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We're first to blend Hinduism & Islam in Mandala art: Sacred Games designer

Sacred Games title image. Source: Netflix
Sacred Games has taken the Indian audience by storm. The unfolding macabre of the storyline had viewers hooked from the very first minute. However, the title sequence and episode titles portrayed a refreshing touch of Hindu symbolicism intertwined with Mandala art, along with bits and pieces of Islamic patterns. The colourful title sequence starts with a Mandala design that depicts both the religions co-existing in fully saturated glory. As the sequence moves forward, archival footages of violence and anger due to religious and political differences take over and then slowly, the colours bleed into the darkness that all those actions have brought in society.

The episode titles use Mandala art in an evolutionary way, with minimalistic design themes portraying a few events and characters from Hindu mythology. One can instantly connect with the contemporary artwork that resonates with the international aesthetics as well.

The showrunners, Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap, have left no stone unturned in portraying Vikram Chandra's novel on screen along with the title sequence and episode titles, providing a befitting tone to it. Title sequence director Vijesh Rajan, designer Anirudh Mehta and the team from Plexus motion design labs have churned out some path-breaking designs for the hugely acclaimed series. 

Viewers across India and abroad are eagerly waiting for the second season after Saif Ali Khan, who plays police officer Sartaj Singh, dropped a hint that shooting for season 2 begins this September. Rahul Saha talks to Vijesh Rajan, the man behind the design, about its evolution. Edited excerpts:


What was the director's brief while making the designs?

In 2017, we got a call from Phantom Films. Vikramaditya Motwane ran us through what he thought was a good title sequence and several concepts that were tied to the undertones of the show. We were then given the episode screenplays to read. The screenplay itself had a wishlist concept for the title sequence.

Since Plexus had got their hands on Mandala art from Tibetan artists, we jumped at the chance of using it as the chief visual motif. We realised that the Mandala plays an important part in the show and several plot twists were centered around them.

Netflix told us about the new trends in title sequences. They asked us to come up with an organic sequence that would change with every episode. We created a Mandala logo for the show, which contained eight symbols based on the titles of the episodes coined by the writers. Each of these symbols would themselves expand and become Mandalas of their own. 

Did you face any problems while making these symbols, given the depth of the subject?

Certain episode titles (such as Ashwathama and Halahala) have mythological back-stories, but we had to represent them in the form of one visual emblem. We studied various Mandalas like the Kundalini and other Yantras and arrived at the breakdown that Mandalas usually are geometric structures within geometric structures, just like the show has layers within layers -- so we used that as a basis for the main Mandala design. 

After around a month-and-a-half of these, we presented the eight episode mandalas to Vikram and Netflix and they were pleased.

The second issue we faced was that most mythology-based artwork in our country is very true to the cultural and historical representation of the design. We wanted our artwork to be contemporary, yet represent Hindu culture and mythology graciously. Geometry, balance, and form are a few basic principles that Aniruddh has always loved to explore in his work and we are big fans of his explorations of sacred geometry. So we knew that he would take all our research on what elements should come together to become visual emblems for each episode and he was able to use his mastery to bring out some gorgeous, contemporary art.

What precautions did you take while making them? Were there any challenges?

In the main Mandala, the Sacred Games logo, we have infused both Hindu and Islamic design elements. This was a difficult combination to arrive at because putting them together has never been attempted before. This was the challenge we overcame. 

The audience has seen limited work on Hindu and Islamic symbolicism. What are the reactions?

We have been receiving a lot of praise for our work on Sacred Games -- our followers on social media have doubled and our phones are ringing off the hook with offers for new work. 

We always approach our work with the belief that we're torchbearers of a design evolution in the Indian film and art scene. Hindu art has always been at the centre of Indian culture, and it has been evolving over time. 

The title sequence you directed, uses symbolic designs with old footages of political events, which is a first for Indian television. What was the idea behind it?

The Mandala starts off colourfully. In close-ups, it is composed of very distinct styles of lines and patterns from Hindu and Islamic culture. The Mandala tries to depict that the Sacred Games universe is set in India — the oranges and reds representing Hindus, and the greens and blues representing Islam and other religions. In the beginning, we see them co-existing in fully saturated glory. 

But as the sequence moves forward, and we start seeing the violence and anger in the archival footage, the colours bleed into darkness - and slowly, all that's left is pure black. This represents the effects of communal animosity and the darkness it has brought in our history. 

These visual metaphors had to be constructed very carefully, as we wanted to represent the past events of our country from a neutral perspective, but at the same time, in an artistic and aesthetically pleasing manner. 

Is there any direct relation between the initial slides and the story?

Yes, there is a direct relation to each and every one of them. The writers have constructed the mythology-based titles to reflect the happenings of the episodes. In some, they are quite openly evident, in others, there are connections to be figured by the audience.

The audiences have a polarised opinion about censorship in webseries. What are your views on it?

Netflix is a paid service and it is not something that can be stumbled upon accidentally by a child or a conservative adult. So if you're watching a show on Netflix like Narcos or House of Cards, you are doing it by choice. While watching them, Netflix (and other streaming platforms) warns about things like violence or drug abuse or even explicit scenes. 

It is my personal opinion that premium content on the internet, which is not accessible in the public domain, should not be subject to censorship. The adults in our country need to have the freedom to choose whatever they wish to watch and platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar give them that choice. 

That aside, I strongly feel that Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap are responsible filmmakers and have not taken the absence of censorship lackadaisically. Their portrayals have always been artistic and integral to the plot of the series. 

Any insights on the upcoming projects of Plexus?

Netflix will come out with Ghoul in August for which Plexus has provided end-to-end visual effects supervision and motion design. 

We are also in talks with some Indian and International filmmakers for some super exciting projects, but it's too early to mention names.

2> In case you have skipped the opening title sequence, you can watch it here:

Sacred Games - Opening Title Sequence from Plexus on Vimeo.