As i took 3 weeks to finish watching Sacred Games on Netflix, i wasn’t quite sure if I was savouring it, or meandering through it.
Sacred Games, based on Vikram Chandra’s book by the same name, is a story of two different men, in different time periods, whose lives intersect at the beginning of the show, with a long rambling phone call.
Ganesh Gaitonde – played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, with nuance – is the street hood turned king of Bombay, controlling the city through his base in Gopalmath. Gopalmath is a fictional place, but is possibly based on Baiganwadi in Govandi, which is the city’s largest dumping ground. Ganesh Gaitonde made his money from garbage, before he moved up the value chain of crime. Sartaj Singh – played by Saif Ali Khan, in a very non-Bollywood way – is a common state police inspector in the Mumbai Police. An honest cop in a dishonest system, he is holding on to his place in the order, by the skin of his teeth. This is a world not filled with IPS, rather with the internal politics of the Mumbai police department. As the show begins Sartaj Singh is conflicted on whether to support his fellow officers in the department over the illegal shooting of a Muslim boy, or stand for the truth. As the show starts, a battered Sartaj Singh gets a call from the legendary Ganesh Gaitonde who tells him about the city they both love being in danger, and how everyone except the mysterious Trivedi will die in 25 days. And, there begins the cat and mouse of the show.
The show has both a Bombay and a Mumbai. Bombay is the city in which Ganesh Gaitonde comes of age. The son of a mendicant and a mother, who wants more, Gaitonde grows up without a moral core, rejecting the God that his father believed in so much, and setting himself up as the man who controls his own destiny. It is a world of gangsters, and molls, of dreams and love, of a rise to the top.
The tonality of this part of the series is very similar to the much maligned Bombay Velvet. The city that sees Gaitonde’s brutal and ruthless rise to power is shot lovingly in noirish tones, and much of it is dark and hopeless as befits the genre. This is a Bombay where cops, politicians, crooks, and Bollywood are separate but equal. They come together when needed, but the rest of the time they mind their own business. It is a world where women say chutiya hai kya, as casually as they would ask chai piyega kya. Most of us have but a passing knowledge of this city- in that we pass by these areas when we are travelling. We really don’t know this world.
The Mumbai in which Sartaj Singh operates is far more grey. It is a world where the nexus between the cops, politicians, builders, bollywood, NGO’s, and crime lords has taken over the city. It is difficult to say where one stops and the other begins. This is less noir, and more a reflection of a dystopian present. My issue with the show is that they they spent more time on the absolutely riveting portion on Gaitonde’s rise to to the top of the pile, and not so much for the setting up of the present. We never quite care for Sartaj’s Singh’s story much, because we don’t know too much about him. We know he is an honest man wrestling with his conscience about the death of a young Muslim boy. We know he is separated and carries a torch for his wife. We know his boss Parulkar (Neeraj Kabi) is a complete slime ball, who is doesn’t have a spine. We know his constable Katekar (Jitendra Joshi) is loyal to Singh, far more than he is to the service. All the markers for a noir hero are in place, but nothing that builds empathy for Singh until maybe the end of the series.
There is a parallel track about a top Actor Zoya Mirza who is being blackmailed by her boyfriend. Maybe the book has more layering (and i haven’t read the book), but in the series this strand sticks out as a sore thumb.
The show works very well as a gangster film. The parts that feature Gaitonde stamping his authority on the Bombay underworld are fantastic. As is his love story with the mysterious Kukoo (Kurbra Sait). The sheer chemistry in their interactions is phenomenal. There is just so much sweetness in their love story, that like all good noir, you expect it to come to a sorry end.
You can’t wait for the next instalment of Gaitonde’s love story with the city. On the other hand, Sacred Games is a let down as the police procedural – the part where Sartaj Singh is trying to decipher the threat to the city. The search for what will destroy Mumbai in 25 days is so scattered, and so disjointed that at the end of the show you don’t care if the city implodes or not. There is a RAW angle – bringing in the Indian intelligence agency which sticks out as a sore thumb. Radhika Apte brings in a wide eyed impatience to the role, but the role itself is poorly defined.
The city of Mumbai/Bombay is as much a character in the show, as any of the cast. The multi lingual nature of the city is captured well in the dialogue script. Practically everything that goes down in the police force is in street Marathi. Sartaj Singh speaks to his mother in Punjabi. The language of Gopalmath is expletive ridden Hindi. My knowledge of swear words has had a quantum leap with this show.
The show leaves us on a cliff hanger – and, i haven’t made up my mind if i will invest 8 more hours of my life on the show.
Is Sacred Games worth a watch ? Yes, purely to see Nawaz as Ganesh Gaitonde, and the Bombay of the 80’s and 90’s.