Thursday, August 18, 2016

Sartaj Singh and Ganesh Gaitonde on Netflix: thoughts on the Sacred Games TV series

[Vikram Chandra’s Mumbai-underworld epic Sacred Games is being adapted into a Netflix series. Did this speculative piece for Mint Lounge]

“We are debris,” muses Sartaj Singh, the policeman-protagonist of Vikram Chandra’s mammoth 2006 novel Sacred Games, during an investigation into the Mumbai underworld, “randomly tossed about and nudging into each other, splitting each other’s lives apart.” The last few words find visual representation on the book’s original, pulp-fiction-inspired cover, where two faces merge into one, even sharing an eye. On the right is the turbaned Sartaj; on the left his nemesis, the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, a red tilak on his forehead. Sacred Games is about many lives that intersect in countless ways, but at its heart are these two men, two sides of the same coin, who are linked by the narrative’s cross-cutting structure.

Between them, they stand for a murky world populated by criminals and law-enforcers, all doing what they can to survive in a heaving metropolis. But Singh and Gaitonde are philosophers too, constantly analysing the quirks of fate and how things might have gone very differently. “Nothing is given to us without something larger being taken away,” thinks the gangster, “Becoming Ganesh Gaitonde the Hindu bhai was an act of murder, it was the murder of a thousand and one other selves.”

A fast-paced thriller as well as a meditation on forked paths, the book quickly developed a cult following. Now, 10 years later, its fans have been thrilled by the announcement that it is being adapted into an original series by Netflix. The online TV network is being tight-lipped about details, but one thing is certain: the scale will be more elaborate than that provided by a feature-length film. And given that this is such an exciting time for narrative television, online and offline – with Netflix shows such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black being part of the renaissance – Sacred Games buffs are likely to be in for a treat.

Chandra’s epic lends itself very well to a long-form series. It is (just about) possible to imagine a good two-hour movie version, but this would involve paring the book down to its main plot and removing much of what makes it special. Sacred Games is intricate and multilayered: it keeps making detours; it moves about in space and time, even going back to the Partition riots to examine what effect that violence had on the family histories of the contemporary characters. When I first read it, even as I reveled in Chandra’s elegant storytelling and the audacity of a narrative that mixed genre tropes with the rigour of literary fiction, I felt a little stymied by the accumulation of detail. One long “Inset” near the end – an apparently random account of an old woman dying anonymously in the US, her granddaughter curious about her distant past but then getting back to writing about her favourite filmstar Aamir Khan in her diary – is rich and moving when you reread it. But when you’re encountering the book for the first time, as a thriller about Sartaj and Gaitonde, it can feel like a distraction.

In this 2006 interview, Chandra told me his intention had been to create an intricate mosaic, where none of the characters was fully aware of everything that was happening. (“Each action flew down a tangled net of links, reverberating and amplifying itself and disappearing only to reappear again,” Sartaj reflects.) The TV-series format, with its ability to handle multiple narratives, can do great things with such a design.

However, even serious fans might be willing to accept some changes in the narrative structure (and at this point, one can only speculate). In the book, Sartaj and Gaitonde converse once, very early in the story: the gangster has, for reasons unclear, barricaded himself inside a strange, cube-shaped building, and the cop is outside, trying to persuade him to surrender. The cross-cutting begins after Gaitonde dies: he tells Sartaj (and us) his story from beyond the grave; meanwhile Sartaj, who is very much on a corporeal plane, continues probing mysteries related to Gaitonde’s demise.

Depending on the planned length of the series, it might be tempting to tweak this format so that Sartaj and Gaitonde become antagonists or doppelgangers in a more immediate sense. By that, I don’t mean lots of dramatic confrontations or cliffhangers, just a sense of a psychological cat-and-mouse game between two people who know each other’s minds. One of the fascinating things about Chandra’s book – which is full of imagery that would lend itself to a good screenplay – is how it emphasizes the links between Sartaj and Gaitonde, in big and small ways. They visit the same places in unrelated contexts; each man is sleep-deprived and haunted by apocalyptic visions; Sartaj hums “Mehbooba Mehbooba” to himself while driving, and a few pages later Gaitonde is watching Sholay.

