous. So, is there nothing sacred anymore? No, definitely not in the Mumbai underworld, which plays deadly games with the city, and certainly not where religion is a means to befool the masses. The series dives headlong and deep into this dangerous milieu where politicians, policemen, starlets and gangsters are like Shakespeare's "flies to wanton boys".
Speaking of Bollywood thrillers, Sacred Games, Netflix's first Indian original, marks the attainment of adulthood. It does not, in the manner of a pubescent drifter, have to hide his/her desires and actions from prying, disapproving eyes. It is able to give full vent to its own free will. Nothing exemplifies this more eloquently than the extended portrayal in Sacred Games of transgender cabaret dancer Kukoo, who had only limited play in the literary source material (Vikram Chandra's 2006 novel of the same name).
Thanks to the medium it is on, which, of course, is beyond the pale of mindless censorship, Sacred Games goes all out to lay bare the shady secrets of a universe when even the Gods, human and those supposedly in Heaven, aren't safe. Here, prurience and profanity jostle for attention as people wade - or are forced to wade - through unending muck running through and around multiple divides: Mandir/Masjid, Hindu/Muslim, Brahmin/non-Brahmin, good cops/bad cops...
It isn't a coincidence that one of the two key Sacred Games players - crime lord Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) has built his evil empire literally on a garbage dump. He earns the sobriquet of 'Kachra raja' after he wrests control of Mumbai's municipal waste disposal business in the mid-1980s. He is juxtaposed with Inspector Sartaj Singh, a fastidious but feckless Mumbai policeman who learns that he has links with the mafia don that goes back into the distant past.
After many years of being incommunicado, Gaitonde establishes contact with Sartaj and gives him a tip-off that sets off a chain of events in the present that are inevitably intertwined with events of a quarter century ago. Taut, gritty and immersive, Sacred Games dramatically ups the benchmark for Bollywood gangland thrillers with its racy, no-holds-barred mix of sex, violence, religious bigotry, politics and terrorism.
In turning Vikram Chandra's mammoth Mumbai epic of the same name into an international web series, the show - it runs a marathon 383 minutes - is shot and cut purely like a film, but directors Vikramaditya Motwane (also the showrunner) and Anurag Kashyap choose angles, perspectives and visual methodologies that serve the medium that Sacred Games is made for.
The duo extract marvellous performances from the entire bunch of actors on show here. Sacred Games is actually as much a triumph for casting director Mukesh Chhabra as it is for Motwane and Kashyap. The actors, even the most minor ones, are perfectly in tune with the parts they play. Although the principal strands of the story focus on two key male characters, the script accords enough space to the women - there are at least six of them in major, plot-impacting roles - for them not only to make their presence felt, but also influence in varying degrees the course of the action.
Replicating the rigour and depth of Chandra's sprawling novel straddling a complex range of events and issues that shaped India's financial capital of India as we know it today - a glittering, magnetic metropolis with ugly, festering warts all over its body - couldn't have been easy for the screenwriting team of Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath. They pull it off with astounding success and give Sacred Games the backbone and sinews to stand erect and firm.
The dark underbelly of Mumbai is on full view here. The film noir elements in Sacred Games are enhanced by the skillful camerawork and lighting (Swapnil Sonawane, Sylvester Fonseca and Aseem Bajaj), the dynamic editing (Aarti Bajaj), the evocative sound design, and the highly effective original musical score by Alokananda Dasgupta.
The tale is reimagined without sacrifice the core spirit of the original text. Its starting point is transported to the present times from where it goes back and forth to capture the biggest tipping points of contemporary Indian politics and social evolution. In the opening episode, a shot of a Mumbai Metro train against the night sky establishes the period. In Episode Two, Constable Katekar's wife refers to 26/11 and specifies that 10 years have passed since then.
From the Emergency and its excesses in the 1970s to the fanning of communal hatred, the Babri Masjid demolition, the riots in its wake and the serial bomb blasts of early 1990s, Sacred Games evokes a wide array of upheavals that have rocked the nation. These provide the backdrop to the wily, fearless Brahmin boy Gaitonde's meteoric rise in the city's underworld thanks to his ruthless decimation of mentors and rivals alike.
Saif and Nawazuddin not only ride on the tools that the script arms them with, they also add to it. The former is restraint personified, an apt strategy for a character that is bruised and tentative but acutely aware of the chance that has come his way to assert and redeem himself by assiduously following the leads provided by Gaitonde's dire prophecy.
The audience want Sartaj to take matters in his hands, but he is wired differently. His role model is his father - a good policeman who placed humanity above duty. Sartaj wants to become one himself. But the days of his father are long gone and a 'good cop' who plays by the rules and does not resort to falsehood is now an anachronism. Saif's physical demeanor is so spot on that it is easy to forget the line that separates the actor from the character.
Nawazuddin has the more flamboyant part and, as always, he is wondrously in tune with the demand of the role. Be it lust, fury, resignation or desperate defiance, the actor captures the nuances of the shifting moods of his character without missing a trick. Even by his own high standards, his Gaitonde is an awe-inspiring figure.
While the other male performers in the cast - Neeraj Kabi (flawless as DCP Parulkar), Aamir Bashir (Inspector Majid Khan), Girish Kulkarni (home minister Bipin Bhonsle), Pankaj Tripathi (in a cameo as a spiritual guru), Jitendra Joshi (Constable Katekar, Sartaj's fiercely loyal subordinate) and Jatin Sarna (Bunty, Gaitonde's right hand man) are all impressively convincing, Sacred Games draws a great deal of its frisson from the performances of the female actors.
Radhika Apte, playing RAW analyst Anjali Mathur, a woman constantly at the receiving end of subtle manifestations of sexism in the workplace, has a starring role in Sacred Games. She is rock-solid. She refrains from playing to the gallery.
Rajshri Deshpande, who comes into the picture pretty late, takes no time at all to get into the swing of things. The power and passion she packs into her robust performance help her hold her own in a series in which she is only a cog in the wheel.
Then there are Kubbra Sait's enigmatic Kukoo, Geetanjali Thapa's TV actress Nayanika Sehgal, Shalini Vatsa's feisty Kanta Bai, Elnaaz Norouzi's ambitious small-town girl Zoya Mirza, Neha Shitole's homemaker Shalini (Constable Katekar's wife) and Sukhmani Sadana's Mikki (the rebellious sister of Gaitonde accomplice Bunty) completing a remarkably formidable line-up of women in what, on the face of it, is an out and out masculine saga.
Sacred Games has no dearth of such surprises. Watch all the eight episodes in one go. Rest assured, that would be six and a half hours well spent.