Netflix makes a statement in India with “Sacred Games”

Posted by On 7:11 AM

Netflix makes a statement in India with “Sacred Games”

High stakesNetflix makes a statement in India with “Sacred Games”

The series, a gritty thriller set in Mumbai’s underworld, announces the arrival of prestige television in the country


SOMEWHERE in Mumbai, a fluffy white Pomeranian is flung from a skyscraper. As it twists and falls towards the pavement, the opening credits roll; it lands with a splat at the feet of uniformed, shrieking schoolgirls. With that, Netflix has landed in the commercial heart of the country and at the centre of the world’s biggest film factory.

“Sacred Games”, Netflix’s first Indian “original” series (the term refers to content produced or distributed by Netflix exclusively), was released on July 6th. The streaming giant intends to broa den the possibilities of filmed content in India; by releasing productions online it dodges the country’s notorious film-standards board. “Sacred Games”â€"which yokes together literary prestige with A-list Bollywood actors, charismatic antiheroes and scads of graphic sex and bloodshedâ€"announces the arrival of “Golden Age” television to the Indian market.

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From that first scene to the end of its eight episodes, the series hews to its source: a sprawling, 900- page crime novel by Vikram Chandra, published in 2006. Both the book and the show are polychromatic, gritty and almost deliriously ambitious. They tell the story of Sartaj Singh, a troubled city cop (played by Saif Ali Khan, Bollywood royalty) who races to piece together the story of Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a mafia don who lived as a demigod in Mumbai’s underworld. Their narratives unfold in dual timelines, à la “The Godfather”, but are plotted as a mystery. In 25 days, the viewer learns, all of Mumbaiâ€"or India, or the world even?â€"will somehow end horrifically, unless the pill-popping hero can solve the puzzle posed by Gaitonde’s suicide.

Mr Chandra’s novel was highly cinematic; it is not hard to see how it inspired Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, the serial’s directors, who have already amassed an impressive record of Scorsese-inflected work. Every two pages read like a scene, with rat-a-tat dialogue and sometimes even directions for l ighting. The challenge for the film-makers was to reduce approximately 400 already hardboiled scenes into a few hours of engaging television.

The series strains to meet such heavy expectations, but the production is generally superb and the writing does not miss a beat. Tight editing, of both scenes and the story itself, maximises the propulsive qualities of the source material. Most of the novel’s digressive scenes are pared away, and on occasion the compression comes at a cost. The dead dog, for instance, introduced readers to the daily grind faced by the beat cop. On screen, it is just an image of suffering with no explanation or relevance. Viewers are left to scratch their heads.

The series poses another mystery of its own, one regarding the intended audience. Steeped in contemporary Indiaâ€"the original setting of 1990s Bombay has been neatly substituted with 2018 Mumbaiâ€"the cultural context will befuddle foreign viewers who lack either patience or a serious i nterest in the country. Most of the lines are in Hindi, but many are also in Marathi and some plot twists turn on visible flashes of English; the ideal Indian viewer will be perfectly bilingual and happy to read subtitles too.

This being Netflix, which plays its cards close to its chest, no ratings will be released. But if the ambition is to cut a figure, the series has already succeeded. A few politicians are peevedâ€"particularly about one character’s comments on Rajiv Gandhi’s government in the 1980sâ€"but that has probably only drawn more attention to the billboards from which Sartaj and Gaitonde glower. “Sacred Games” proves that there is a future, at least artistically, for new combinations of old-school Hindi film talent, Hollywood values and Silicon Valley’s billions. Serious localised fare has met the mass market.

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