“The world is a fine place and worth fighting for,” says Detective Somerset at the end of David Fincher’s noir masterpiece, Se7en. Somerset, played by Morgan Freeman in the film, had just seen firsthand the cruelty people are capable of, and learned how no amount of decency is enough to counter true evil. He had seen murder, he had lost a friend, and most wrenchingly, he had witnessed defeat; and yet with the faintest whiff of optimism he continues, “I agree with the second part.”
Se7en is just one of the many films that I was reminded of while watching Sacred Games, Netflix’s first Indian original series. It’s a cat-and-mouse thriller about two men who appear to occupy opposite ends of the spectrum – one is a weathered cop and the other a powerful gangster – but upon closer scrutiny reveal more similarities than either would be comfortable acknowledging. It is also, as corny as it sounds, a story about good versus evil – perhaps the most resilient theme of all.
Is there any place for decency in this world, the show asks, especially if the world itself is a casualty of crime, corruption and communalism? And if there isn’t, is the world worth fighting for?
There are several moments in which Inspector Sartaj Singh’s moral compass is shaken. He is tempted – by money, by women and by success – but he never gives in. He disobeys direct orders, he is suspended for not supporting his department in the cover up of a murder, and he is shackled when he should be celebrated.
He is an ideal hero – perhaps too ideal – despite a failed marriage and little to show for his many years in the Mumbai Police. While others around him rise to the top – inept idiots who have no shame in licking the boots of the powerful – he finds himself alone in his plain apartment, the memories of a happier life still clinging to its walls.
And yet, like Somerset, he trudges on.
Because finally, after years of toiling away and remaining – as his SI describes him – ‘a low-performing officer’, fate presents Sartaj with the opportunity he has been waiting all his life for. His phone rings; a voice, worn out yet stubbornly holding on to once-formidable power. On the other end is the mythical boss of the G-Company, a gangster who has been missing for the last 17 years, a man who, it is whispered with a combination of respect and fear, has over 150 murder charges against him: Ganesh Gaitonde.
Gaitonde wants to tell Sartaj a story, about himself; about how a poor son of a beggar could rise from the trash heaps of Mumbai and build an empire. It is a city he loves, he tells Sartaj, and in 25 days it will fall. With this, Gaitonde sets Sartaj on a race-against-time to save Mumbai, a city whose every corner Sacred Games romanticises – every shady dance bar, every cobbled street, from the slums of Dharavi to the high-rises of Worli.
Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane – who share directing duties – have made a classic noir story, complete with layered central characters, a damsel in distress of a city, and corruption that goes all the way to the top. Overpowering all else, as he usually does – for no fault of his own, mind you – is Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
Ganesh Gaitonde is a particularly memorable character that will for years remain a highlight of Nawaz’s already legendary body of work. There is a weariness about him, a rueful exhaustion that he shares with Sartaj (played by Saif Ali Khan) – both Gaitonde and Sartaj have, like Detective Somerset from Se7en, looked evil right in the eye, and it has changed them – but unfortunately for Saif, there’s little he can do with such a straight-laced character. Nawaz, meanwhile, is given the juiciest lines, the more dramatic arc, and the freedom to go wherever he wants with it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this does for him what Narcos did for Wagner Moura?
But not enough can be said of the tremendous job writers Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath have done with whittling down Vikram Chandra’s dense book, which resembles a brick when held in one’s hands, thick enough for Gaitonde to use as a murder weapon. Their most winning idea has to be doing away with the novel’s non-linear and often distracted narrative – there are times in the book when certain plots are completely ignored for hundreds of pages, only to be revisited with piles of new information – in favour of a more straightforward story, in eight episodes.
In addition to the pulpy crime, they’ve retained the subtext of Vikram Chandra’s sprawling novel, in fact, they’ve emphasised it, perhaps to make the show more timely. As Gaitonde and Sartaj’s games unravel, a secondary plot involving dirty class politics plays out in the background – and Sacred Games is equally critical of the Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress regimes as it is of the current administration’s communalism.
Gaitonde understood the importance of religion early – not that he’s a believer or anything, he’s just intelligent – and weaponised it when as a waiter at a ‘pure’ Hindu restaurant he took revenge on his miserly ‘seth ji’ by burying pieces of chicken under beds of rice.
Anarchy is what drives him, and there is no actor in the country who embodies chaos – both mental and elemental – better than Nawaz. Together with Kashyap, they are Mumbai’s crusading chroniclers, and Sacred Games brazenly exposes what India is capable of – cinematically, politically, and ethically.