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Netflix's Sacred Games: Season 1 Review

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Not a game worth playing.

Sacred Games, the first Indian Netflix series, ought to have been spectacular. Bollywood mainstay Saif Ali Khan leads a who’s-who of tremendous talent in a show helmed by two of the industry’s most interesting directors, but its spectacle lies mostly in its lurid texture. It bleeds street-level authenticity seldom seen in the Indian mainstream — characters speak Hindi, Marathi, English and Punjabi, though the series’ default audio setting internationally is its English dub — trading in the polished poetry of Bollywood dialogue for uncouth, often hilarious swearing. Unshackled from the censorious constraints of Indian cinema, it’s an often ambiguous, unapologetically violent work set against Mumbai’s criminal underbelly. Its imagery is propulsive, when divorced from any larger context. As a whole however, it’s a haphazard, hamstrung morality play that can’t seem to balance its moving parts.

In a world of relative morals, Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) is a good man in almost absolute terms. A Sikh member of the Mumbai police force — perhaps a part that should’ve gone to a Sikh actor; so few are given roles in the Indian mainstream — Sartaj is an outsider caught in a web of corruption, unwilling to compromise when his superior, DCP Parulkar (Neeraj Kabi), instructs him to change his statement on a fatal police shooting. Before the kindly Sartaj can wrestle with the transgression asked of him, he receives a mysterious phone call from a legendary gangster long thought to have fled the country, Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).

Saif Ali Khan in Sacred Games

Saif Ali Khan in Sacred Games

Gaitonde, a self-professed deity, speaks to Sartaj in riddles. References to Sartaj’s late father, a former policeman, and vague threats about some humungous danger to Mumbai that will unfurl in twenty-five days send the good cop on a solo mission to catch the elusive don. Bit by bit, Gaitonde narrates his own story, a tale of violence and self-centered ideology in direct contrast to the morally pure Sartaj, who traces the call before coming face to face with Gaitonde himself. This cat-and-mouse game makes up the majority of the first episode, a thrilling introduction in which characters reflect (at times literally, through mirrors and water) on the building blocks of their very selves. It’s impossible, however, to talk about the rest of the series without revealing how episode 1 ends.

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE END OF EPISODE 1 AHEAD.

Gaitonde, who choses Sartaj specifically for of his moral fortitude, waits until the two lock eyes before shooting himself in the head, leaving Sartaj in the blind, though with a newfound sense of urgency. While the first chapter features flashbacks narrated to Sartaj by Gaitonde, the remaining seven feature a similar structure, sans narrative motivation. As if from beyond the grave, Gaitonde, a man who fancies himself a god, unravels the past — his own, and that of Mumbai — and creates dueling narratives that result in a fundamental disconnect.

Gaitonde’s past, directed entirely by Anurag Kashyap (Gangs of Wasseypur), is a tale of power. Political power. Religious power. Criminal power. The power of ideas. The present however, directed by Vikramaditya Motwane (Udaan), involves local cop Sartaj and Intelligence officer Anjali Mathur (Radhika Apte) trying to solve Gaitonde’s riddles in ways that feel distant from his cult-like musings. The characters in the present move, though only geographically and in service of the plot, between a cortège of garish neon locales. In true Netflix fashion, they’re trapped on a story-treadmill, rarely shifting the thematic needle in any coherent direction.

The half of the show set in the ’80s and early ’90s is a twisted tale of bloodshed, unfolding as Gaitonde exacts control over Mumbai’s slums. But its 2018 equivalent recontextualizes the flashbacks in ways that robs them of their impact. Gaitonde’s rise to power — intercut with real footage of religious riots and terrorist attacks — takes advantage of a world that grows increasingly frayed. Gaitonde claims to be above religious conflict, though he can only go so long without being dragged into the communal violence he continually ignores. His proximity to Mumbai’s real history makes him a cipher, though Sartaj’s decoding of his conspiracy in the present lacks any moral or religious grounding, at least until the season’s final moments. Sartaj and his peers play what feels like an entirely different game involving people plucked from Gaitonde’s past who, in the present, may as well be different characters.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui

Nawazuddin Siddiqui

Things even end on a cliffhanger, promising answers sometime in the future, but neither the present plot nor the characters forced to wrestle within it traverse interesting waters in the meantime. In Sacred Games, good men molded by corrupt structures are forced to question the ways in which they do good. For Sartaj, this doesn’t end up meaning much. When forced to change his statement on a police shooting, his other investigations exist independently of this compromise; he’s told, repeatedly, that he’ll receive backup if he plays ball, but he spends half the series going rogue anyway.

Sartaj is on a linear mission, coming up against hurdles and finding ways to circumvent them with occasional help from other cops; it’s these other cops however, who give the present timeline its flare. Sartaj’s loyal Constable Katekar (Jitendra Joshi) is the beating heart of the show. Sartaj’s unaddressed divorce woes, more lip-service to character than actual ethos, pale in comparison to the brief glimpses we get of Katekar’s story: His inability to balance Sartaj’s demands with his wife and two kids in a crammed apartment; his selective nobility, taking on whatever case Sartaj tosses his way; his initial apathy towards a Muslim immigrant in search of her missing son; his sense of humor despite his circumstances, and his eventual drive to do good despite the lack of reward. If there’s a breakout character in Sacred Games, it’s Katekar. He’s occasionally obnoxious and consistently funny, but his desire to the right thing, while complicated by an environment that leads him down a path of violence, comes from deep within, even though he feels incidental to the larger narrative.

