Life is a Cinema Hall rating: (4.5 / 5) (This rating is only a snapshot. The details are in the words.)
When sometime in the future, the advent of original Indian streaming content is written about, Amazon Prime‘s grippingly entertaining slick-fest and first-moving Inside Edge will find an honorable mention. But what will mark a first truly totem high is undoubtedly Netflix‘s season 1, eight-episoder of Sacred Games. Bring out the kitschy buntings and the (preferably Indian-manufactured) bubbly. For, it’s time to celebrate the darkness and the grime with directors Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, as they bring onscreen author Vikram Chandra‘s tome on Mumbai’s highs of skyscraper-lined skyline and lows of its dingy slums in a project that’s hauntingly effective and an astounding achievement.
Opening with a sickening splat, Sacred Games runs all through on the intoning voice-over of Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddique), a wanted gangster who’s resurfaced in the city and calls Inspector Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) via a voice-masker, warning the latter of an imminent catastrophe that’ll wipe out the entire population, save for one person. Drawn as he is by Gaitonde’s call, Singh also realizes that this could be his shot at redemption. For, in his department he’s being stringed in by his boss DCP Parulkar (Neeraj Kabi) and Inspector Majid Ali Khan (Aamir Bashir) over an encounter inquiry and a reference to the only case he’s solved is thrown in his face time and again. His only pillar of support at work is the affable and loyal Constable Katekar (Jitendra Joshi) who’s got some mean detecting skills himself.
Meanwhile, a Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) team headlined by Anjali Mathur (Radhika Apte) listens in on Gaitonde’s call and sees her opportunity to lasso in India’s most wanted on the lam, while a cold-blooded killer (Luke Kenny) circles around all of them, waiting to strike. Adding slow but sure layers, writers Varun Grover, Vasant Nath, and Smita Singh use Gaitonde’s narration to bring up Bombay (as it was called then) and the major upheavals it saw during the 70s and 80s before sluing into the horrific 90s, an inevitable peak of horrors that events were seemingly destined to lead to. The story slowly and marvelously knits and knots Gaitonde’s past and all the characters orbiting around him—including rival gang lord Suleiman Isa (Saurabh Sachdeva)—into the clear and present danger that Sartaj is desperately trying to unravel.
Sacred Games is a compellingly thrilling and disturbing mosaic of marvelously enacted characters who define and redefine each others’ fates with actions that range from sickeningly violent to primally instinctive and Darwinian. And there are lots of them—the characters and their actions, some of it which results in major characters being killed—that are designed to keep you hooked right until the ominous, cliff-hanging season finale. Directors Kashyap and Motwane take up one track each to direct—the former getting into superior, whiplashing gangster grunge form with Gaitonde’s story, and the latter, slightly mellower, modernistic and yet not afraid to be starkly suspenseful; Kashyap tints his scenes with Bombay’s nostalgic sepia, while Motwane chooses the cooler, greenish tint that thwacks you back into the present. And after a while you realize that the gangsters, politicians, hamstrung and not-so hamstrung cops, and the glitz kings and queens who formed a mind-bogglingly dark mesh of ectogenous nexus existed back then, have only morphed into forms as ugly as before, and you shiver in relief at having a life that’s thankfully unaffected by it. But is it, really?
For, the games that politicians such as Bipin Bhosle (Girish Kulkarni) play with cohorts such as the cops, mind-bending gurus, middle men, actors Nayanika (Geetanjali Thapa), Karan Malhotra (Karan Wahi), Zoya Mirza (Elnaaz Norouzi), glamorous women Jojo Mascarenas (Surveen Chawla) and Kuckoo (Kubra Sait) may seem circling in a stratosphere far above, but it eventually comes crashing down on an unsuspecting populace. Drawing parallels between Dawood Ibrahim and Chota Rajan in Bombay, and the inevitable cleaving of the Hindu and Muslim gang members in the 90s, the directors also bring into relief the gruesome machinations that are planned and executed, mixing politics and religion in a cauldron that bubbles for decades—lit during the Partition, in fact—and then spews venomous consequences.
