The hero of Netflix’s first Indian drama is Sartaj Singh (played by Saif Ali Khan) who cuts a rather lonely figure. He’s a honest and honorable detective who refuses to be intimidated by his corrupt colleagues in Mumbai’s police force. Probably because he refuses to tow the line he’s never landed a big case. He’s trapped in a corrupt system with no way out. In good cop show style, he’s unhappily divorced, scarred, gaining weight and taking medication for anxiety. No wonder as he’s under immense pressure from his station chief to lie under oath about a unarmed teenager shot down right in front of him.
This seems like more than enough to be dealing with, but no. Right from the outset Sacred Games is a game to be played by two. His opponent is Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a notorious gangster and a fugitive in hiding for 15 years. He makes contact with Sartaj out of the blue seemingly to spill his guts about his extraordinary life. He also has a cryptic warning. Mubai’s time is numbered – there’s 25 days until the whole city is destroyed. Is he threatening the city both men say they love or is he tipping Sartaj off in the hope of saving them all? His personal god complex is clear; his first words to Sartaj are “Do you believe in God?”, but after all he’s been through he thinks he might really be immortal. And the way the show sets him up, he really could be.
This slumdog millionaire got rich the hard way. Episode one takes us through Ganesh’s early life and his escapades in the city, then called Bombay. As a young man he had a flair for playing people off against each other using whatever weakness he can find – like the chicken bones causing a fist fight in the strictly vegetarian Hindu restaurant. He’s doing all he can to escape the shame of his poverty-stricken history, resentful of his deadbeat wandering priest father and his prostitute mother. He seems just as keen as his father on using heavy rocks as weapons – are we sure he didn’t kill his mother and her client?
Sacred Games boasts strong performances from both leads. There’s good honest sweat on Sartaj’s shoulder for most of the opening episode. He’s not a man afraid of hard work, and still wants to do all he can to make his father proud. His lovely sidekick is Constable Katekar, Passepartout to Sartaj’s Phileas Fogg and yes I’m thinking of the tiny bear and the aristocratic lion pairing in classic 80’s cartoon Around the World with Willy Fog, not the work of literature. Kaekar (played by the amiable Jitendra Joshi) is adorable, seemingly above the racism and corruption in his department and terrifically useful to have around, but is he loyal?
The bad guy’s story is given equal weight, if not almost taking over in the first episode. We learn so much about Ganesh’s life and how he’s inextricably linked to the city’s own rise in fortunes, and the history of India. His story drives the whole show and will be integral to the central mystery. At the end of the episode he leaves us with something of a riddle, saying he has three fathers. We know the first two men who had a massive impact on his life. Seeking out the third is surely how Sartaj will try to save the city. Speaking of fathers, how did Ganesh know Sartaj’s dad – could the incorruptible policeman really have been friends with a murderous gangster? Maybe Sartaj has some hard truths about his family ahead of him.
This show is hot and humid; dark with splashes of vibrant colour – a clever pallete similar to The City and The City with the attitude of Gomorrah in a place all its own. The big themes are religion, tradition and modernity, with too many culture clashes to even begin to list. Because of influence of the British Raj and the long memory of Indian culture, there’s plenty of spoken English especially in the more formal courtroom settings. Don’t take your eyes off the screen though as there’s no time to relax. The pace is incredible pace, and thoroughly addictive. I can’t recommended Sacred Games too highly, especially to anyone with family ties or an interest in India, and to Scandi Noir fans looking for their next big binge. It’s time to travel to warmer climes.
All 8 episodes of Sacred Games Series 1 are on Netflix UK now. No word yet on whether it will be recommissioned.