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Exclusive: Sacred Games is placed at the centre of current political trends, says Varun Grover

Grover, a writer on India's first Netflix original, discusses the show's first season and offers insights into how the themes of religion, politics and power were woven in the layered writing. Spoilers galore!

Suparna Thombare

Netflix's first original Indian series, Sacred Games, went live in around 190 countries last weekend (6 July) and received rave reviews, especially from the international media. The show currently has a rating of 9.4 out of 10 on IMDb and 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Apart from the noteworthy performances from the primary cast — Saif Ali Khan (as police officer Sartaj Singh), Jitendra Joshi (Katekar), Kubraa Sait (Cuckoo), Radhika Apte (Anjali Mathur), Neeraj Kabi (DCP Parulkar) and Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Ganesh Gaitonde) — what has stood out in season 1 is the layered writing that enhances the tense tone of the book of the same name by Vikram Chandra.

Free of the constraints of censorship, directors Anurag Kashyap (who shot Siddiqui's segment) and Vikramaditya Motwane (who shot Khan's segment) went all out to make one of the most violent, sexually explicit pieces of work, laced with the choicest, most creative cuss words, to come out of India. But what is more interesting is the tangle of religion and politics that it explores.

With interweaving narratives, the thriller follows gangster Gaitonde through the 1980s to the present as he reveals a plot to destroy Mumbai in 25 days. On the other side, obsessed with unravelling the dangerous plot, inspector Sartaj Singh begins navigating through the dense characters and sequences.

Varun Grover

Varun Grover, who adapted the almost 900-page novel for the screen along with Smita Singh and Vasant Nath, confessed that the process was daunting. "It was very intimidating in the beginning," said Grover, a popular stand-up comedian, writer and lyricist who took up the challenge of writing the intense series.

Work on the script started in mid-2016. Grover, Vasant Nath and Smita Singh read the novel and discussed it for about two months. The next three months involved writing the themes and characters they liked, throwing out the ones they didn't, and creating new ones. The third stage was writing the outlines for the season and the episodes, developing the characters, the arc, and what the story could be. This is when the 20-25 page outline became an 80-pager with eight episodes.

"At this point we had completely forgotten the book, in a way that we stopped going back to it," said Grover. "And then we started writing the screen adaptation and let it breathe on its own. The next four months we wrote the screenplay."

Following are excerpts from an exclusive interview with Grover, who previously wrote the screenplay for Masaan (2015) and has composed the lyrics for several popular independent films, including Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012).

Was Vikram Chandra involved in the writing process?

He was on board as a consultant and was always available. He kept asking if we wanted to read and give him feedback, but for the first five months anyway we were not writing. Then when we finished our outlines we were not sure if we wanted to show it to him because we were afraid what will he say. What if he said that what you have is all useless? Then all our hard work would have gone waste. So we waited till we wrote the first episode screenplay, the final draft... when it was in good shape. Then, to our surprise, he was really okay with the new ideas.

There were a lot of new things in the episode that were not there in the book. He was very open, very generous. He didn’t even ask why we did something or didn’t do something. He was only giving us ideas to make it better, which came from his own research, own knowledge of Bombay, and as a writer and collaborator. That was great. He is very generous and not at all possessive about his book. He is okay with letting something go and contributing. 

How did the idea of linking episode names to characters and incidents from mythology come about?

If you watch shows around the world they don’t have episode names which are literal. They expect things from you. They want you [the audience] to probe further. When we wrote the first episode [the pilot], the pilot uses Ashwatthama as one element in Gaitonde’s state of mind. That was the only episode title we had.

Then we thought, why not have the mythological reference in every episode title because every second or third episode already had a mythological story, like the last episode has Yayati in its story, episode 3 has Atapi Vatapi.

So some of the episodes were very easy to name because they had these mythological stories in them, but for others we had to draw the connections. So episode 6, where Katekar dies, there is a state funeral for him, that episode is called Pretakalpa, a part of the Garuda Purana which is read when someone dies. Then the last journey of the soul is called Pretakalpa.

The episode where Bunty [Gaitonde’s right-hand man] dies is called Sarama, angel of dogs; that dog is also related to Yamraj. Bunty kutte ki maut bhi marta hai [Bunty also dies a dog's death]!

All the Maharashtrian characters in the show speak a lot of Marathi. But the protagonist, Ganesh Gaitonde, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, never does. Why?

One was because of the casting. If we had cast a Maharashtrian actor it would have been easier to do that.

We had to make a choice between giving him complete Marathi because if he is Marathi then he should speak only in Marathi. Not in one or two scenes only.

We found a logic, an internal logic, just to justify it, which doesn’t cut through and I know that, and it is that he moved to Bombay as a kid. We see him directly going from a kid to 23-24 [years old]. What happened in between, we don’t know. So probably he stopped talking Marathi in that time.

He was working with Gujaratis and Parsis. It became that Bambaiya lingo. But it doesn’t look good because there are other characters like Katekar who speak in Marathi.

In the show, Gaitonde talks about three fathers. You almost zoom past the first two. It felt hurried...

We wanted to focus on the first father. Then we thought we will save him for a future season. The second father was only that much in the book and we didn’t want to extend it much.

So everyone wants to know if season 2 is coming soon.

We have planned it that way. We have not revealed the complete story [in season 1]. In our planning, it is there. We are waiting for an official go-ahead from Netflix. We had some plans [to start writing], but we are waiting. If Netflix is happy with the response [to season 1], they will announce. The response so far has been crazy.

There is a lot of violence, explicit sex scenes, and the choicest of abuses. Did you as a team ever feel like cutting back on that or was the intention always to go all out? 

One, there is real life, then there is the book, and then the series. The amount of violence and sex and cuss words are way more in real life than in the book, and way more in the book than the show.

