“Apna Cola". That’s what the label says on the bottle Ganesh Gaitonde sips from. Gaitonde, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is a crime lord who rattles off his police record the way a fan would parrot the most impressive statistics of his favourite batsman, for he is his own favourite felon. He manufactured the cola himself, and while it might not have marked a successful entry into the soft beverage segment, many years later, on the eve of his death, he remains loyal to his drink. It is, after all, home-grown.
So is Sacred Games. Based on the voluminous novel by acclaimed writer Vikram Chandra and helmed by celebrated directors Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, it is Netflix’s first Indian original series. It comes at a time when there isn’t a single Indian fiction series that can be heralded, which is why storytellers around the country are rooting for it to succeed. I have watched the first four episodes of eight, for review (the series will release on Netflix worldwide on 6 July), and, I am relieved to report, it looks solid.
I have only read the first five pages of Chandra’s novel—the ones available online for free before one is compelled to buy the book—and the Sacred Games series starts, like the book, with a grotesque splat as a white Pomeranian plunges to its messy death from a Mumbai high-rise. We meet Sartaj Singh (a taciturn and stocky Saif Ali Khan), an unimportant policeman with his anxiety medication close at hand. Unimportant, that is, till he gets a phone call from a man who has the name of a god—and just about as many delusions.
Curiously, the directors shot the series in unison as opposed to episode by episode, with Motwane taking Singh’s track and Kashyap focusing on Gaitonde, narratives overlapping as Singh investigates a doomsday scenario, while the backstory—revealed in Gaitonde’s voice—gets us up to speed. He is part megalomaniac villain and part Forrest Gump, an unsolicited narrator who talks slowly and self-indulgently about things we may not have asked to know, but which, perhaps because of Siddiqui’s magnetism, always appear vital.
Everything will explode in 25 days, he says. The show is thus a cat and mouse game, executed not merely with precision but with a cool head. Writers Varun Grover, Vasant Nath and Smita Singh keep most scenes short, the narrative stocked with cliffhangers, and take deft incursions into politics and religion: for instance, a horrific fable of two demons (narrated by the great Pankaj Tripathi) acts as a brutal metaphor for faith as a weapon.
Siddiqui, once again, plays a goodfella. Like Henry Hill, he is a young man obsessed with power, which lets him rise from toddy manufacturer to neighbourhood gangster till he realizes true wealth—and true power over other men—lies only in politics. As a scene shows, the man in charge is too powerful to shred his own dirty paperwork. In India, the man wearing white is the made man.
This is familiar territory for Siddiqui, who has traversed the rags-to-bloody-power journey for Kashyap in movies like Gangs Of Wasseypur and Raman Raghav 2.0, but the actor continues to hold our interest, seething with quieter, more lethal menace as he gets to play a better-rounded character. Trod upon and traumatized, his Gaitonde is a cipher.
In the other corner, Khan is super as an unlikely maverick, a man of honour who is both unassuming and determined. It is a complex, tightly wound character and Khan—wearing persecution and righteousness in his eyes—creates a leading man free of charisma, yet compelling enough to root for. We don’t know what makes Sartaj Singh tick, and what his deep-rooted daddy issues are, but Khan makes us want to find out. When he breaks out of a box using the metal kada around his wrist like a crowbar, it is a moment to celebrate but not a moment of glory. Never glory. At least not yet.
It is a mighty cast, featuring heavyweights like Neeraj Kabi and Radhika Apte. Two performances I’d like to single out are Jitendra Joshi—who plays Singh’s aide, Katekar, a policeman struggling not just with the mission but with work-life balance—and Kubbra Sait as Cuckoo, a cabaret singer clad in shiny Parveen Babi gold dresses who cockily refers to herself as paradise. These are sensational characters who spark the narrative, which can’t be said of numerous subplots involving abused actresses and pimps. Plus there’s Luke Kenny, walking around with two guns blazing, looking like he’s doing Terminator role play. It remains to be seen where these threads lead.
Sacred Games is a slow series, and, despite the ticking 25-day clock, there is little sense of urgency. I wonder if audiences internationally, unfamiliar with the pedigree of the creators or the goodwill of our actors, will be as patient. It is not an immediately explosive concept, unfolding more like a thriller by numbers, helped along by strong performances and some nimble direction.
Yet I must watch the rest and you should make room on your watch lists, for we finally have an Indian series to binge and quote and argue over, and hasn’t that been our streaming dream? Right now, we don’t need to compare Sacred Gameswith Narcos and the unmissable exploits of Pablo Escobar, crown prince of coke. We have our cola.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather. He tweets at @RajaSen