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From Satya to Sacred Games: The agony and ecstasy of seeing Mumbai on screen

As the web series based on Vikram Chandra’s novel premieres on Netflix, a look at how differently the city of its birth has been reflected in cinema through the years.

india Updated: Jul 08, 2018 10:09 IST
Sanjukta Sharma
Sanjukta Sharma
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Gangster movies,Sacred Games
Gangsters, killers and smuggling at the docks... Sacred Games, based on Vikram Chandra’s 900-page thriller, is set mainly in the Mumbai of the 1980s and ’90s.

Anurag Kashyap lives in a part of Mumbai that has rarely been filmed, but is hyper-instagrammed. Versova Village is the northernmost point of the island city, a Koli stronghold. The Kolis are fisherfolk who are the city’s original inhabitants; social media is full of lushly picturised, gold-strewn Koli men and women. I meet Kashyap at his home inside a street that packs greenery and small businesses in in equal measure, days before Sacred Games, directed by him and Vikramaditya Motwane, streams on Netflix. And 20 years after Kashyap got his break in Hindi cinema as a writer, on Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya.

Both Satya and Sacred Games are quintessential Mumbai stories, and both have the bhai or gangster in them. The first, which Kashyap wrote with Saurabh Shukla, is about the eponymous hero who gets sucked into an underworld fiefdom of extortions, killings and rapturous songs. Satya was a taste-shatterer, a new language for gangland dramas. The way it was shot revealed the city’s corners and its micro-aggressions without blinking or filtering.

Sacred Games is based on Vikram Chandra’s 900-page thriller from 2006, set mainly in the Mumbai of the 1980s and ’90s, when encounters between gangsters and the police were common and film actors paying obeisance to gangsters was routine. Kashyap says co-directing Sacred Games freed him up to make Mumbai come alive in details.

“The writing is such that there is no urgency to show the city, the city unfolds as the narrative builds. That’s why shooting for a series is liberating,” Kashyap says.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays a Maharashtrian gangster named Gaitonde. Saif Ali Khan plays his doppelganger and nemesis, police inspector Sartaj Singh.

In the first four episodes of Sacred Games, a battle between a Brahmin gangster named Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Mumbai police inspector Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) flares up. This is antagonism that goes beyond the immediate sense of the criminal on one side and the cop on the other. Sartaj and Gaitonde are dopplegangers who know each other’s minds and the battle between them continues long after Gaitonde is dead.

The directors establish the series as a taut thriller from the first episode; the riveting first season is made up of eight. The Netflix series, produced by Phantom Films, is no less rewarding than Chandra’s rich and audacious novel, the most underrated of novels about Mumbai. There are modifications in the arcs of characters and downsizing of its architecture for the sake of the screen, but the three writers, Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath, retain the artistic centre of Chandra’s novel.

The city has to keep up with the epic battle between the two men. Mumbai dwarfs characters while being thrillingly rewarding, and works as a springboard for humour. While specific to the decades in which it is set, the Mumbai of Sacred Games the series has a visual quality that transcends that time. It reveals a quality that runs through the DNA of all great cities. We see a city in flux, and are reminded that nothing is permanent; the characters’ identities are just as fluid and evolving.

So Sacred Games is a definitive addition to the Mumbai movie. It is the city that has inspired stories ever since the beginnings of Hindi cinema. From Abrar Alvi, Manto, Chetan Anand, Sudhir Mishra, Sai Paranjpye and Ram Gopal Varma to now — with numerous other writers and directors in between — Mumbai is India’s most filmed city. For a long time, two or three landmarks were screen staples — the sea at Marine Drive, the Gateway of India, the colonial structures of South Bombay, the horse buggies.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! and Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi introduced grit, filth, impermanence and the margins of the city. Varma’s Satya and Company gave this grit another dimension, showing gangland battles for survival. The city has been a fantasy for people across the country just by virtue of being so vivid on screen.

“My first big moment of realisation that I have finally come to Bombay was when I took a BEST bus and the conductor tugged at the rope to ring the bell,” says screenwriter Grover. “I had a mini-orgasm of sorts because that was a scene I had seen in so many films. That was a part of Bombay I knew intimately and still here was the first time I saw it getting muqammal in front of my eyes.”

Grover believes that a torrid affair can often tell you more about a person than marrying them will, and that how much one knows a city is not a function of the time spent there but of the intensity of one’s relationship with it. Kashyap says he is almost married to the city now, and though he’s only lived in one part of it, that never stops him from looking at it in new ways.

In Ugly (2011), Kashyap, along with his cinematographer Rajeev Ravi, showed a new, pulsating urbanism of the suburban migrant through languorously shot locations in the western suburb of Andheri.

Every visual detail, down to the small spaces we inhabit, is now chronicled in real time through social media. Every city is over-photographed by insiders and tourists and all those images are instantly consumed. The web series, more than movies, has the ability to slow burn a city into our visual reckoning and tell deeper stories. Depending on how it goes beyond the first season, Sacred Games could do that in an all-new way for Mumbai.

But before that, there’s the mundane business of actually shooting it. Directors and producers say Mumbai has become one of the most difficult cities to shoot in. “Permits are difficult and expensive, space is limited and shoots get interrupted all the time,” says Kashyap. Because of similar difficulties, Los Angeles went from being the most filmed American city to being virtually invisible on the Hollywood screen.

We needed a Sacred Games to resuscitate Mumbai on a screen, small though it may be. To also know, once more, that the shit-dunked boy in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is possibly the worst we have seen of Mumbai on screen — and not just literally.

(Sanjukta Sharma is a Mumbai-based writer and critic. Write to her at sanjukta.sharma@gmail.com)

First Published: Jul 07, 2018 20:56 IST