A series that kept Gaitonde alive a little longer than the book did might find intriguing ways of dealing with this subtext. By way of reference, I’m thinking of the creepy relationship between serial killer Hannibal Lecter and disturbed cop Will Graham in the fabulously atmospheric series Hannibal, another milestone of narrative television. But there are also recent Hindi films which have dealt with the “doubles” motif. Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0, for instance – produced by Phantom Films, which is also co-producing the Sacred Games adaptation – has a poster reminiscent of the original Sacred Games cover, blending the faces of a murderer and a potentially psychotic cop.
There are other ways of linking Chandra’s novel with gritty crime movies. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the author’s brother-in-law, made the 1989 Parinda, which was a landmark of the modern gangster film. The writer S Hussain Zaidi, to whom Sacred Games is co-dedicated, wrote Black Friday, which was filmed by Kashyap and featured a funny little moment of camaraderie where a cop, near the end of an exhausting chase, calls out “Ruk ja, yaar” to his quarry – a scene that reminds me of the one in Sacred Games where Sartaj, trying to persuade Gaitonde to come out of his cube, says "Come on, yaar. This is stupid."

Even at a broader level, to read Sacred Games is to be swamped by movie references, from Prithviraj Kapoor (whose booming, paternalistic voice Sartaj thinks Gaitonde has been influenced by) and the young Dev Anand to contemporary cinema. The relationship between the characters’ lives and the films they watch is like the dizzying hall-of-mirrors scene in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai, where one can no longer separate reality from reflection, or tell what exists in two dimensions and what in three.
Young thugs watching Deewaar and Nayakan weep because they identify with the lead characters’ journeys. Gaitonde becomes fatally seduced by tinsel town when he finances a film (which gets trashed by a critic on the grounds that the people who made it seem to know nothing about gangsters’ lives!). Sacred Games knows well how escapist melodrama can help people tap into their emotional selves and make sense of the world around them. As Gaitonde says when a friend tells him something is too “filmi” to be believable, “I knew better. I had seen scenes from my own life in two dozen films […] I was filmi, and I was real.” Chandra echoed these words while discussing the book, telling me he gets put off by pat judgements on Hindi cinema. “Often, what we think of as melodramatic films reach deeper truths while seeming artificial on the surface. And what is overly emotional/melodramatic anyway? I look around me at Indian families and by God, we're so melodramatic in real life!”

Yet there is also this paradox: despite Chandra’s own identification with the tropes of mainstream Hindi film, his book is written in cool, polished English with smatterings of street jargon (“The screenplay of my life had arced upwards in a single continuous movement, and I had left lovers and yaars and enemies behind”) – a language that is a world away from the everyday speech of Gaitonde and the other characters. This is acceptable as literary licence in a novel, but I’m unsure how it would translate into a TV series where we actually see and hear these characters. The Netflix press release uses the word “bilingual”, but it isn’t clear how much of the series will be in English and how much in Hindi. The answer to this question will determine many things about its tone and how closely it captures the daily realities of people like Gaitonde and Sartaj, as well as the nature of the cinema that provides reference points for them.

Either way, the show should have plenty of stimulating things in it. If successful, it could even acquire a life of its own, moving beyond the book’s ambit. The novel’s last line is “He went in and began another day”, a reference to Sartaj getting back to his work after the Gaitonde adventure is over. Sartaj could certainly make a compelling protagonist for a police procedural. A Sikh hero in an internationally watched show with a dead gangster, a modern-day Betaal, hovering over him, whispering wisdom into his ear? The possibilities are endless, and most of them come from the nature of this enthralling book, which is a very Indian story rooted in our narrative traditions and in the character of our most dynamic metropolis, while also being universal enough to appeal to a global audience. 

[Related pieces: a conversation with Vikram Chandra; the chase in Black Friday]


  1. I would love to watch this series. The book, as you rightly said, would work much better in a series format rather than in a movie.
    I do think I need to re-read the book to understand the doppleganger effect - it was fast paced and I read it too quick a few years ago. To me, both characters were products of the same place and similar timing/era, and so, they do have similar influences.
    The name though was a red herring to me. Understandably, the "sacred" was due to the identity of the influential person in Gaitonde's life. But I had expected, from the title, more religious imagery and "games" in the story.

  2. Loved the book.
    How much time does it takes to shoot 15 episodes, 45 minutes each?

  3. Completely off topic or not........Would be very glad if you could recommend any good books on writing about films or film criticism

  4. Just read this today. This is great. I loved Sacred Games and I think a Netflix series can do much more justice to the story than a movie. I was pleasantly surprised to see a Sikh protagonist in Sacred Games and very impressed by the authenticity of Sartaj's mom's portrayal. She reminded me of my grand mom (I am sikh whose grandparents lived in Lahore before the partition). I liked the book so much that I wrote to Vikram and
    asked him about how he decided on a Sikh protagonist, something that is rare. I forgot what he replied but he did give a really long reply and it made my day. I never expected that reply.

  5. Have you seen the series yet? Curious to know what you make of it. HAvent read the book so cant compare.