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Friday, Aug 16, 2019

Are you ready for another round of Sacred Games?

Netflix’s first Indian Original Series, surpassed all expectations. With Season 2 out on August 15, Vikram Chandra, who wrote the book on which the show is based, tells you what to expect

tv Updated: Aug 10, 2019 17:12 IST
Deepanjana Pal
Deepanjana Pal
Hindustan TImes
         

Even before Sacred Games was actually published in 2006, Vikram Chandra’s novel was making news. Aside from the bidding war and rumours of a million-dollar advance, the book was optioned before a publisher had even been attached to it. Yet it would take more than a decade for Sacred Games to come to screens.

Fittingly for a book that redefined Mumbai noir with its twisty tale of organised crime, disorganised cops and terror plots, when the Netflix adaptation finally arrived last year, it made everyone sit up.

Finally, there was an Indian series that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with international shows. Its creative team understood how to combine serialised storytelling with cinematic flair. The first season was faithful to Chandra’s novel in all the ways that mattered – including the flying Pomeranian – but it also introduced tweaks like setting the action in the present, rather than in the 1990s.

Rooted in a Mumbai that reeks of menace, the urban sprawl of Netflix’s Sacred Games was the sister city of Gotham, and its broken defenders tipped their hats to shows like True Detective and Mindhunter. In its review of the show, The New York Times described Sacred Games as “energetic and entertaining”. Mashable said it was “powerful” and “unlike anything else available on the streaming platform” in India.

Chandra tells us why he found developing the second season more challenging than the first, what he’s looking forward to seeing on screen and the role technology has played in the process of telling stories.

Now that the first season of Sacred Games has been received so well, can you tell us a little about what, if anything, you were apprehensive about as far as adapting it to screen went; and what changes you were excited about.

I was curious to see how the writers of the series would adapt the double storylines of the book. Others had tried to do that in the past and had given up, declaring that it was impossible to do. And now the showrunner and writers and directors have done a magnificent job of bringing these two stories — Sartaj’s and Gaitonde’s — together in a seamless and coherent way, so that the narratives flow in and out of each other without losing dramatic impact and velocity.

Has the process of revisiting the book for the adaptation made you wish you’d written it differently? Has it changed how you see the novel in any way?

Not really; books and television are two very different media. To go from one to the other, you necessarily need to do a radical translation. Often, translating literally fails horribly. Try to do a literal translation of ‘jigar ka tukda’ into English, for instance, and see how that sounds. It’s been an education to watch the writers take the story from the written word to a visual medium. And then to see what the actors do in performance.

via GIPHY

What has the process of developing the second season been like for you? Was it different from season one?

Yes, once the landscape had been set up, and the stakes of the game expanded upon sufficiently, in one way it became easier because you’d done the laying of the foundation. But harder in other ways, because now you can’t go back and change the major structures you’ve already put in place. It reminded me of that stage in writing a novel where the structure of the book becomes clear to you, and you’re pushing forward towards completing that shape. But much harder in this case, because you’ve already broadcast the first season into the world. The whole process has taught me a lot of respect for those 19th century writers who published whole novels serially. There are no take-backs if you work like this. Unless you engage in stunts like the American TV show Dallas, which revealed that an entire season was just a character’s dream…

What about the second season are you most excited about?

There are way too many exciting things to narrow it down, but — watch out for Surveen Chawla’s powerful performance as Jojo, one of my favourite characters in the book. And millennials probably won’t get it, but there’s a callback to Rehana Sultan that made me laugh out loud.

Sacred Games was optioned, but didn’t get made into a film. Do you think the series format is better suited to it than a film would have been?

Oh, absolutely. When I had a meeting with one of the companies that first optioned the book, they told me that they wanted to make a film. I told them that I didn’t see how it could be done, unless they were going to make a trilogy, but they were welcome to try. They hired a renowned British screenwriter and he gave it a go and finally gave up. I felt for him. The series format, as it is practised now, allows the filmmakers to develop multi-stranded narratives in a very expansive manner. Again, these current story-making structures remind me a lot of 19th century serial publishing of novels, down to the architectural rhythms and the hooks that the writers placed in each beat.

From apps like Granthika, which you founded, to how books are distributed and the alternative life that a written story gets when it’s adapted for the visual medium, technology seems more intricately woven into the business of being a writer than ever. How do you think technology impacts you as a writer?

We shouldn’t forget that traditional printed books are also a technology, and they too changed the shape of narratives, including destroying a huge ecosystem of manuscript publishing that existed well into modernity. This happened on a huge scale in India, where even now we have — according to one estimate — about 30 million pre-modern manuscripts stored in libraries and private collections.

Writing has always existed through technology, from clay tablets and palm-leaf manuscripts and the stylus to the present moment. But even in the digital medium, we continue to imitate the form of printed books and scrolls. At Granthika, we very ambitiously want to “reinvent text for the digital age”, so we can invent new forms. And most of all, we want to lower the tech barrier-to-entry for writers, so that we make it possible for them to create new ways of handling stories while finding it much, much easier to write traditional ones. 

via GIPHY

There appears to be a lot of anxiety about the future of books as a medium. Do you think the concerns are justified?

I think that the anxiety felt by companies and people engaged in traditional publishing is justified. They’re living through another technological revolution, one that has changed the entire landscape they’d operated in for a few centuries. Compare the anxieties of the traditional studio systems in the age of Netflix and other streaming platforms — every studio is trying to get into OTT now.

I don’t think books are going away at all; you have a huge global readership, you have enormous number of people engaging in self-publishing. A recent survey showed that while income for ‘traditional’ writers has gone down, the median income for romance writers — who are increasingly skilled at self-publication and promotion — has tripled. Not that anyone’s really figured out anything yet. I remember the heady days of the Nineties, when all artists believed that we could effortlessly find our paying audience of sahṛdayas directly through the frictionless medium of the internet, through micro-payments and so on. It all seems hilariously naïve now.

There are sites like Patreon now, but doing all that online work and maintaining a continuing relationship with fans demands an untenable commitment of time and effort while you’re trying to get on with your real work, at least for a lot of writers I know. And especially if you publish one novel every 10 years. Nobody’s really figured out how to pay long-form writers for their work yet (or long-form journalists, for that matter). And the huge international corporations still dominate.

First Published: Aug 10, 2019 17:12 IST

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