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Sacred Games (Season 1) review: Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane give India its own binge-worthy online show

The first season of the Netflix crime thriller, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Saif Ali Khan, is riveting and addictive.

Mayur Lookhar

Sacred Games (Netflix web-series)
Director: Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Saif Ali Khan, Radhika Apte
Rating: 3/4

Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane. Two close friends, two of the four co-founders of Phantom Films. Two filmmakers with different tastes. While Motwane has tapped into more humane stories, Kashyap has displayed a penchant for neo noir.

Despite their friendship and long association, it is quite unimaginable to think of Motwane co-directing a dark crime thriller with Kashyap. Yet, that is just what they have done. And here too, the two stick to their respective forte.

In the dark world of Sacred Games, Motwane chooses to direct the righteous cop Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) while Kashyap helms the world of the feared and ruthless gangster Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).

Sacred Games, a Netflix original web-series, is adapted from Indian-American writer Vikram Chandra's book of the same title. Since your reviewer hasn’t read the nearly 1000-page tome, we are judging the web-series solely on the vision Motwane and Kashyap throw at us.

The troika of Smita Singh, Vasant Nath and Varun Grover had the daunting task of adapting the magnum opus into a gripping script for the web-series. Chandra himself joined in as consultant.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Ganesh Gaitonde in Sacred Games

One fine evening, feared gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, who was thought to be dead, calls up Sartaj Singh and tells him the city will be wiped out in 25 days if he does not act.

Sartaj Singh manages to trace Gaitonde down. The gangster had been hiding in a bunker for the last 15 years. There are no further answers though, as Gaitonde leaves just a few clues for Sartaj Singh to unravel the Sacred Games himself.

Sartaj Singh is on course for a ‘save-the-city’ mission, but, like the audience, he, too, needs to dig into the life and times of Gaitonde to crack the mystery. From here on, the two stories run parallelly.

Sacred Games travels back in time to the 1970s to tell us how Ganesh, son of a beggar from rural Maharashtra, went on to become a crime lord of Mumbai, ruling with an iron fist from his den in Gopalmat.

We are taken into an era of crime, gang war, cinema-underworld nexus, and political goondaism, but the directors also use certain dark episodes in Mumbai and across India from the 1970s through the 1990s, which influence Gaitonde and his nemesis Isa (another cinematic pseudonym for Dawood Ibrahim).

If there is one thing Gaitonde despises, it is religion. His key gang members are Deepak ‘Bunty’ Shinde’ (Jatin Sarna), a Maharashtrian, two Muslim brothers – Bada and Chhota Badariya (Danish Pandor and Anil Charanjeett), and two Catholics. Of all the members, it is Bunty who is a bit of a loose cannon. He has disdain for the Badariya brothers and their community. But it is Gaitonde who keeps the gang together.

The two parallel stories have one thing in common. They expose the binary of religion. Though Gaitonde subscribes to no religion, in his own eyes he is a god, making most decisions at gunpoint. He orders Bunty to get his sister married to Chhota Badariya.

Though he rules at gunpoint, Gaitonde also comes across as a man who wouldn’t harm an innocent. But there comes a time when he kills 80 innocent people to avenge the murder of his wife Subhadra (Rajshri Deshpande) on Isa's orders. His self-proclaimed immortality is tested when he is tortured in jail by Parulkar.

Sartaj Singh is dubbed a loser by his bullying senior, DCP Parulkar (Neeraj Kabi), and colleague Majid Khan (Aamir Bashir). Before getting on board Sacred Games, Sartaj Singh’s only notable achievement was to nab a pickpocket, Sonu. Righteous Sikh that he is, Sartaj Singh is caught on the horns of a dilemma: should he speak the truth at the risk of Parulkar making his life miserable or tell a lie, label an innocent a terrorist, and escape his senior officer's wrath?

Sartaj Singh’s lone friend is Constable Katekar (Jitendra Joshi), a man who would wake up in the middle of night to answer his superior officer. Like Sartaj Singh, Katekar, too, is an honest cop, but he disdains Bangladeshi immigrants. He never entertains the Muslim woman who repeatedly comes to him for help to find her missing son Shamsul.

Then there is Bipin Bhosale (Girish Kulkarni), who rises from a nobody to the home minister of Maharashtra. Bhosale seems like the usual corrupt, opportunistic politician, but once his name crops up in the investigation it raises a question: what is his role in the doomsday scenario awaiting the city? Is there any religious motif? We will find out the answers in subsequent season(s).

If you are a Mumbaikar and know the city's dark recent history, you will feel a sense of predictability to the events that unfold in the two parallel stories. However, what makes the first season so gripping is the stellar show by the ensemble cast.

Kashyap has cast Siddiqui as a criminal before in Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012) and Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016). Faisal Khan of GOW was more restrained, a little too underwhelming for a feared gangster. But Kashyap unleashed the psycho in Siddiqui with Raman Raghav 2.0.

There was a certain dark humour attached to these characters, but that is not a gift Gaitonde has. Here is a self-proclaimed god, a remorseless killer, who believes his word is the gospel. The odd strain of humour is evident only in Gaitonde’s relationship with Kukoo (Kubraa Sait), Isa's former moll. 

