Note: Spoilers ahead about the Netflix series based on the Vikram Chandra novel.
Streaming giant Netflix pulled out all the stops for its first Indian original series, roping in Bollywood’s top talent – directors Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane and actors Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Saif Ali Khan and Radhika Apte, among others – for a medium that is still finding its feet in the country.
The resultant show, Sacred Games, was streamed on July 6. How does the eight-episode first season of the series measure up to its source material, Vikram Chandra’s magnum opus of the same name?
The show uses much of the same ingredients of the novel to serve a different offering – tasty fast food to Chandra’s slow-cooked gourmet.
Sacred Games is centred on the intertwined destinies of two protagonists on the opposite ends of the moral spectrum: Gangster Ganesh Gaitonde and police inspector Sartaj Singh. Their paths cross when the don seeks the policeman out on his return to Mumbai after years overseas. Gaitonde begins to recount his life to Sartaj, his rise and fall, but the police officer is impatient to capture him. When he bursts into Gaitonde’s hideout, the gangster kills himself. The rest of his life is recounted through flashbacks.
Chandra’s universe unfolds at a leisurely pace, over 947 pages. After chipping away at multiple strands, Sartaj realises, more than halfway through the book that Gaitonde’s death is linked to something catastrophic.
The series trades the book’s gradual buildup for a rapid countdown. Before killing himself, Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) cuts to the chase. He tells Sartaj (Saif Ali Khan) that Mumbai is at risk, and the police officer has 25 days to save it. Sartaj and Research and Analysis Wing officer Anjali Mathur (Radhika Apte) have to race against time to learn the nature of the threat looming over the city even as they’re repeatedly thwarted by forces within and outside their respective agencies.
Mumbai as character in the book and the series
In Chandra’s novel, Mumbai is a fourth protagonist. This is a place that enables Gaitonde’s rise and the one that Sartaj is bound to serve. Both share a conflicted relationship with the city. Sartaj muses about it at various points in the book, describing it as a place where “the rich had some room, the middle class had less, and the poor had none”, one that “stank at some time or the other” and had “tunnel-like streets...and shacks that crept forward every year, each added-on room seizing ground and holding on.”
Gaitonde’s musings about Mumbai are even more eloquent. During a long stint abroad, his soul aches for Mumbai’s urban sprawl and he craves “the spittle-strewn streets of that great whore of a city”.
The show draws out these contradictions of Mumbai and every now and then, the camera turns away from the action to captures the glittering skyline and the dark corners, the gleaming metro railway network and the filthy back lanes, the vast sea and the claustrophobic slum clusters.
The riots on the page and the screen
Chandra’s novel, set against the backdrop of the Babri Masjid demolition of December 1992 and the subsequent riots in Mumbai in 1992 and 1993, acquires added heft in 2018, with the rise of majoritarian politics, talk of Hindu nationalism and a renewed pitch for the construction of a Ram temple in place of the destroyed mosque in Ayodhya.
The show shuffles timelines around. While the riots were instrumental to Gaitonde’s rise in the novel, they haven’t yet come to the foreground in the first season. In the book, Gaitonde partakes in the bloodletting because of political nudging (“riots are useful in all kinds of ways, to all kinds of people”, he observes) but in the show, he does so for personal revenge. The riots are portrayed as being religiously motivated, a violence instigated by priests and preyed upon by gangsters.
The characters: Who does it better?
The most significant changes in the show are to the various players in Chandra’s novel. The show trades Chandra’s morally grey universe for strokes of black and white, which reflects in the character arcs.
Ganesh Gaitonde and Sartaj Singh
Ganesh Gaitonde’s fragile ego, existential angst and the insecurity at the heart of his relentless quest for power are subdued in the screen version, who believes himself to be god. While Gaitonde moves ahead in life through his intellect and his ability to read people in the novel, Siddiqui’s gangster adds a lot more brute force into the mix.
The show also swaps the book’s melancholic but confident Sartaj Singh for an anxiety-ridden, unassuming version. The opening sequence establishes him as being morally upright: in a hearing about a fake encounter death involving his seniors, he refuses to give testify in their favour. Sartaj in the book has a far more flexible morality. He is pragmatic and willing to overlook a little corruption (and even partake of it) as long as the wheels of justice are in motion.
For instance, Chandra writes about him, “When Sartaj had been married, he had taken a certain pride in never accepting cash, but after the divorce he had realised how much Megha’s money had protected him from the world, from the necessities of the streets he lived in...So Sartaj took cash now, and was grateful for it.”
Sartaj’s comfort with moral ambiguity is also reflected in his relationship with his boss, DCP Parulkar, in the novel. Parulkar rose through the ranks of the police force through intelligence as well as cunning. He cultivated ties with Gaitonde’s rival gang, the Suleiman Isa crew, and made friends in high places. He is far less scrupulous than Sartaj, but that doesn’t stop the two from enjoying a mentor-pupil relationship. This dynamic also serves a narrative purpose in the novel, where Sartaj is faced with a tough decision.
