Intense and Unyielding, SACRED GAMES Reveals a Gripping Tale Filled with Brutal Twists and Turns
Sartaj Singh, a Mumbai police officer, receives an anonymous phone call from a gangster who threatens to blow up the entire city. Amid the corrupt standards of Indian law enforcement begins a battle between a ‘nobody’ cop and ruthless gangster who perceives himself to be a God.
Directors: Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane
Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Neeraj Kabi, Aamir Bashir, Shalini Vatsa, Elnaaz Norouzi
Country: India, USA
Language: Hindi, Indian Sign Language, Marathi, English
Runtime: 60 minutes each episode
The first scene of Sacred Games shows a dog free-falling amidst high storeys, before painting the pavement red in front of a group of schoolgirls. It’s a bold note that immediately separates the series from the stereotypes of Indian media. Sacred Games does not exactly celebrate India as much as it employs a cold, honest – and its own way, loving – look at the country, carving out a spectacular noir based on the realities of racial tensions and deep-seated corruption. It was hard to stop at the first season’s halfway point for the purpose of this review.
Set in Mumbai, Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) is a down-and-out police officer struggling between his morals and a corrupt system. The series begins with Sartaj receiving a sinister phone call from Ganesh Gaitonde, a crime lord previously thought to be dead, threatening to blow up the city in 25 days. Each episode of Sacred Games bounces between the story of the incorruptible cop Sartaj trying to stop his city’s destruction while untangling its web of corruption, and flashbacks detailing Gaitonde’s ruthless rags-to-riches story.
The skeleton of the series’ plot should be familiar to those more accustomed to Western media – the trope of the morally upright cop is well-trotted, while Gaitonde’s rise to infamy is as compelling as it was with Tony Montana and Tony Soprano. It’s a formula that has worked out for similar Netflix offerings such as Narcos.
Yet, I felt that the first Netflix commissioned series from India is far from the same affair splashed a new sheet of paint. Sacred Games stands out with how it intricately weaves religious themes, Indian history, and the sprawling city of Mumbai into its narrative, but also finds itself in company with genre greats due to its sheer quality.
Saif is suitably stoic while injecting intensity and emotional range into his lead role – more than engaging enough to be able to carry the show’s mystery forward. Meanwhile, Siddiqui does the heavy lifting in the series’ flashbacks as the gangster Gaitonde, with his cold demeanor and voice serving as its narration. Surrounding the two leads is its strong line-up of supporting characters. Standing out from the field is Neeraj Kabi’s deliciously sinister performance as DCP Parulkar, a hard-nosed crooked cop determined to keep the web of corruption intact.
All of their performances are complemented by the series’ gritty tone; characters feel vulnerable as they bleed and limp through its cutthroat world. Nobody is spared in the brutality. Characters are never passive and are forced to grow and adapt to their environments.
From the blocking of scenes to its variety of film techniques,I felt one of the main goals of the series’ cinematography is to bring Mumbai to life as a character of its own. Its faint street lights illuminate our leads’ paths while obscuring answers. The city’s cultural diversity stands out in its plot and is brought to life by the different living conditions of its characters. Streets and alleys can feel choking in its crowdedness yet are beautifully vibrant in its colours. Together with a punctuating soundtrack, the team does an outstanding job in bringing their points across.
Sacred Games is simply spectacular television that gives Netflix its purpose as more than just a streaming platform; it’s not a show that most traditional channels will pick up. Even if one were to tone down the violence and gore, Sacred Games still stands out with its unique themes and solid storytelling. It’s a show that should not be missed – just try not to watch it on the train home, lest you scar the auntie looking over your shoulders with all its blood and violence.
Catch Sacred Games on Netflix here.
Check back tomorrow for our interview with prolific Indian filmmaker and series co-director Anurag Kashyap!