This week Netflix premiered its first original series made in India, a cop thriller called Sacred Games. Adapted from the enormous 2006 novel by Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games is a sophisticated move in Netflix’s quest to net every eyeball on earth. Netflix India launched three years ago, but has struggled to compete with Amazon Video and Indian properties like Hotstar and Flipkart. Netflix is also pushing the show heavily in the U.S. and Europe, so Sacred Games is doing double duty for them: proving to the huge Indian market that the network is invested in quality content for and about India, while also diversifying its content for the markets it currently dominates. Netflix already offers English-speaking viewers a very strong portfolio of high quality foreign-language detective shows, so this Chandra adaptation feels like an obvious choice.
It must also have been an expensive one. Sacred Games is awash in gunfights, dreamily gorgeous production, and tricky overhead shots. The bones of its plot are simple. Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) is a Mumbai cop down on his luck; his wife has left, he hasn’t solved any good cases. Then one day he gets a phone call from a man who says that he feels like a god. Is this a tip, or is this guy crazy? It might be both. The caller promises that in 25 days a great disaster will visit Mumbai, and everybody will die. The caller turns out to be notorious gangster Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). The show plays out in a race-against-time format, as Singh battles his corrupt department to chase the clues Gaitonde has left him.
Straightforward though this premise may be, Sacred Games is a labyrinthine show. Gaitonde’s calls to Singh transform into a voiceover that speaks over every episode in the series. His biography becomes a second core to Sacred Games, competing with the crime mystery itself. His voice is like a narrative voice in a literary sense; a disembodied stream of memory, coloring the world and giving it stakes. Gaitonde narrates his life from his childhood as the son of a poor monk to mob boss of Mumbai’s Gopalmath district. His delusions of godliness began early, growing and twisting through encounters with a leopard; brutal violence; intense love.
Though Gaitonde sees himself as a god, it’s in the satirical sense of a nonbeliever. “My name is Ganesh Gaitonde,” he bellows as he takes control of his ghetto from his gangster rivals. “I don’t trust anyone.” He is the one true god of Gopalmath, he declares, because he runs this town. Religion is a turbulent seam in Sacred Games. Gaitonde assembles a diverse gang of ruffians, initially refusing to engage in anti-Muslim violence in the region he controls. But the real money, he eventually realizes, is in politics, and that means election-rigging, and that means suppressing Muslim votes. Later, a personal loss ignites a sense of ethnic consciousness in him that had never stirred before: A woman’s death “awoke the Hindu in me,” Gaitonde says. He kills hundreds of Muslims, innocent and guilty alike. But she never comes back to life.
It is fortunate that Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Saif Ali Khan rarely act across from one another. Singh is a solid, attractive protagonist, and we root for him continually. At one point he very seriously consults his mother for help in his case. But Siddiqui is an actor of rare magnetism. It’s hard to locate where that charisma lies: He does not wander very much from a hard-set expression of cruel determination. But I could watch Siddiqui set his brows into that furrow all day. The faintly mystical aura of his biography and certain strange wanderings into romantic love do not so much humanize Gaitonde as make him more marvelous, more mysterious.
Of his love interests, Kukoo (Kubra Sait) is the most interesting. She is a gangland nightclub dancer, dripping in glamour. Gaitonde wins Kukoo from Suleiman Isa, his rival, after being captivated by her “magic.” She becomes his gangster’s moll and a lucky charm. After being lovers for a while, Kukoo tearfully reveals to Gaitonde that she is transgender. It’s a shame that she does not last long in the show after that. It’s also strange that she is the only character to receive the full-frontal nudity treatment in the entire show. On the one hand, their relationship feels real, loving, worth preserving. On the other, Kukoo is fetishized by the show, with Sacred Games declining to bless her with either long life or longstanding significance.
The show features several other standout performances by women. Besides Kukoo, there is Anjali Mathur (Radhika Apte), an agent from RAW, India’s intelligence service. She’s young, beautiful, dominant, and ruthless. Her character motivation is a little reductive, driven as she is to outshine men in the field, but Apte’s performance is cleverer than that. Equally ruthless but in a very different style is Kanta Bai (Shalini Vatsa), the brains behind Gaitonde’s operations. Without its women, Sacred Games would play out like a pissing contest between two men, one who loves crime and another who hates it.
Sacred Games is a show that runs on a number of overlapping dynamics. We have Singh and Gaitonde, locked in a dyad. We have Gaitonde as a lone, deranged mind, separate from and abusing the world around him. We have the individual crimes of one gang, and we have the long-churning turbulence of religious unrest in overpopulated Mumbai. The social bumps up against the psychological; personal enmity meets political tectonics.
The many streams of Sacred Games makes it, to be honest, confusing viewing. I lost track of the year we were in and the crime Singh was investigating. But though I lost my bearings in the sweep of the series’ action, I never lost my attention. Despite small elements of hamminess—some unnecessary slo-mo, some bad guitar solo in the soundtrack—Sacred Games remains throughout its eight episodes a highly distinctive cop procedural. The very expansiveness of its concerns, which incorporate the mystical-religious, set it so far apart from the customary scandi-noir that the genre feels begun anew. For Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s face alone I would watch it again.