Netflix’s Sacred Games makes for a good watch

“Do you believe in God? Well, God doesn’t give a fuck,” says the voiceover, as a yelping pup falls to a gruesome, blood-splattered death, from the top floors of a towering, Mumbai high-rise. The chilling scene sets the tone for the scintillating story that unfolds on screen, sucking us in with its grotesquely real exposé of the Mumbai of the eighties and nineties; when Mumbai was still Bombay; when that Bombay was ruled by imposing drug-lords and flamboyant mafia.

Desi TV has always stayed away from contemporary political realities. However, the internet, with its freedom from censorship, is now starting to venture into the no-go area. Netflix’s Sacred Games, based on famous journalist, Vikram Chandra’s 2006 book by the same name, takes on the misuse of religion head on. The setting is Mumbai’s murky underworld. This change is welcome, for art forms should be free to question the powers if they do wrong stuff.

Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane’s co-directed effort has yet again chosen big Bollywood names for this third Netflix original (after Love by Square Foot and Lust Stories).

The 8-episode series begins with principled Mumbai police offer, Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) refusing to bail out his senior officer, Parulkar (Neeraj Kabi), in a fake encounter case, involving an 18-year-old Bangladeshi boy. Fellow cop, Majid (Aamir Bashir) tries to force him to go with the flow. There is a reference to getting rid of illegal Bangladeshis.

He then gets a phone call from a notorious underworld don, Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who had been on the run for 16 years, asking him to save Mumbai from a catastrophe that will befall it in 25 days. The former claims to have known Sartaj’s dad, Dilbagh Singh, who had also served as a cop in the Mumbai police.

Sartaj, who has solved only one single petty case involving Sonu ‘packitmaar’ until now, manages to unearth Gaitonde’s lair. The first thing he notices upon entry into the don’s lair is the body of a female, later identified as Jojo Masceranhas (Surveen Chawla), who has been shot dead point blank.But the latter shoots himself dead. Soon, cross-agency rivalries begin between the Mumbai police, RAW (Radhika Apte, as Anjali Mathur) and IB (Sameer Kocchar, as SPI Markand). Parulkar is threatened by the Maharashtra Home Minister of a punishment posting to Gadchiroli, a Naxalite-infested area, if he cooperates with central agencies. In a bid to make the show more authentic, the Marathi politicos and cops converse in the local lingo.

Sartaj’s assistant, Constable Katekar, represents the under-played junior cop who took bullets during 26/11. These poor guys have to keep hearing insults from family about their poor living conditions.

In the meantime, Gaitonde goes into flashback, remembering his caste, and how his high-caste Brahmin, alms-seeking father had murdered his prostitute mother.

He then moves to Mumbai to become a waiter at a pure Hindu hotel. Angered by the ill-treatment meted out to him by the hotel owner, he mixes chicken in the food of the hotel’s pure vegetarian patrons, causing them to attack the owner. The incident is a clear reminder of how cow and pig meat has been used to foment riots in India since British times. He justifies his action by saying that if corrupt politicians can use religion to their benefit, why can’t he.

Next, he joins a local gold-smuggling don Salim Kaka (Nawab Shah), who gets rid of opponent by pressing their genitals. After learning the ropes, ambitious Gaitonde kills him and takes over his operations. As the flashback talks about the eighties, the goons also mention the synthetic drug, Mandrax. Today we have gone a notch higher, with Speed and Ecstasy.

Gaitonde quickly rises up the ladder by getting rid of garbage don, Memon, and usurping his garbage fiefdom. He also steals the cross-gender beauty, Cuckoo(Kubra Sait) of underworld biggie, Isa, in a bid to cock a snook at him.

Cut to the present, Sartaj is suspended for refusing to back his seniors in the shootout case. Even as he sees the Gaitonde case slipping out of his hands and the limelight being hogged by DCP Parulkar and Inspector Majid, he gets the backing of Anjali, who asks him to work for her. He returns to the crime scene and steals the car keys he had noticed earlier, on Jojo’s corpse. How come missing evidence did not raise an alarm? But yes, cops are sometimes known to be slack.

