Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan), Anjali Mathur (Radhika Apte) and Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui)
Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan), Anjali Mathur (Radhika Apte) and Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui)

In Sacred Games, Sartaj Singh, played by Bollywood star Saif Ali Khan, finds himself racing against time to save Mumbai. It all starts with an anonymous phone call tip: Mumbai will be destroyed in 25 days, do what you can to save it, Singh is told. The mysterious caller turns out to be Ganesh Gaitonde, a notorious Mumbai mobster superbly portrayed by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. But Gaitonde is never able to tell Singh the full story of what will happen in 25 days. That is left up to Singh to figure out with the help of his friend and colleague Katekar (Jitendra Joshi) and RAW agent and frenemy Anjali Mathur (Radhika Apte).

The eight-episode drama series is told in two parallel storylines: the rise of Gaitonde from humble beginnings and his rivalry with Suleiman Isa (Saurabh Sachdeva), a character that is based on the infamous gangster Dawood Ibrahim; and the present day, where Singh, a middling cop finds himself dealing with more than he can chew. There are also subplots revolving round Bollywood’s link with Mumbai’s mafias (inspired by real-life events) and Katekar solving a missing person’s case.

Based on Vikram Chandra’s sprawling 928-page long novel, Sacred Games explores the intersection of Bollywood, gangster rivalries, politicians’ ambitions and Hindu-Muslim tensions. And like Chandra’s novel, the drama is filled with a long list of characters from Zoya Mirza (Elnaaz Norouzi), a Bollywood starlet whose secret past threatens to derail her career, to Gaitonde’s henchmen and their many loves and rivalries.

Based on Vikram Chandra’s novel, Netflix’s first Indian production Sacred Games explores the intersection of Bollywood, gangster rivalries, politicians’ ambitions and Hindu-Muslim tensions

Directors Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, along with writers Varun Grover, Vasant Nath and Smita Singh, have done an excellent job in translating the novel’s many plots and characters to the screen. The gritty underworld of Mumbai is also realistically depicted. While the quick pace and suspense keep the story moving along, the question of what doom awaits Mumbai could have been revealed sooner. It’s hard to root for Sartaj and Anjali when the threat seems so vague till the last episode.

Fans of the novel may also be unhappy with a few changes. The role of Kuckoo (Kubra Sait) has been expanded for the screen, which some may consider unnecessary given the already vast scope of the story and its many characters. And while Khan’s Sartaj Singh is an honest cop working for a corrupt institute, the Sartaj depicted in the novel is a more ambiguous character, doing the best he can in a world that is not so black and white. It’s disappointing that the show’s makers didn’t opt to make Sartaj a more complex character. As many landmark cable shows have proven, a protagonist with some negative qualities and moral ambiguity make for great television (Walter White in Breaking Bad, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings in The Americans, Tony Soprano in The Sopranos).

The world of Sacred Games is a macho man’s world but there are plenty of strong women. The practical but tough Kanta Bai (Shalini Vatsa) balances out the sometimes emotional Gaitionde and Norouzi’s Mirza is unintimidated by anyone and skilled at manipulating her way to the top. Apte’s Anjali, however, is disappointing as she come across as a frightened agent out of her depth rather than the no-nonsense RAW Agent Anjali in the novel.

Sacred Games is Netflix’s first Indian production and it is as binge-worthy and slickly made as any of the streaming service’s other offerings. A second season has been announced and there are reportedly more Indian-produced shows in the works, part of the streaming service’s strategy to make inroads into the Indian market.

It seems Netflix’s gamble has paid off with Sacred Games. The show has received rave reviews from the Indian media and seems to have generated a strong following in the country. Whether it can follow up on the series’ success remains to be seen. While the taut thriller has garnered many fans, the gratuitous violence, language and nudity may not suit everyone’s taste.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 22nd, 2018

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