In real life if you see any gangsters or cops, they use so many cuss words. That was a striking feature of the book. It was an English book and still had so many Hindi cuss words. Everyone is using them and we have still toned it down from the book.

Yes, there was no censorship, so we didn’t really have to stop ourselves. But it was not like there is no censorship so we will do it for the sake of it. We just wanted to show a realistic picture. That language is more authentic than what we have seen in gangster films so far.

The cuss words were super creative...

Part of the credit goes to Anurag Kashyap. He did the Gaitonde section’s dialogues for three episodes. 

Saif Ali Khan as inspector Sartaj Singh

In the current political climate in India, this show feels very relevant. As a writer of the show, where do you place the series in the context of rising fundamentalism?

Actually, the book is set in 2006. One of the reasons for setting it in 2017 is because we wanted the scenario in the plot to reflect present-day politics and the rise of fundamentalism all around the world, not just in India. It is a global trend right now and it is hinting at a major shift in the era and history of the world. Probably 40 years later we might look at this decade as the decade that changed the world. So we wanted to place the series at the centre of that.

The book was set in 2006 and things had not changed that much then and it did not have the government that so openly focuses on Hindutva and all kinds of shields like cow-related lynching and many other things. All these things are themes in the book, but the book could not have foreseen what’s going to happen in India 10 years later. Like the book talks about Babri masjid, but not where it is going. It talks about Partition, the Hindu-Muslim mistrust exists, why ISI is a big threat and why Hindus always feel that they are not getting their due in the moden world or in their country and why that complex is there. All these things are there in the book.

That was one of the things that attracted me to the book and the reason for adapting it to Netflix is that it is so relevant and can be made more relevant. Of course, it is a thriller and there is the masala and all that, but that's the top layer. There is a layer beneath, that which will talk about our world... so all these stories like Atapi and Vatapi, which are hinting at where the world is going.

Your comedy sketches often explore political themes. One of them was even based on outrage. Slowly, some offended parties have started creeping up for Sacred Games as well. Since you were exploring sensitive themes of religion and politics, was this ever on your mind while writing?

Not really. One, we are adapting a book which has been out there for so many years. Two, I am not commenting on any of the cases that are going on, which the legal team will deal with.

But I would say anything you make in India right now, not just something that’s overly political, can offend anybody. Look at Padmavati [Padmaavat (2018)]. It was not even a political film. It was part historical, part mythological. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is perhaps the least political filmmaker around. And his film got into that kind of storm where the whole nation was in the middle of it. And parties had to come and take sides. Everybody had to take sides.

You can't avoid it because you don’t know where it will come from. The only option is to either stop working or stop thinking about it as otherwise there is no way you can work. 

The character of Cuckoo [Gaitonde's transgender girlfriend] is just a glimpse in the book but an important one in the series. Why did you think that character was important to explore?

In the novel, there is only a mention of Cuckoo. You don’t even see Cuckoo actually. Two constables are only talking about Cuckoo who used to be a bar dancer 20 years ago. There is some legend about Cuckoo that they speak of. But we wanted to have some kind of emotional side to Gaitonde, so the usual root is you have a girlfriend. But then we thought that has been done a lot of times. Then we found this mention in the book.

But Cuckoo isn't transgender in the book; she is just a bar dancer. We just thought why not have a transgender person be Gaitonde’s girlfriend. And it just became a nice character while writing. And Kubraa Sait did a fantastic job. She brought it alive and the way Anurag Kashyap directed the part also added to it. It brought the sensitive side of both the characters [to the fore].

You write a lot of satire for your stand-up acts. But in this show there is very little humour. Did you ever feel the need to add more of it when writing?

Not really. Netflix originally wanted it to have dark humour. When we started writing and kept going, we felt it is very intense. We felt that Mumbai is going to end in 25 days, and if you put humour in such a situation, things get diluted and the plot may seem weak. So we kept it to the minimum. The only relief was Katekar, but then after him there are only two episodes where basically things are coming to a head. The genre does not need any relief really, as it survives on relentless tension. 

What was Kashyap and Motwane's role in the writing?

They both have different styles. The scripts were ready before shooting began. But Anurag likes to interact with the material when he is shooting on two levels — one is the script and two is working with the actors. That is his style of direction.

So he would rewrite some of the Gaitonde portions on set. He told me, ‘Saara agar final dega to phir mai kya karega [If you give me the final version, what am I supposed to add]?’ So three of the scripts we left to him to work on his own, in the sense that dialogues were not written. So while writing the dialogues he also worked on some scenes and made them better.

The second thing he does is he just talks to the actors. He tells them that you have the lines, now go and do your interpretation.

Now Vikramaditya doesn't like changing the script. He told the actors to use the same lines that we wrote. He works more with the camera and technique of the craft. He brings another layer of meaning and subtext through the way he shoots it and stages the scene or sometimes even the way he edits it. That is his forte. With Anurag, working with the lines and actors is his strongest part.

The New York Times review called Sacred Games ‘the Indian Narcos’. Now a lot of people are saying the same thing. Would you agree?

I don’t know in what context they are saying it. In some contexts it is a compliment. If they are saying Netflix’s first show in a new country's non-English language show has the same level of quality then... it is good that someone in America who has no idea about Indian series will watch it because they liked Narcos, feeling like it won’t be disappointing so we’ll give it a shot. If they are saying that it is another mafia story then I would say it is a lazy comparison.

Narcos is based on a real-life gangster who actually did those things which they have shown. Our character is fictional. Of course, Vikram Chandra did his research and got inspired by many gangsters from that era. And it is trying to fit hard times on to it [unlike] Narcos, which actually existed in a time and not trying to fit into another time frame.

We are contextualizing a fictional story with real-world elements. So that way it's different. If people are watching it, I am happy.