Streaming platform Netflix’s first original Indian show Sacred Games has been generating high interest, and rightly so.
The eight-episode series, which will be available on Netflix from July 6, is packed with pedigree. Sacred Games has been directed by reputed filmmakers Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane and has a top-drawer cast that includes Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte. The adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s 2007 novel of the same name revolves around police officers, the Research and Analysis Wing, the underworld, corrupt politicians, shady godmen, and a nuclear bomb. Netflix’s involvement will ensure that Indian talent gets a global platform – even though the novel is in English and the series will mostly be in Hindi.
“Netflix brings in a bunch of objectivity that you cannot see,” Motwane said during a recent set visit. “They have trusted us to write the show the way we wanted to, and they wanted a Hindi language show. That was great because if it was in English, it would have started to feel fake after a point. Maharashtrian cops talking in English is strange.”
Saif Ali Khan plays Sartaj Singh, a police officer in Mumbai who investigates the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of gangster Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Radhika Apte plays a Research and Analysis Wing officer who has been on Gaitonde’s trail. The cast includes Kubra Sait, Surveen Chawla, Girish Kulkarni, Pakistani actress Elnaaz Norouzi, Luke Kenny and Karan Wahi.
While Chandra’s book is set in the early 2000s, the show has 2016 as the backdrop. The spirit of the sprawling book, which is 928 pages long and goes back and forth between the past and present, will remain untouched, Motwane assured. “It was a little difficult because your time gaps have to open up,” he said. “We stayed very true to the book in terms of Sartaj’s character. Sartaj is a very passive character and it doesn’t go well for drama or TV. So we have had to tweak a few things. His ex-wife is back too.”
Saif Ali Khan agreed with the filmmaker. “If you have a passive character on screen, it becomes boring to watch,” Khan said. “Whereas a passive character in a book, you can understand how his mind works. Sartaj is a detective and a smart guy. The way he solves things is interesting. And part of our job as actors and directors is to find the drama in each moment to maximise and kind of dial that up. There is a lot of action and movement.”
“Troubled” and “honest” are the two words Khan used to describe Sartaj Singh. “He is divorced and unlike some of the characters I have played, he is not at all comfortable with that,” Khan said. “He has also got problems with integrity as he wants to be an honest cop. He hasn’t been very successful and one day this thing drops into his lap and this is the biggest thing ever. So he starts off by being depressed and dejected, and he has a chance to rise. He is a slightly damaged character. He has developed a kind of angst that has led to a dependency on Xanax, which he chews like chewing gum.”
Khan’s preparation included sifting through the novel and numerous discussions with Motwane about the character. “We are not bound by anything, but there is a book,” Khan said. “Books happen in a character’s mind. Translating them on screen requires a very different kind of screenplay. I am by nature a little more energetic and upbeat. So one of the big changes was to really calm down on set and really slow down.”
Sartaj Singh first appeared in Vikram Chandra’s short story collection Love and Longing in Bombay in 1997. The writer was consulted during the scripting. “Chandra is so research intensive that so much of our questions were answered by him and we didn’t have to go to another researcher,” Motwane said. “He has read the script and he has given us feedback and has helped us. He hasn’t been two-hands on and neither has he been two-hands off.”
In Chandra’s novel, the narrative trajectories between Sartaj Singh and Ganesh Gaitonde intersect and then run parallel to one another for the most part. While Motwane has directed Sartaj Singh’s parts, Anurag Kashyap has handled the Gaitonde track. “One was going the classic route of multiple directors taking up multiple episodes,” Motwane said. “But as we realised that the book follows two parallel stories, we decided that it would be kind of cool if both of us focussed on different storylines. And as dates started clashing, in the end it was forced on us, but it was amazing.”
One section explores the communal riots in Mumbai in 1992 and 1993. There is also the prospect of a dirty nuclear bomb that needs to be found before it is too late. The concepts are as relevant as before, Motwane declared.
“Your nationalism and extremism are becoming so prevalent and governments are winning in places where you least expect them to – not only in India, but also in Turkey, USA and Russia,” he said. “It does make it scary in a sense for a potential threat.”
The one most keenly on the bomb’s trail is Research and Analysis Wing agent Anjali Mathur, played by Radhika Apte. “RAW agents never get credit,” Apte said. “They go through so much and do some secretive work. It was really interesting to get to know about how they trained. You get prepared for isolation. For the longest time, women were not sent for field work because you have to really deal with weird people. And now there are more women going on field work.”
Playing an intelligence officer meant preparing for a profession, Apte declared. “I was told that when I went on the field for a case as the character, I had to be so discreet,” Nobody should notice that you have come and gone. You cannot wear any jewellery that would make a sound or something that would catch attention. They know everything about guns, but are not allowed to carry a gun. All our impressions about RAW agents are completely different.”
Apte’s research included mimicking body language and physical traits. “The preparation was basically chatting with Vikram [Motwane] about how he perceives the character and we put our ideas together,” Apte said. “At the end of it, Anjali is one of the strongest people because she thinks so much more differently than how a normal person does, going way ahead of them.”
One of the unlisted characters in Sacred Games is the city of Mumbai, which is vividly described by Chandra on the page and has been explored by Motwane in his films Trapped (2016) and Bhavesh Joshi Superstar (2018). “This is a Mumbai series just like Trapped, so part of the challenge was also to see how this film will be different from my earlier works,” Motwane said.
There is something unique about Mumbai, Khan agreed. “There is a method, but there is also chaos,” the actor said. “There is something very cinematic from the slums of Dharavi to the incredible mess that you would find in a records office. Sometimes we try and clean things up for the screen. But this time we are showing it for what it is. The novel has a lot of romance for Mumbai. I have shot in a lot of locations that would make people uncomfortable, and my threshold is pretty high. The locations are better than most movies I have worked in.”