Sacred Games boasts of a cast that’s superlative in every which way. Casting director Mukesh Chhabra, take a bow. As the stocky, struggling-with-his-beliefs Sartaj Singh, Saif Ali Khan is a revelation. His troubled, tortured eyes are a reflection of the systemic rot in a metropolis, where nothing’s absolute, especially the truth. Nawazuddin Siddique as the underworld man with secrets one too many is a towering act. Spewing invectives that add to his character’s persona, he brushes the crudeness with a speck of humor and warmth that actually has you rooting for him. Siddique brings to his character a rare understanding of self-delusion and manic confidence that ensures you just cannot take your eyes off him. Jitendra Joshi is simply fantastic as the constable to Saif’s cop; he packs in impeccable timing in his dialogue delivery, his eyes crinkling with the philosophical acceptance of life and its struggles; and yet, when he explodes with rage, he makes you freeze in your seat.
There’s so many more—Neeraj Kabi shines, his act a suave pivot between charm and authority, merciless and almost never caring. Radhika Apte is so natural, you might actually think she’s gotten no powerful scenes, when in fact she carries on her velcro-strapped sandals feet a nimble, yet sure-footed act of sincerity and focus. The actresses playing the women in Gaitonde’s life are all superior—Kubra Sait stuns, her sheen of an act powered by a heartbreak that’s even more stunning; Shalini Vatsa as Kanta Bai is superb, determined and no-nonsense; Rajshri Deshpande as Subhadra is powerful, in the sidelines in the gangster’s life but also shining her strength when it’s required the most.
Girish Kulkarni as minister Bhosle is spot-on, his slimy act as if slithering with the taxes that we pay and don’t know where it all goes. The gangster team is equally on the money, their acts all shooting from the hip and the lip with equal élan: Jatin Sarna as Deepak “Bunty” Shinde, Danish Pandor as Bada Badariya, and Anil Charanjeet as Chota Badariya are the standouts. Plus there’s a tantalizing cameo by the superb Pankaj Tripathi—with promise of more to come in the next season.
The cinematography by Sylvester Fonseca, Swapnil Sonawane, and Aseem Bajaj is outstanding, capturing the rivulets of pain and drama that course through the city’s veins and its people with lighting and angles that rivet, coursing their cameras through the glamor and yet exposing the darkness underneath, as if by magic. The rescue scene in episode 5 is a highlight, the camera hovering above the rooftops in a by-lane, an observer and a participant at the same time.
The background score by Alokananda Dasgupta and Rachita Arora adds a subtle, subverted layer of tension and drama, an undercurrent with its own mind. The flute, piano, clarinet, guitar, cello, violins, and percussion are all characters in their own right. The violin and cello in particular, traverse the same anxious path as did Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s score for that Icelandic claustrophobic tensile stress, Trapped.
Sacred Games may not work for those who have no connect whatsoever with Bombay, it’s history, Suketu Mehta‘s Maximum City, and/or its Hindi-Marathi lingo—the real-life language is designed to rattle and shake—and the subtitles are serviceable at best, as is usually the case. It’s much to expect limited words flashing onscreen to capture the nuances and thrust of another language. For those who live in Mumbai—or have lived in Bombay—and curse the curse of life in the city, the show evokes familiar emotions. Once you begin watching, you’re mesmerized, horrified even. And yet, much like the city, you just can’t stay away.
Life is a Cinema Hall ratings chart
(1 / 5): Don’t bother
(2 / 5): Not too great
(3 / 5): Worth a watch
(4 / 5): Very good
(5 / 5): Drop everything else NOW
Sacred Games is rated A (Restricted to adults). There’s intense violence and gore, profanity, sex, and nudity.
Directors Anurag Kashyap, Vikramidtya Motwane Running Time ~ 50 minutes per episode, 8 episodes
Writers Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath
Stars Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddique, Radhika Apte, Neeraj Kabi, Jitendra Joshi, Kubra Sait
Genres Action, Crime, Drama, Thriller
Watch the trailer of Sacred Games here: