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Kayakalp: Why Sacred Games could be Indian television's Lagaan moment

A still from the trailer. Screenshot: Netflix
Note: This article contains spoilers

“Ja ke dekh record mein, kaun hai! Insaan hai ke bhagwan?”

Ganesh Eknath Gaitonde calls Sartaj Singh one night, like a god, and thus begins a story that would eventually take hold of both on-screen characters and audiences off it.

Gaitonde is played by the absolutely brilliant Nawazuddin Siddiqui, while the Sikh cop, Sartaj Singh, is played by Saif Ali Khan, who also does a good job. Netflix’s first original India series is based on a book by the same name, written by Vikram Chandra. The voluminous novel has been adapted for the screen by Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath. The adaptation stays true to the atmospherics of the book and manages to recreate a compelling, dark, dingy underbelly of the metropolis called Mumbai.

A still from the trailer. Screenshot: Netflix

The series is a carefully choreographed dance of Mumbai underworld, and the city’s police and political forces, both local and national. Two of India’s top film directors, Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, come together to direct this breakthrough series. This isn’t a first for an Indian television series; Ramesh Sippy (Buniyaad), Shyam Benegal (Discovery of India) and Basu Chatterjee (Byomkesh Bakshi) have done it earlier too.

In Kashyap’s first feature film, Black Friday, the chief investigator of Bombay blasts (played by KK) interrogates Asghar Muqadam. A scared, breathless, slightly incoherent Muqadam was performed by Nawazuddin Siddiqui; his first famous movie scene. In Sacred Games, Kashyap directs underworld don Gaitonde’s story. Nawazuddin performs the role as if Chandra wrote it in the book with only him in mind.

Unlike Muqadam, Gaitonde is not scared or incoherent. He, after all, thinks he is god. And he draws the queasy Sartaj Singh in. The story then keeps shuttling between the past and the present as layer after layer is carefully revealed to the viewer and an engrossing puzzle slowly falls into place. Saif Ali Khan does a good job as Sartaj, portraying his doubts, his helplessness and his curiosity well on the screen. Director Vikramaditya Motwane helms Sartaj’s story in the series and brings out those layers well as Sartaj battles with his past and present.

The series is full of some exceptional characters performed brilliantly by different actors. There is Shalini Vatsa who plays the stern looking Kanta Bai well. There is Jatin Sarna portraying the role of psychotic and bigoted Bunty to perfection. There is Radhika Apte as RAW agent Anjali Mathur who makes a subversive argument about a female officer being expected to sit behind a desk and not be out there in the field. Two of India’s best actors, Neeraj Kabi and Girish Kulkarni, portray DCP Parulkar and Bipin Bhosale, respectively, and both do a fabulous job. But other than Nawazuddin embodying Gaitonde, the best performances are by two lesser-known actors. Jitendra Joshi as constable Katekar, Sartaj Singh’s trusted partner, is truly brilliant. And so is Kubra Sait’s portrayal of the mysterious Kukoo.

A still from the trailer. Screenshot: Netflix

Strange and completely incorrect comparisons have been made between Sacred Games and Narcos. The stories are about the world of crime but there is little common between the two. Sacred Games is not Indian Narcos. It is more than that. It is Indian television’s Lagaan moment. It represents a breakthrough after decades of pathetic television content being produced by mediocre people driven by really low ambitions. If Lagaan showed the Hindi film industry what could be achieved, Sacred Games tells the Indian TV industry that it is possible to make an engrossing series for a smarter audience. That dumbing down is an excuse made by incapable and lazy makers. Sacred Games (both in book and TV forms) represents high-quality writing. It is important to note that the writers started on this journey exactly two years ago, and the result shows. Their adaptation of the story stays true to the book and their decision to situate it in the present age was a smart device.

Sacred Games exhibits what is possible when writers, directors and actors are not restrained by formulae-driven production houses or circumscribed by an ancient censor board. While Hindi cinema has seen films turn more realistic in depiction and language (before Pahlaj Nihalani emerged on the scene), Indian TV has chosen to remain archaic and subdued. This series can perhaps lead to a change.

A still from the trailer. Screenshot: Netflix

Indian audiences are now more exposed to international trends and art forms. They binge on the latest European or American TV shows. They don’t mind being challenged by writers or directors. They are used to better writing, direction and subjects now. They are not held back by language any more with subtitles coming in handy. While some Hindi filmmakers have made an effort to keep up with this change, TV has been happy to pretend that this problem does not exist. There is not even an acknowledgement of this gap in what a large section of the audience craves and what is dished out on Indian TV every night. Hopefully, this will start to change now.

While the most famous TV shows now deal with characters that are grey, Indian television hasn’t yet reached that stage. In Sacred Games, however, the characters are more grey than black or white. Is Gaitonde a villain or victim? Is Parulkar just another corrupt cop? Is Anjali Mathur playing or being played?

The show also abandons any attempt to be politically correct. While Gaitonde mouths off his views on what Rajiv Gandhi may or may not have done, the show brings to focus the rise of Hindutva politics in the country. Unlike Indian TV, it does not skirt uncomfortable or controversial issues like Hindu-Muslim polarisation. It actually depicts how it is engineered on the ground and how individuals become pawns, often willingly. There is no attempt to sugarcoat any aspect, least of all their language, which remains really colourful and much more believable.

A still from the trailer. Screenshot: Netflix

The appearance of nudity and depiction of sex on screen is a first for Indian TV, but what is remarkable is how it is not included to titillate but is presented in a matter-of-fact fashion.

There will, of course, be disagreements with and criticism of various aspects of this show. Some may not find it as entertaining as this writer did. What we must not ignore, however, is that Sacred Games is much more than a TV series for a web platform. It is an authentic Indian show that belongs to the world of high-quality television content. It represents a new direction for Indian television. Or in the fashion of how its chapters are titled, it represents, kayakalp.
Twitter: @bhayankur
For an understanding of how Sacred Games chapters are titled, this thread could be handy. *Contains spoilers*.