‘Sacred Games’ will make you crave an Indian golden age of television

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If you’re making your first Netflix original, you have to swing big. 

This is a tradition that started with House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Now, as the company expands its worldwide empire, Netflix India has debuted its first original series: Sacred Games, based on the novel by Vikram Chandra. It’s a big, magnificent swing, and the first season hits it out of the park.

Sacred Games, based on the novel by Vikram Chandra, is the story of Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a notorious gangster who contacts police officer Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) with a threat against the city of Mumbai. Singh ends up working with federal agent Anjali Mathur (Radhika Apte) as they try to solve the elusive criminal’s puzzle. 

Though Singh is our de facto hero and the knight in shining armor, Gaitonde is the central character, whose life is pieced together in flashbacks throughout the eight episodes.

Structurally, the show is part Da Vinci Code, part Slumdog Millionaire. It also harkens significantly to streaming sibling Narcos, with its use of multiple languages and immersion in the underworld. It bears the unmistakable artistic signature of directors/producers Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, a sensibility found in India’s independent features and short films. 

India boasts a voracious film and television audience, but almost all TV shows in India are reality shows or soap operas (“serials”). In 2017, Amazon bet on the sports drama Inside Edge, which performed positively and earned a second season. Notably, Kashyap’s 2012 opus Gangs of Wasseypur (also starring Siddiqui) used to be on Netflix – not as the two four-hour films as which it debuted, but as an eight-episode miniseries.

Sacred Games faces pressure on the international stage, due in part to Netflix’s reach and in part to the popularity of Chandra’s novel.

Though Sacred Games is a rare form of Indian entertainment, it’s hard to imagine Sacred Games in any format besides this series due to the rich craftsmanship of the show. Gaitonde’s world and life are overwhelmingly immersive, as is the ominous trail he leaves for Singh. 

There’s an English dub available, but the original Hindi (and sometimes English, Marathi, or Punjabi) is vital to the viewing experience. The dialect is harsh and guttural and curses – whether you understand them or not – sting with the sharpness of their delivery.

It’s also violent – like Game of Thrones violent or Daredevil violent – which may surprise audiences who only know India for colorful song-and-dance rom-coms. But violence has been a staple of Bollywood for decades – it even used to be in those sweeping musicals about love. Though Sacred Games sets up a world in which you expect assault, rape, and gun fights, they fit into Gaitonde’s uncouth reality through careful production and cinematography.

Siddiqui, a proven talent, is nothing short of hypnotic as Gaitonde with all his rage and ambition. (Lion‘s Sunny Pawar plays a young version of the gangster, ensuring he won’t be pigeonholed as “adorable child” for long.) Though not fully a household name even in India, Sacred Games could propel him to the international versatility of an Irrfan Khan or an Anupam Kher. 

Apte nails her portrayal of Mathur, perhaps because she makes it so unremarkable. Women on India’s screens are almost always airbrushed, lightened, perhaps wearing colored contracts, and caked in makeup within an inch of their lives. They are a fantasy, but Mathur (and Apte herself) is a real woman, a highly competent women in a competitive field and patriarchal society.

She’s driven by duty and justice while Singh has a more a personal stake (Gaitonde knew his father). Khan, better known for popular commercial films, delivers a subtle performance that is one of his best. 

I worked for Khan during production of his 2014 film Happy Ending, and based on conversations at that time it’s clear that Sacred Games is the kind of project he’s spent years trying to find. He was frustrated with the stagnancy of commercial Bollywood and the lack of new stories to tell, intrigued by darkness and folklore, which interweave subtly throughout Sacred Games.

With such a powerful debut, Sacred Games sets an impressive bar for India’s Netflix originals, and creates a show unlike anything else available on the streaming platform. With the stars’ tight film schedules, a second season might be challenging, but Netflix is undoubtedly eyeing it. You’ll want it too, after you take a breather for this one. This game is not for the faint of heart. 

Sacred Games is now streaming on Netflix.

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