Neeraj Kabi’s stone-cold DCP Parulkar, an equally enticing facet of the story, has a sordid past. His ties to Gaitonde feature in the series’ flashbacks, though they have little bearing on his present. Sartaj’s peer Majid (Aamir Bashir) falls closer toward Parulkar’s side of morality and corruption, though he’s ready to help Sartaj at a moment’s notice when things go awry. Parulkar and Majid, too, are defined by their proximity to Sartaj, robbed of interior lives that could’ve painted a more complete picture of the world they inhabit. Similarly, Radhika Apte’s Anjali Mathur exists to facilitate the plot’s progression rather than unravel it through motivated action. Like Sartaj’s oft-mentioned divorce, Anjali’s backstory involving a missing father and workplace sexism are left dangling in mid-air, unconnected to how she interacts with this story, or it with her.

The same is true for most of the series’ women, often collateral damage to the stories of men. This is a point that series attempts to make — everyone in these men’s orbit is a victim of their hubris — but like the supporting cops, rarely are Sacred Games’ women given their due as people with lives of their own. The one female character who comes close to being an exception is Kukoo (Kubra Sait), a transgender woman played with verve, although, disappointingly, by a cisgender actress. A high-profile dancer, Kukkoo is involved in a tender romance with Gaitonde, who first views her as a stepping stone to power before claiming to see her as a human being on her own terms (the audience is rarely given the luxury of this perspective). She too ends up a victim of Gaitonde’s world, in ways meant to flesh out the stakes of his journey.

Saif Ali Khan and Radhika Apte

Saif Ali Khan and Radhika Apte

The fate of the show’s women is almost comically predictable by the time the season wraps up — not just in terms of where their journeys end, but how and why. Violence is perpetrated against everyone across the board, but the fates of many female characters are determined as if by the impact it would have on the men in their lives. That’s a hell of a tally for an eight-episode season. On the other hand, Zoya Mirza (Elnaaz Norouzi), an actress separated from the plot by several degrees, ends up with her own narrative about a coke-snorting, dog-murdering boyfriend and her own mysterious past, though her story doesn’t begin to impact the plot until the second-to-last episode.

Sartaj and Anjali chase phantoms that we, the audience, are often aware of via the flashbacks. But the show still plays their narrative like a mystery, one whose answers rarely (if ever) impact the characters themselves. If Sacred Games has an unimpeachable strength however, it’s the partnership of director Anurag Kashyap and his Gangs of Wasseypur/Psycho Raman star Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who breathes life and fury into Gaitonde.

Siddiqui carries himself with a cunning intellect; when his wheels are in motion, you feel every turn. Gaitonde is a man with a fascinating past, born out of violence at the nexus of poverty and privilege (his father was a beggar, but belonged to the Brahmin caste), and he knows exactly how to find people’s weak spots in a world consumed by religion. Watching Gaitonde ascend is a fascinating journey. His schemes begin deep in his mind, like a fire raging behind Siddiqui’s eyes. The appeal of Gaitonde is both the self-righteous violence he inflicts — even if the show’s use of religious conflict is mere window-dressing — as well as watching his plans come to fruition despite the tumultuous consequences. Gaitonde is Sacred Games, though Sacred Games does neither him nor Siddiqui justice.

The series hinges on turns that are less interesting than what the characters promise. They speak of grandeur. Of world-changing moments. Of coming events on par with religious epics. We’re told the mechanisms by which these things be enacted — guns are involved, though their purpose is vague — but the function of any given element is never placed in a context befitting of its antagonists’ lofty ideals. Gaitonde speaks of a spiritual guide upon whose ideology this violent “25 days” enterprise is based, but neither this ideology, nor the potential result of its actions, is articulated. The present timeline, for all its focus on the exact number of days left in the countdown, kneecaps the show’s very premise. The stakes, whether personal or political, are never dramatized.

Sartaj is a fixed moral point in a world of shifting greys, but his unwavering presence makes little comment or impact on the setting around him. The human cost to Sartaj’s job is often independent of Gaitonde’s prophesized events, the series’ B-plots and B-characters are far more engaging, but they exist to support a story that doesn’t feel like it matters. If there’s no internal darkness for Sartaj to battle, nor anyone challenged by his moral outlook, nor enough external darkness deep enough to challenge Sartaj’s convictions, what is he fighting for?

The first season admirably completes its arc for Gaitonde while leaving room for more. He accepts the cost and responsibility that comes with godhood and finds himself a broken devotee, but the result of his entire narrative feels, thus far, for naught.

With Gaitonde out of the Sartaj picture, speaking directly to the audience in riddles, how are the diametrically opposed ideologies to which they subscribe meant to create drama? The show may provide answers in its presumed next season, but it may be far too late to make viewers care.

The Verdict

Netflix’s stylized first Indian series lined up an immense roster of talent only to deliver a frustrating promise of something more interesting. For now, Sacred Games feels more like being played than playing along.

Mediocre
Netflix’s first Indian series is alluring, but frustrating.
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