While the small screen has always been considered the ugly stepchild of India’s absurdly popular entertainment industry, you can rely on Netflix to find an opportunity for profit. Thus, this weekend the streaming giant opened a new front in their long-running quest for global domination, tapping into the allure of cross-cultural criminal sagas once again with an adaption of Vikram Chandra’s 2006 novel, Sacred Games.
An eight-part hardboiled crime drama that combines gangster goings-on with the social and political history of India, the show is directed by Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane and written by Varun Grover, Vasant Nath, and Smita Singh. It’s a distinctly Indian production, then, but it trades in the usual staples of genre fiction, chronicling the exploits of an honest-to-a-fault cop bobbing in a sea of corruption.
Sartaj Singh, played by Saif Ali Khan, is a rare Sikh cop on the Mumbai police force, surrounded almost exclusively by corrupt colleagues. His integrity has cost him promotions and respect and a thriving love life, but it nonetheless positions him as an uncomplicated hero in Sacred Games, which adheres quite faithfully to the source novel as it ping-pongs back and forth between satire and gangland melodramatics. After being called by Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a notorious Mumbai criminal who’s been missing for years, and warned of some dire, unspecific event 25 days away, Singh’s on the case alongside Radhika Apte as an agent from the intelligence services and Jitendra Joshi as his sergeant.
Like the book, Sacred Games alternates between Singh attempting to decipher Gaitonde’s present-day mystery plot and Gaitonde himself narrating his criminal career. The show moves back and forth well, but it’s undeniable that the villain here is allowed to be a much more compelling character than the hero. And also like the book, which is huge and could function as a murder weapon itself, the whole thing sometimes feels a little muddled. It’s no easy task adapting a novel that size, especially for an overseas audience, and as is typical for cross-cultural fiction, there are a fair helping of nods and references that’ll whoosh straight over the heads of anyone who isn’t Indian.
That having been said, Sacred Games has energy and brings no small amount of verve and inventiveness to proceedings. The flavor might not be entirely familiar to Western audiences, but it provides welcome jolts of entertainment when the plotting starts to sag. It’s probably safe to say that Sacred Games is quite unlike what one might expect from a crime series, and its bizarre fusion of dark humor, satire, violence, stylization and light magical-realism give it a unique identity among Netflix’s seemingly-infinite thumbnails.