Playing the Sacred Games: How the country’s biggest talents came together to make India’s first global show
Whether or not Sacred Games turns into Netflix’s next biggest international hit remains to be seen.We spoke to the show’s cast and crew - Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Vikramaditya Motwane, Anurag Kashyap and the rapper Divine - about the making of India’s first global show.
Vikramaditya Motwane read Sacred Games in a week. Anyone who has ever held the 900-page Vikram Chandra epic in their hands - let alone read it - would know that this achievement cannot be overlooked. “I was reading it everywhere,” he said, with a hint of pride in his voice, “bathrooms, cars, at home, at work, everywhere. It was like reading a book a day.”
But this wasn’t a personal challenge. Motwane, director of films such as Udaan, Lootera and the recent Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, had been contacted by Netflix. It all happened very quickly, but long story short, Motwane had to finish the book in time for his meeting with the streaming giant. They wanted to make a show out of it - their first Indian original - so a lot was at stake. If this show were to be successful, “it would mean more work for all of us, more work for new writers, actors, directors, and as an Indian, something to be really proud of,” Motwane said.
But he couldn’t do this alone. So for help, and collaboration, he turned to “the only director in the world” he could “trust to be able to pull this off”, Anurag Kashyap.
Kashyap made his Netflix debut barely a month ago, when he directed one of the four short films in the anthology Lust Stories. He would be reuniting with the star of his short, Radhika Apte, but not quite. To tackle the book’s formidable length, and its non-linear structure, which told two parallel stories, Motwane and Kashyap decided to divide directing duties based on timelines.
Motwane would direct Apte and star Saif Ali Khan in Sartaj Singh’s story - Sartaj is the strait-laced cop at the centre of the drama - and Kashyap would have a more significant reunion with his muse, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who would play Sartaj’s nemesis, the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde. The director-actor duo have developed a somewhat legendary reputation, having worked together in films such as Black Friday, Gangs of Wasseypur and Raman Raghav 2.0. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to describe them as India’s answer to Scorsese and De Niro.
Kashyap had read the novel years ago, and had been approached to direct an adaptation for Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions and the American network AMC, which was then in the middle of its heyday, with two of its shows, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, simultaneously changing the landscape of TV forever. That era in the history of television played an important role in the growth of Netflix. Shows no longer had to be governed by ratings or time slots; how they were being received took precedence over most everything else.
That early version of the show was supposed to be in English, which would have been a terrible way to adapt the story, according to Motwane and Kashyap. Despite the occasional Hindi word here and there, the novel reads like a translation - a good translation, but always noticeably one step away from being truly authentic. “I never want to do anything based in India in English,” Kashyap said.
But as it turns out, the directors didn’t allow their cast to read the book because, as Kashyap put it, that would restrict their ‘perceptions and expectations from the characters’. “It’s very important for the actor to be in the moment. Sometimes it’s a burden if an actor comes in too prepared,” he said. “As a director I don’t like my actors to be prepared, I don’t want them to know everything. I work on the set,” he continued, but noted that Motwane, who has a completely different directing style, “had everything prepared in advance.”
Motwane spent a year with writer Varun Grover and his partners mapping out the direction that he, as the showrunner, wanted to take the series in. He nodded quietly when asked if he had future seasons mapped out as well. His set wasn’t at all like Kashyap’s, who was directing Ganesh Gaitonde’s Goodfellas-esque rise to the top of Mumbai’s criminal underworld in his characteristically freewheeling style.
“We’re two very diverse people,” Kashyap said, “that’s why everyone was wondering how this marriage would happen.”
But it works. The show feels seamless, despite two directors, two sets, two parallel storylines and two lead actors who share only one scene. “Vikram directed that scene,” said Nawaz. “It set the tone for where I could take the character with Anurag.”
Having played several gangsters in his career - although Nawaz would be the first to point out that he has also played several regular people too - he found the creative freedom of online streaming refreshing. “We don’t usually get the same amount of time to develop characters in films,” he said. Besides a thriving indie career, Nawaz has appeared in blockbusters opposite Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan. One of his biggest films was Raees, which also told the story of a gangster’s rise to the top, although Nawaz played a cop in that film. He was also one of the biggest reasons the rapper Divine agreed to write an original song for the show. “Nawaz is one of my favourite actors in the country,” Divine, who brought an added Mumbai texture to Kaam 25, said.
“No one believes they’re wrong in life,” Nawaz said, explaining Gaitonde’s ruthlessness, agreeing with the popular adage that every villain is the hero of their story. “Everyone wants to assert that they’re right and everyone else is wrong. That’s what’s happening around the world these days. In Gaitonde’s mind, he is right in what he does.”
And he does quite a lot. We are introduced to Gaitonde after he has already established himself as the king of Mumbai, a larger-than-life, almost mythic being who has the tendency to compare himself to God. Out of the blue, he calls Sartaj Singh and warns him that in 25 days, the city that they both love will be decimated.
“The idea was to take a local story and make it work for a global audience,” Motwane said. In a concentrated effort to expand their global lineup, Netflix produced international runaway hits such as Narcos and Dark, catapulting the shows’ South American and German cast and crew to worldwide fame. “Narcos tells you so much about Colombia, about the people and the vistas and about that part of the world,” Motwane said, comparing his portrayal of the very ‘cinematic’ Mumbai to how Colombia was shown in Narcos. “Bombay is the ideal microcosm of India,” he said, “of that whole sense of inequality where you could have the biggest skyscrapers next to the poorest slums.”
“I love Dark,” Kashyap said, referring to the hit 2017 science-fiction thriller series that came out of Germany, “but you can’t work” with the pressure of attaining that level of success in the back of your mind.
And for decades, success in Bollywood has been gauged on the basis on numbers - at the box office, on social media, and of sycophantic ‘camps’. “Anurag and I don’t make the kind of films that are going to perform on a Friday or a Saturday or a Sunday,” Motwane said as Nawaz silently nodded in agreement. “My entire career is based on piracy,” Kashyap admitted.
With no box office numbers to expect, and nothing but word-of-mouth with which to assess how the show has performed, Motwane welcomed the change. “I liked your show, I didn’t like your show, that’s what it all comes down to, and that is good.”
The author tweets @RohanNaahar