Saif Ali Khan and Nawazudin Siddiqui in Sacred Games Image: Netflix
My generation of Indian cinema audience has grown up on '70s mafia movies — that dockyard where the 'soney ke biscoots' would be exchanged, the bell-bottom pants that would be stretched beyond capacity to deliver that Jackie Chang kick, the perpetually last-to-arrive cops who would still waste further time to surround you (chaaron taraf se gher liya hai, remember?)
Yet those 'jhakass' and 'bhidu' mouthing goons were far too mellow, far too clean, and far too gentleman-like to be the scum of the society. Enter Ganesh Gaitonde aka Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Sacred Games, and that childhood image of a 'Mumbai ka bhai' is changed forever.
Gaitonde is a lanky fellow and there's no way he can induce fear into someone — he would invariably lose at hand-to-hand combat — but he does so simply by his hazelnut eyes and his soul-piercing dialogues. Because that's what bhaigiri is all about. Power and money are relative because someone somewhere will always have more power and money than you, but the fear you can plant in people's hearts, stays, grows, manifests.
If mafias have ruled '70s films, so have cops, but they were larger-than-life action figure-like cops, and I know you're picturing Suresh Oberoi at the moment. Sartaj Singh aka Saif Ali Khan, again, is nothing like that. He is visibly overweight because he's given up on life, he pops anxiety medication, and he is nothing like Chulbul Pandey or Bajirao Singham. In fact, he gets beaten up, he has no power or charisma and is proof that being a cop is not glamorous. He does fight back, eventually. And when he packs a punch on his colleague Majid's face you feel the force of that hit, no 'dhishoom' sound effects needed there.
Anjali Mathur aka Radhika Apte is an analyst for RAW. RAW, guys. And she's nothing like Salman Khan from any of the Tigers. She's a woman giving orders to men who, for most parts, are literally pretending not to hear her. Yes, she is frustrated with it, but she doesn't stop midway and turn into a damsel in distress. She keeps hammering orders, peppered with explicit profanities, again, nothing like how the Veeres said it in Veere Di Wedding, until it seeps through men's thick skins. More power to you girl, although I wish the marketing department of Sacred Games had paid enough attention and highlighted her character, as they did with Saif's and Nawaz's.
Of course, due credit has to be given to director duo Anurag Kashyap-Vikramaditya Motwane, Vikram Chandra's gritty novel, and more importantly, the lack of (forced) censorship on Netflix.
The show starts off in flashback — Gaitonde telling Sartaj his story of how he became the most dreaded mafia of Mumbai. And we're warned by him that it's 25 days to complete destruction, the clock starts ticking, and you're slowly biting your nails off, one by one. In parts, Sacred Games seemed a bit stretched, but at no point did it appear to slow down. The 'daring' that helped Gaitonde climb the ladder — burning away acres of dump yard singlehandedly by sprinkling oil from a stolen tanker, or abducting Sulaiman Isa's girlfriend from right under his nose — is cinematically great but utterly implausible. But in the world that Anurag-Vikramaditya have created, it seems possible, therefore I'm willing to suspend my disbelief.
Someone said to me yesterday as I was in the middle of some serious bingeing that Sacred Games has been dubbed as the Indian Game Of Thrones. I am not sure if that is appropriate to say, but there is, ironically, one murder per episode. And gallons of bloodshed, and a severed head, too. Go figure.