The on-screen Parulkar (Neeraj Kabi) is the embodiment of corruption in the police force. He works hard to undercut Sartaj and thwart his investigation into Gaitonde’s death. The two exchange bitter glances and words, and none of the book’s camaraderie has made it yet to the series. This works to build up Sartaj’s character as the unlikely hero up against various forces of evil, but takes away from the complexities that underline the novel’s protagonist.
Where the show is most inventive is in its alterations to the ensemble characters in Chandra’s novels. The show adds layers to existing supporting characters, creates new ones and reimagines some who received but a passing mention in the text.
M for murder and Malcom
One such reinvention is Luke Kenny’s Malcom Murad, an assassin who crops up in the unlikeliest of places and commits roughly one murder per episode. In the book, Malcolm is mentioned just once as a Scottish-Algerian Islamic fundamentalist, and it is only hinted that he may be integral to the larger plot. The bigger role given to him in the show ensures that the void left in Mumbai’s crime circle after Gaitonde’s death is suitably filled and that the larger quest to save the city is infused with enough minute-to-minute tension.
Bunty the brute
Another tweak is to the character of Bunty (Jatin Sarna), Gaitonde’s trusted aide. While the book’s Bunty is almost amicable, willingly volunteering information to Sartaj after Gaitonde’s death, Netflix’s Sacred Games presents a rabid gangster (played by Jatin Sarna) who is more unpredictable than his master. This allows the show to mix in some more action, drama, and even an abduction into the mix, as Sartaj tries to get hold of the mercurial Bunty.
Anjali Mathur in action
The characters who benefit the most from the show’s creative inputs are the women, who are largely lost in the novel’s male-dominated world. Take, for instance, Radhika Apte’s Anjali Mathur, who stands on the frontlines of the investigation with Sartaj. The novel’s Anjali is key to the plot but is missing from the action. Though she yearns to be on the field, she is sidelined by a chauvinistic intelligence bureau. The on-screen Anjali, however, manages to get in on the action even as as her colleagues try to restrict her to desk work and analysis. The book’s Anjali “chafed at her various desks and struggled against this old-fashioned reasoning”, but accepts the division of roles nonetheless – while Sartaj busts down doors, she forms the analytical backbone.
But the most wonderful creation of the series’s universe is Kubbra Sait’s Kukoo, a rare example of a transgender character in Indian programming. In the book, Kukoo is mentioned in passing, as a dancer whom a police officer fell in love with. A constable narrates this anecdote to Sartaj during a stakeout and describes Kukoo as “beautiful as a Kashmiri apple...but there was never any doubt that Kukoo was a man”.
In the show, Kukoo is transformed into Gaitonde’s romantic interest and his lucky charm, whom he whisks away from Suleiman Isa. In Kukoo and Gaitonde’s relationship, we get a rare glimpse at the gangster’s vulnerable side and a much-needed break from the darkness of the show.
This inventiveness by the makers and the writing team – Smita Singh, Vasant Nath and Varun Grover – ensures that the screen adaptation stands its ground against the textual backbone.
Layers and omissions
There’s also some liveliness injected into the characters of Shalini (Neha Shitole), the wife of Constable Katekar (a brilliant Jitendra Joshi), and Subhadra (Rajshri Deshpande), Gaitonde’s wife. Though their roles don’t differ much from the source, the two have more distinct and assertive voices in the screen version.
The character arc of Zoya Mirza (Elnaaz Norouzi) too has been given some layers. In the book, she is one of Gaitonde’s girlfriends whose film career he helps launch. In the show, she is given a sub-plot on her own, through her relationship with actor Karan Malhotra (Karan Wahi), which also offers a glimpse into how she has negotiated her way in the world.
However, the only character in the book with sizable spunk, Jojo Mascarenhas – Gaitonde’s pimp and friend – is largely absent from the first season of Sacred Games. The show opens with her character (played by Surveen Chawla) being killed by Gaitonde, shortly before he turns the gun on himself, but none of their dynamic has made it yet to into Gaitonde’s flashbacks. It is possible that Jojo will have a larger role in the anticipated second season.
Another memorable female character from the book, Jojo’s sister Mary Mascarenhas, has not yet been recreated on the show. However, a notable addition is Geetanjali Thapa’s Nayanika, a televison actress whom Jojo sends to Bunty and whom Sartaj reaches out to for assistance. Her character helps exemplify Bunty’s heartlessness and also offers insights into Anjali and Sartaj.
The one to watch out for
In the first season of Sacred Games, we see glimpses of a major character in the novel, Gaitonde’s Guru-ji (Pankaj Tripathi). In the novel, Sridhar Shukla, as the character is named, becomes an interest standpoint from which to view Gaitonde and the insecure, fragile and lonely man that lurks underneath the persona of a fearsome don.
The show introduces the spiritual leader as Gaitonde’s “third father” (after his biological one and his first boss in the crime world), who eventually betrays him. How and why that let-down unfolded is likely to be explored in season two.