The car keys lead Sartajto Jojo’s vehicle, and its registration address leads him to Jojo’s flat where he discovers that Jojo was a pimp in the garb of a talent manager. She managed numerous TV stars but her real income came from sending these very same actresses to her wealthy underworld clients. Sartaj Singh also discovers a stash of fake currency in a hidden alcove in the flat.The fake currency find validates Anjali Mathur’s speculation that the entire conspiracy reeks of a huge international threat to Indian security from the ISI and assorted Islamic militants. Sartaj also stumbles upon the identity of one of her girls, Nayanika (Geetanjali Thapa), who is a well-knownTV actress and also the favourite girl of Bunty (Jatin Sarna), Gaitonde’s former right hand man. On Sartaj’s urging and promise of safety, Nayanika agrees to spill the beans on Bunty.Much against Sartaj’s wishes, Anjali forces Nayanika to go back to Bunty, armed with a hidden camera, but she’s caught.

Bunty agrees to turn approver for Anjali in exchange for escape to Singapore, but before they can get him out of there, Bunty’s shot dead. The entire happenings point to a systematic elimination of Gaitonde’s henchmen. Later episodes reveal that Gaitonde and his men are but mere cogs in the entire wheel. A massive international criminal gang is pulling the shots and seems to be the one planning the mega-catastrophe mentioned by Gaitonde. Its hitman (Luke Kenny) is on a killing spree, eliminating Gaitonde’s former gang.

The plot also mentions one Trivedi- Gaitonde reveals to Sartaj that Mumbai, and everyone in it, will be destroyed in 25 days– all except Trivedi. The mysterious Trivedi only makes an appearance in the seventh episode. He’s a Government IFS officer, working on behalf of Gaitonde’s third Godfather, a religious head (played by super-talented actor, Pankaj Tripathi). The plot looks to be hurtling towards a major communal angle. The Home Minister is hand-in-glove with the international organization. The water tankers he’s sending to drought-hit Maharashtra villages are transporting a mysterious consignment, instead of water.

The plot line is quite engaging, bringing into focus the unholy nexus between organized crime, the police and their political masters.The editing is quite taut and we have a lot of outdoor shots too.

Nawaz is perfect as Gaitonde, showing the character’s pathos and blood-thirsty nature in equal measure. He laments at being betrayed by his third Godfather. This actor shows that you don’t need 6-pack abs to shine on screen; good old acting chops are enough.

Saif is equally good as a cop beaten by the system and deserted by his wife. He has his heart in the right place. We have seldom seen Saif in such a restrained avatar. He’s gained weight to play the loser Sartaj Singh, and it shows. Normally, government agents are shown to be colourful, but Radhika Apte, who is also feeling undermined due to the fact that she’s a female, is shown in a deglam avatar.

There are a few other stand-out performances too. Jatin Sarna is brilliant as Bunty. He does a full monty; albeit, only his bare backside is exposed to the viewers. Luke Kenny is unnerving as the hitman on a killing spree. With his expressionless, mask-like face, and chilling, devoid-of-feeling eyes, he looks like an android, programmed to kill. The other members of the huge ensemble cast have also done a great job.

The series ends on a nail-biting cliffhanger, and we just can’t wait for the next season to be made.

The absence of censorship has emboldened the writers to go overboard with cuss words. No sentence is complete without a sprinkling of cuss words. And mind you, those are not your everyday garden variety either. They’re hard-core swear words, the likes one wouldn’t come across, in our daily lives.There’s a bit of skin show and copulating scenes too, but then, that goes with the territory. That aside, the show excels in touching upon edgy and forbidden territories- that of the deep-seated rot prevalent in politics, the entertainment industry and the police force. The underworld has always been a murky lot.

Shows like Sacred Games and Inside Edge are reflective of the huge change in desi content. Today’s urban youth no longer needs to be dependent only on American dramas for its daily fix. With compelling Hindi originals, Neflix hopes to entice more viewers. However, the question remains whether Indians will pay the huge premium charged by Netflix, as compared to other, homegrown OTT players.

In closing,we hope other web biggies also take TV actors as leads. Why does everything stop at Bollywood?They are not the sole repositories of talent. Artists from other mediums should be given a chance too.

That said, Sacred Games has been given a massive thumbs-up by viewers, and unanimously appreciated by netizens, who are going gaga over the show. We suspect that the humongous buzz created around the show, the huge monies spent on marketing, and the presence of top-billed Bollywood luminaries, have influenced the ratings and reviews, more than the actual excellence and quality of its content. Some have even hailed it as India’s answer to Narcos.

Well, here’s our two bit on the fanciful comparison- while the show is definitely a cut above the rest of the content being churned out by competition, Narcos, it is not. No Milord, Narcos, it is not.

We would rate it 4 out of 5 stars.

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