Sacred Games: How India’s first Netflix original came together
Vikram Chandra’s novel Sacred Games tackles all the big themes: crime, friendship, betrayal, love. Most of all, though, the 900-page book is a story about Mumbai. Sprawling yet focused, there is something cinematic in the writing.
“Right from the beginning even before the book was published there was already interest in doing something cinematic with it. Before the book was released (in 2006) it had been optioned by a major feature film company in Hollywood. They tried for a couple of years but it became clear to both them and me that it needed a much longer format,” said Chandra on the phone from the US. The production company in question is Focus Features, a Comcast subsidiary, which has produced films like Phantom Thread, an American period drama, and romantic dramas Brokeback Mountain and Pride &Prejudice.
Sacred Games, which took nearly ten years to write, will release as an 8-episode series on streaming platform Netflix on 6 July. Chandra has been attached to the Netflix project as a consultant primarily working with the writers room put together by Phantom Films, the film production company that has directed Sacred Games. This will be India’s first Netflix original to go live in over 190 countries.
In February, the company announced three new Indian original series—Leila, Ghoul and Crocodile—taking Netflix’s India originals to a total of seven, the highest number of shows commissioned by the service outside the US, UK and Japan. The American streaming giant has earmarked a content budget for India on a short term basis, their chief executive Reed Hastings confirmed in an earlier visit to India. Netflix launched its services in India in January 2016.
It all began three and a half years ago when Chandra first met Netflix representatives in their office in Los Angeles. “Unlike mainstream American channels where the absence of American characters makes everyone nervous, Netflix is unique and brilliant in its notion of global indies. The idea is they take local stories and use local crews to make them for local audiences and then broadcast those to a global audience. They didn’t mind at all that we didn’t have a CIA agent at the front of this series,” said Chandra.
For Erik Barmack, vice-president of international original series at Netflix, Chandra’s book came to mind while they were searching for “elevated and premium content” for audiences in India and around the world.
“We’d known that others had tried to develop the book as a movie and other series, and it just felt like an interesting property. On the one hand it’s a crime story and on the other we think it touches a lot of different elements of Mumbai history and Indian history,” said Barmack in a telephonic interview from LA.
Around the same time in early 2016, Netflix was looking for producers and directors they wanted to work with for Sacred Games. Phantom Films was on top of that list. “We loved Gangs of Wasseypur, its almost at the sweet spot between a TV series and a movie, it was very complex and long. We loved Vikram’s (Vikramaditya Motwane) movies too. We felt they had a cool sensibility that was pretty consistent with Netflix,” Barmack said.
Motwane was actually in Los Angeles on holiday when he got a call to meet Netflix. “‘Have you read Sacred Games?’ asked my long time friend and agent. He said why don’t you meet these guys next week?” It’s a thousand-page book! I had to speed-read 130 pages a day,” said Motwane.
Motwane was delighted that Netflix had done their research and seen his work. “The best thing for me was that they wanted to do this in Hindi and not in English. Because speaking in English can seem so fake at times. An Indian Maharashtrian cop speaking in English doesn’t make sense. That was the clincher,” said Motwane, who is referring to the character of police officer Sartaj Singh played by actor Saif Ali Khan.
From a creator’s standpoint, Netflix acts as an enabler with its ease of using different languages. “They let you use any language and any number of languages that you want to. There are entire scenes for 2-3 minutes in Marathi, followed by Punjabi. So, the series is told in way that we Indians actually live. We are multi lingual,” said Chandra.
The reason, Barmack said, is because the user base speaking English as its primary language is decreasing relative to the overall population of Netflix subscribers. “Which basically means that more and more of the Netflix population is watching either with dubs or in subtitles.”
Barmack oversees the production of original non-English-language shows made for Netflix outside the US, including Dark (Germany), Ingobernable (Mexico), and 3% (Brazil). A number of Netflix American-made originals are popular outside the States. “As a percentage of total watchers, as many people watch 13 Reasons Why in India as watch it in the US,” according to an article published in entertainment website Vulture on 10 June.
Historically, books have been made into movies and books have been written specifically for the purpose of being converted into a film. In recent times, JK Rowling has done it to perfection, Mira Nair based Namesake on Jhumpa Lahiri’s book of the same name and Chetan Bhagat signed up for a series of movies that revolve around his campus bestsellers.
“For me to move a story from one medium to another seems like you’re translating poetry from one language to another. They have adapted it wonderfully and I think even for the people who have read the book once or a couple of times there will be surprises along the way,” said Chandra who has seen some of the early episodes of Sacred Games and found them compelling and binge worthy.
The writing of the script and the layering of the story was the hardest part of this project and took over a year. “Whenever you’re adapting a book its quite complex. For us, the shows that we are doing in Latin America, in Europe, in the US, they typically take a couple of years to put together especially the first season when you’re trying to figure out what the core of the show is,” said Barmack.
Globally, Netflix has put its weight behind acquisition of top notch talent, including Oscar winning directors like Damien Chazelle, Guillermo Del Toro, top show runners from ABC and Fox like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, to a string of stand up stand up stars like Ellen DeGenres and Chris Rock and talks show hosts, including David Letterman. In May, Netlfix, announced a dela with Barack and Michelle Obama to make TV shows and movies.
In India, the progress of acquisition of content and green lighting new projects has moved at a measured and conservative pace so far. Sacred Games was shot in Mumbai. It was shot over 150 days in Mumbai.
Motwane, the show runner of the series, got co founder at Phantom Films and popular film director Anurag Kashyap on board for the project after Kashyap had finished shooting sports drama Mukkabaaz in May 2017. In terms of the shoot, since the book has two parallel stories, both Motwane and Anurag Kashyap chose to direct individual parts: one dealing with the compromised policeman, Sartaj Singh, and the other with the immensely powerful but insecure gangster, Ganesh Gaitonde. Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Gaitonde.
Barmack said that was a first they’d heard of this style of storytelling. “That was a jaw dropping moment for us. When these two came on board and said we want to follow a visual vision through flashbacks of one character and one director all the way through, we’d never seen that for any of the other series we’d developed,” he said.
During the shoot Barmack recalls what he described as a “cool meta moment”.
“In the first episode there is this shelter where Nawaz’s character is tucked away in the midst of a shopping mall and the neighbourhood. Once Saif’s character figures out that Nawaz’s character is in the bunker, he’s trying to bust it down and break inside, and a huge crowd gathers around to watch the shoot. That was a cool moment of art imitating life imitating art,” he said.
“A couple of nights ago I saw the show which has taken a couple of years to come together through my wife’s eyes and she was like this is amazing, its like Narcos, it felt so alive,” Barmack said.
For a company that said it wants to play the long game in India, Sacred Games could be the start. “Our goal as company or a brand is not to rush a bunch of products out there and then hope it works. We really want to put care and attention into this work that we’re doing and try our best to make sure that our shows and movies are differentiated and fresh,” he said..