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06.07.2018

They did it. They defenestrated Fluffy. When Vikram Chandra flung a pomeranian out of the window of a high-rise in the opening scene of Sacred Games, he plunged his readers into shock (and, let’s admit it, delight). It was a toe-curling introduction to the life of the 900-page behemoth that lay ahead, a pick to help unlock its shocking violence, high-tempo absurdity and deep sadness.

It’s all that in the opening sequence of Netflix’s ambitious eight-episode adaptation of Chandra’s novel - and because it’s made by Anurag Kashyap, it’s also quite gratuitous. In the book, the sequence comes to an end as one character, surveying the resolution of the domestic quarrel that leads to Fluffy’s execution, mournfully acknowledges, “Love is a murdering gaandu.” On film, the effect is more along the lines of what Vishal Bhardwaj, another of Bollywood’s Tarantino aspirants, wrote as a throwaway motto for Kaminey: Life badi kutti cheez hai. It’s a bitch.

A lot of people are having a very bad day as Sacred Games opens. The little girls of St Mary’s Convent are screaming at the sight of an exsanguinated puppy. A woman with bloody feet is crawling towards the door of a bunker, seeking escape from the man who puts a bullet in her brain. Mumbai’s policemen are a mess: sleepless, rumpled, tempers fraying. And there’s Bombay itself, seen through a sickly yellowing filter, filthy, insomniac and lonely.

I’ve heard you love this city, a gangster tells a cop fruitlessly trying to trace his call to its location. What’s there to love, asks Sartaj Singh, cop, gentleman and chronically frustrated hero. We live like cockroaches here. Sacred Games nails that bug’s life on screen: its humans dominate its frame, making streets, rooms, bars, even sofas seem too small.

A brief interlude at “RAW HQ” excitingly foreshadows an expanded role for Anjali Mathur, the Delhi agent who makes an appearance only late in the novel; Radhika Apte plays her as a brittle bird with sharp edges.

Episode 1 sets the stage for what is uncompromisingly a Bombay gangland picture, full of familiar images and tones (not least because Chandra’s novel, too, riffs on the interplay of real life and the movies in the Bombay he was writing about). Two men talk at a dance bar like it’s 1998; a police file room looks like it’s been undisturbed since the 1970s. There was a time in this city when men shot each other in the streets and hoarded ammunition like dogs of war. Sanju, another new movie that deals with a mythical figure, whitewashes the paranoia and terror of that time; Sacred Games simply removes us into a universe where that fear still blankets the city.

The mythical monster in this story is Ganesh Gaitonde, the gangster leading Inspector Sartaj on a merry chase, trying to get him - and us - to believe that Bombay will be destroyed in 25 days’ time. Ganesh bursts into life from the minute the electrifying Nawazuddin Siddiqui turns his gaze on the camera. We weren’t sure how Siddiqui’s sly, scrappy charms would help capture the mammoth, self-fortified Gaitonde, but there he is: a fox turned into a tiger. Everything from his dry, curling moustache to the skinny unclad legs poking out of a kurta embodies the legend: this is a cold-blooded kingpin who’s also a scrawny ageing Maharashtrian, run spare from hard work and a lifetime of overruling adversity. Siddiqui plays him with bright fervour, quiet but welling with passion. Even his native UP accent, which mingles with his Bombay Hindi (all sibilant ‘s’es and ‘Bambai,’ not ‘Mumbai’) seems completely organic to the character.

Two men talk at a dance bar like it’s 1998; a police file room looks like it’s been undisturbed since the 1970s. There was a time in this city when men shot each other in the streets and hoarded ammunition like dogs of war.

Other minor characters blossom, too. Neeraj Kabi as Sartaj’s corrupt boss and Aamir Bashir as a smooth professional rival are both arresting, all puns intended; but Jitendra Joshi, who plays Sartaj’s foil, Constable Katekar, is especially captivating. A brief interlude at “RAW HQ” excitingly foreshadows an expanded role for Anjali Mathur, the Delhi agent who makes an appearance only late in the novel; Radhika Apte plays her as a brittle bird with sharp edges.

That leaves Sartaj, the moral centre of Sacred Games, as the only piece on the chessboard who hasn’t quite sprung to life yet. In the first hour, Saif Ali Khan plays him as a sullen lump with an inner life that’s all anger and jealousy. Sartaj is undoubtedly that in the novel, but he’s also more. That’s why the scene with Fluffy matters in Chandra’s book: not simply for the shock, but because our first introduction to Sartaj is the gentleness and forthrightness with which he approaches the dog’s distraught mistress and deals with this impossible, ridiculous situation.

That’s why he’s the hero of the book, because of the impossible, ridiculous situation into which Gaitonde is about to plunge him and all of Bombay. Without that, the dog has died for nothing, and Sartaj, in Khan’s portrayal, is just a sad sack who can’t look another human being in the eyes. But he, and we, have a ways to go; we can’t wait to see where the show takes us.

Getting there: Sacred Games is streaming on Netflix now.

This review was contributed by Supriya Nair.

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