As the camera follows a Pomeranian fall from the roof of a high-rise and plummet to its death on the pavement below, the voice of Nawazuddin Siddiqui floats in from the background, “Bhagwaan ko maante ho?” (“Do you believe in god?”). The gripping opening scene sets the tone for Netflix’s first Indian web series, Sacred Games, a dark and gritty tale based on Vikram Chandra’s 2006 novel of the same name.
Soon after the opening scene, gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, the character Siddiqui plays, goes on to say how he often feels like god himself -- sipping on a bottle labeled Apna Cola as he prophesises the annihilation of Mumbai.
Directed by Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap,Sacred Games has already generated a lot of buzz on social media since its premier on July 6. Besides Siddiqui as the menacing Gaitonde, the series stars Saif Ali Khan as his key adversary, police officer Sartaj Singh, Radhika Apte as intelligence officer Anjali Mathur, and a host of other critically-acclaimed actors in supporting characters. Sacred Games is set against the backdrop of a cat-and-mouse game between Singh and Gaitonde in the heart of Mumbai. The gangster challenges the cop to save the city in the next 25 days, leaving Singh to decode his cryptic words while racing against a ticking bomb.
The eight episode-long series was shot simultaneously by the two directors, with Motwane steering the Sartaj Singh narrative and Kashyap weaving the story of Gaitonde. A riveting screenplay loaded with expletives and an antagonist who’s mired in insecurities but knocked out by his thirst for power, Sacred Games seems to have taken the Netflix-and-chill Indian by a pleasant surprise.
“It’s all set to become even stranger and more exciting in season two,” says actor Pankaj Tripathi, who essays the role of Khanna Guru Ji or Gaitonde’s “third father” in the show. “This season wasn’t too difficult, the real task begins in season two…However, I have complete faith in the company of Varun Grover, Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap, all of whom I love dearly,” the actor says. Despite Tripathi’s character appearing briefly in this season, his presence piques one’s interest as Guru Ji ultimately becomes a key player in the world of Sacred Games. “I haven’t read the book because I believe I am a director’s actor. I rely a lot on spontaneity while on the sets. Before starting the next season I might read the book, I am not sure. For example, I am playing the part of the lawyer in the Indian remake of The Night Of (a 2016 mini-series produced by HBO starring Riz Ahmed and John Turturro). I refused to watch that show because I wanted to situate my character in Mumbai and play it honestly,” Tripathi adds.
Over the past couple of years, directors like Anurag Kashyap have experienced several unpleasant run-ins with the Indian censor board on issues of content in their films. Subsequently, a foray into the unhinged world of platforms like Netflix has evidently given Indian filmmakers the space to push their creative envelope. “When I spoke to Radhika Apte about this show, she told me how when she had done a horror movie called Phobia a couple of years ago, she wasn’t allowed to use cuss words for censorship reasons. So she said that I don’t know how to react. It does affect the inhibition an actor faces,” says film critic Raja Sen.
Actor Kubbra Sait goes nude – involving full frontal –- in one of the most poignant and bold scenes that shows her character, cabaret dancer Cuckoo, revealing her identity as a transgender to her lover, Gaitonde. While Cuckoo was relegated to just a passing reference in the novel, Kashyap and co. breathed life into her by adding layers that gradually unfold through the first season. “I had no body of work to refer to, maybe that’s what worked for Cuckoo. It was fresh, real and raw,” says Sait, also a well-known anchor and winner of India’s Best Female Emcee Award. She had previously played short roles in Salman Khan starrers Ready (2011) and Sultan (2016). Her performance in Sacred Games has garnered praise from different quarters, as is evident from the countless messages on her social media feed. “This is special. I feel so loved. My mum is proud. That’s special…Some even compared the death of Cuckoo to the death of Jon Snow…Sacred Games has been compared to Satya and Gangs of Wasseypur. This is a grand step towards Indian content and it being showcased to the world,” Sait adds.
As the makers and actors of Sacred Games bask in the glory of their show’s success, Raja Sen feels it’s just the beginning. “It’s really good by our standards and I feel we are off to a superb start. For the last few years, we haven’t really been able to go up with regard to quality of shows produced. So compared to all of that, this is on a completely different level,” he says. However, is it too early to call it the best thing that has happened to the Indian small screen in recent times? “These are steps forward, yes, but even for the sake of the writers of this show, we need to let them do more before we deify them,” Sen says.