Online streaming behemoth Netflix has been firing out new television series with such quick succession that it is impossible to keep up. Feeling the ‘fomo’, of being behind on their latest tantalising offerings, I decided to hop off the new releases conveyor belt, and investigate some of series on Netflix that have evaded the aggressive levels of hype that adorn their flagship shows. During this process, I found a glittering television jewel that I am sharing with you in this article
The show that fell into my lap was Sacred Games. This detective-thriller is based on a novel of the same name by Vikram Chandra. The novel found critical success upon its 2006 release but interestingly not any commercial success of note. In many ways, this makes it the perfect source material for TV adaptation. With strong writing and concepts there is plenty for the show runners to draw upon and fill eight episodes with. The hefty 928-page novel has enough plot, digressions, and musing to ensure that there are no filler episodes. Yet, the show manages to avoid the crippling expectations of adapting a best-seller fiction phenomenon. This also Netflix’s first Indian Original piece of programming. I think it is a perfect story to kick off this new venture. As I discuss later in the article Sacred Games crafts a wonderful sense of place. This sets it apart from other Netflix Originals I have seen that do not so readily tell stories rooted in the countries that they come from. Being on this online platform also means that Sacred Games can swerve past the regulatory boards of film and TV that would have objected to some of the darkest aspects brought to our screens here. Netflix allows the show-runners to remain true to the infernal nature of the work and some of the extreme scenes we see as a result.
Running across two timelines the dual narrative weaves together the criminal underbelly of 80s and 90s Mumbai and a current day investigation into an infamous crime lord, Ganesh Gaitonde. In present day detective Satarj Singh receives a strange phone call from Gaitonde as he attempts to find his location. This sequence culminates with Gaitonde’s suicide and in his final breaths he leaves an enigmatic and ominous message. According to this nefarious gangster, Singh has twenty-five days to save the city. From what exactly? Well, that begins to unfold over the remaining seven episodes. However, it is not the crux of the story. This seems to lie with the origins of Gaitonde himself. The pulpy antagonist has a bad case of the God-complex and his backstory explains how this develops from his lowly begins to his rise through the felonious underworld of Mumbai. Satarj is his opposite. He is virtuous, honest and weighed down with worry. The sweat soaked shirt and hounded eyes of Singh are emblematic of his weather worn spirit in the face of the corruption of his police department and he only finds himself led down an even darker path as he tries to uncover the meaning behind Gaitonde’s warning.
In both paper and virtual form, Sacred Games is by all intents and purposes a formulaic detective series. We have a mystery at the beginning. It has a criminal with a troubled past. And the broken-man-cop with a troubled present. Yet by operating within such confines Sacred Games finds itself free to explore larger thematic issues pertinent to India specifically and individuals universally. It handles organised crime and its links to local politics, to more historical events that still leave their impact today, namely the wrench caused by the violent partition of India in 1947. I feel there are many reference to Indian history and politics that evade my recognition. I am used to having my lack of knowledge reinforced daily to me at university so a reminder of this whilst watching TV is just another dish on the pile. However, more seriously, Indian history is an area where I have remained shamefully ignorant. In carrying out research for this article I found many journalists discussing the religious and historical events that have an influence on the show. I recommend doing a little google search for yourself as it provided me with a retrospective deeper understanding of the cultural cogs responsible for turning the basic plot at hand.
Perhaps directors Vkramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap’s biggest achievement is their ability to communicate a sense of place visually. Not since True Detective season one, have I seen a show so deftly communicate the feeling of its setting through cinematography. The muddy, muted, earthy tones of True Detective both point to the grounded, wholesome suburban life that the deep south holds up as the ideal way to live. Yet the same colour palette is also used to suggest the opposite. Everything is a little too muted and devoid of the life. The perfect colour palette, the perfect American family, has been perverted. True Detective uses its visuals to show that there is a sinister underworld existing alongside the ordinary. Similarly, Sacred Games uses colour to create the image of two cities existing as one. There are the celebratory colours and Bollywood flare that feel familiar in portrayals of India in our screen. Bollywood does have a role within the piece as the directors are well experienced in this area of directing. The glittering world of acting is important too. In a strange sequence we see actress, Nayanika, working on a mythological TV show about the goddess Shakti. Yet this vibrant world is also connected to the criminal underworld. The fabulous turns to the fear inducing as Nayanika dreams about being murdered by her criminal patron. This move, from bright and warm to neo-noir aesthetic, sees us slip from the vivid to the feverish without us being completely aware that it has happened. We can never quite be sure what vision of Mumbai we will see from scene to scene. This all serves to create the impressing of a pulsating, living city on our screens. Mumbai itself is an important character in Sacred Games and the directors do an impressive job of making its presence tangible and formidable.
This is not the only aspect that the drama shares with True Detective. There is also a religious element to both shows that provides a level of intrigue and mystery that elevates them above other offerings of the detective genre. Sacred Games is wrapped in the powers of deities and peppered with references to something bigger than that on Earth. This creates a sense of yearning in the viewer. We get a taste that there is something bigger to the story. We dig away franticly as if trying to uncover something buried in sand. Yet every time we get close to seeing its true nature the sand falls back in on itself. This is frustrating but simultaneously enticing. The allusion to a greater reality will always have me coming back for more. In True Detective, this is achieved with hints to the supernatural by the inclusion of The King in Yellow. The King in Yellow is a play that reveals truths so depraved about the world that you are driven insane. In Sacred Games the sinister nature of religion manifests itself in numerous seemingly unconnected sequences that seem to be taken from some particularly dark fairy tale. Alongside these, the 25-day countdown to Mumbai’s doom is achingly ambiguous. Is this threat rooted in the crime-thriller genre, is it to do with religious tensions between factions of the underworld and their god-like crime lord leaders, or is there some greater, unseen, deity inflicted doom looming in Mumbai’s future? The opening scene seems to suggest that organised crime, cruelty and divine fate could all be at play. A dog is thrown from the top of a tower block. As it hits the floor its pooling blood transitions into the blood trailing along the floor of an actress trying to escape Gaitonde and she too meets her end mere moments later. A voice asks “Do you believe in God? God doesn’t give a fuck.” It is an arresting opening that fuels a series that will examine how people use the idea of god for growth and destruction. The show has its flaws, some of the logic in the plot stepping stones is a little wobbly. There are clichés of story-telling and character. Yet it is these elements that delve into deeper social and abstract issues that elevate the show to a place where any other problems become obsolete. It is beautifully crafted, carefully written, and wonderfully complex. It is very much rooted in the detective genre but also so much more.
Sacred Games has season two in the works. So, there is even more to look forward to and even more reason to give it a watch. It may not be the star of Netflix’s front page but it’s a star in my eyes and I’m looking forward to discovering many other new shows amongst Netflix’s vast digital shelves.