What is most striking about Siddiqui's performance is that here is a man who is a Muslim in real life who uses racist slurs against the community while enacting the role of a Hindu gangster on screen. Gaitonde’s rage, his violent attacks would make some feel uncomfortable. But isn’t that a true test of an actor?

Be it Raman Raghav 2.0 or Monsoon Shootout (2017), Siddiqui has shown that as an actor he is ready to go to any lengths to perfect his role. How many mainstream Hindi film or television actors would take a dip in a pile of real garbage and subject their bodies to extreme conditions? Siddiqui’s hell in the anda cell (for solitary confinement) in jail makes Ranbir Kapoor’s so-called anda cell in Sanju (2018) look deluxe. He will suffer, he will strip, Siddiqui will do it whatever it takes to become the character.

But what’s new about Siddiqui playing another bad character, Kashyap’s critics may well ask. A boy rises from a slum, sees injustice all around, and destiny turns him into a monster. This is a common enough narrative for a crime drama, but Kashyap does not show Ganesh Gaitonde in an empathetic manner. Gaitonde has chosen his dark world. 

Saif Ali Khan as Sartaj Singh in Sacred Games

We are all well aware of the prowess of Nawazuddin Siddiqui, but it is Saif Ali Khan who, perhaps, enjoys his finest hour. Khan has played a Sikh before in the romantic drama Love Aaj Kal (2009). But Sartaj Singh is a vastly different character. Take away the religious markers and the uniform and Sartaj Singh reflects the pain of many an honest man who gets crushed by a corrupt system. He is plump, deemed a failure at work, divorced, and pops pills to sleep.  You do question, why would Gaitonde pick such a man to save the city? Well, they do have one thing in common, but we will leave it to the viewers to find out.

Sartaj Singh is out for redemption but not at the cost of rebelling against his senior. There is one scene where Parulkar asks him his whereabouts, to which Sartaj replies, “Sir, main kaam par hoon, aur ho sake to aap bhi kaam pe jag jaiye, desh sudhar jayega [I’m at work. You, too, please get on with the job. The country needs it]."

The friendship between Sartaj Singh and Katekar is also an intriguing one. One is a Sikh, the other a Maharashtrian. Yet they click as a team. Marathi film star Jitendra Joshi chips in with a virtuoso performance. Saif Ali Khan’s character begins as one inflicted with self-doubt but as the story unfolds, he musters courage to fight the odds. Saif Ali Khan truly brings out the frustration, the pain and the anxiety of Sartaj Singh.

Radhika Apte is competent as the R&AW analyst Anjali Mathur, reminding us why such officers are remorseless, unafraid to sacrifice their own for the country. Neeraj Kabi and Girish Kulkarni are proven performers and always a joy to watch.

Jatin Sarna as Deepak 'Bunty' Shinde in Sacred Games 

The one who shines through the first season is unheralded actor Jatin Sarna, who plays Bunty with the requisite intensity, viciousness, and debauchery. Here is a talent that producers and filmmakers need to keep an eye on.

Rajshri Deshpande, Shalini Vatsa (Kantabai), and Kubraa Sait all chip in with fine performances.

Iranian actress Elnaaz Norouzi shows promise as the imported 'Bollywood' star Zoya Mirza. She is at the mercy of superstar boyfriend Karan Malhotra (Karan Wahi). Kashyap appears to be fingering superstar Salman Khan when Zoya tells Parulkar that her boyfriend has mowed two people down in a case of drunken driving. But it is not just Salman Khan who is at the receiving end of such barbs. Kashyap does not hesitate to use strong words against former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. The show certainly pushes the envelope with regard to bold scenes.

As a Netflix production, Sacred Games was bound to be rich in the technical aspects. The three cinematographers — Swapnil Sonawane, Sylvester Fonseca and Aseem Bajaj — make the web-series visually appealing and on a par with any other Netflix original show. Vintee Bansal’s production design brings out the old and the new Mumbai nicely.

Kashyap and Motwane set most things right in the first season itself. As always, the challenge with web-series is maintaining the intensity throughout each episode. There are portions in a few episodes where the present-day drama meanders. It is in those moments that you wish for Gaitonde to return quickly.

Though largely written in English, Vikram Chandra's book is said to have a strong local connection as the author also used Marathi and Hindi words that fit seamlessly into the story. We see the same in the web-series, as a few characters communicate in Marathi while Sartaj Singh speaks in Punjabi with his mother. However, we don’t recollect Nawazuddin Siddiqui speaking a single word in Marathi. Siddiqui had not signed up for Bal Thackeray's biopic when Sacred Games was being shot.

It is tough for filmmakers to get audiences hooked for two hours in a feature film. Now to get people hooked to a web-series with each season running across eight hours has to be a herculean task. How season one compares with the book is a topic reserved for later, but both Kashyap and Motwane have succeeded in doling out a highly entertaining and engaging drama.

The season ends with just 12-13 days remaining to doomsday. It leaves you with more questions than answers, making you crave for season 2.

All these years, Indians across the globe have binged on international online shows. Kashap and Motwane have now given us a desi drink that’s worth bingeing on. Go on, play the Sacred Games.

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