A large part of Netflix’s plans for global domination hinged on its belief (and hope) that original programming from far-flung countries would not only find an audience among those various “local” viewers, but grab the attention of curious viewers open to new experiences around the world. The core belief was that American (and British) exports had proven for decades that the model would work in theory. Netflix got real validation with Narcos and hasn’t looked back since, only ramping up production pretty much everywhere it planted its flag.
On Friday, the international streaming service dropped its first Indian drama, the Mumbai mob story Sacred Games, based on the acclaimed book by Vikram Chandra. The eight-part first season will first have to lure Indian viewers, but Sacred Games has enough going for it to be considered a strong start. And for those who haven’t sampled the impressive depth on Netflix’s international TV series bench, Sacred Games provides the kind of intriguing thrills found in the best of those offerings — a worldly mise-en-scene that depicts something familiar but with unique local twists.
Some international series might appeal to American viewers in ways that would be criticized in their home countries — familiar TV tropes become more tolerable when transposed to new places, and we’re not as sensitive to stereotypes when they’re not our own. But that’s part of the viewing adventure, really, and it has cut some slack to series from Norway, Israel and other countries.
With Sacred Games, Mumbai — called by its older name of Bombay throughout the series — is a magnificent backdrop to a series about police corruption, rampant crime and a mystery revolving around looming destruction that may or may not start with religious factions rising up to destroy the city. Sacred Games co-directors Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane take every opportunity to use the city as a functional, important character in the story, as is the case with New York or any number of smaller but distinct locales in American series. You can sense the gap in class structure, be overwhelmed by the density and broil in the sweat of its heat and rush of activity. There are long stretches of beautifully shot scenes where Mumbai/Bombay is as magnetic and nuanced as any character in the series.
You know you’re not in a familiar Bollywood production instantly, as a white dog is tossed off an enormous high-rise and falls slowly and seemingly forever as a voice asks, “Do you believe in God? God doesn’t give a fuck.”
The series kicks off with a situation that’s familiar to American viewers: Sartaj Singh (Bollywood star Saif Ali Khan) is a low-ranking honest cop in the Mumbai Police Department whose testimony in the case of the killing of a teenager by the cops is not only essential to the officers’ getting off, but thoroughly expected by his commanding officer and everyone else. The corruption runs deep and Singh is presented with a clear choice — confirm the lie that the kid was armed and threatening officers or have the entire shooting pinned on him.
Before that can be resolved, Sacred Games takes its more creative (and slightly confusing) dramatic turn by having Singh get contacted by a mysterious and ultimately notorious gangster from Mumbai’s past, Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who has been missing and thought dead for 15 years. Gaitonde tells Singh that he has 25 days to save Mumbai before everybody in it (save one person) will die. It’s a nice hook that sets itself and then takes a back seat to Gaitonde’s story, which is narrated in repeated and long expositional phone calls to Singh; the action then unfolds in flashback as Gaitonde rises from street beggar to feared slum gangster (the voiceover exposition continues without much explanation from the grave, but never mind that).
Sacred Games is filled with those aforementioned storytelling quirks that viewers will likely just go with as they are distracted by the enticingly foreign elements that color a familiar story that their brain tries to process, like a simultaneously recognizable but tweaked narrative. Many of Netflix’s most popular international series thrive on this slight disconnect — a story that feels familiar, American even, but is told through a lens that lets the other side of the world in.
In the meantime, Khan’s morally righteous and thus tortured Singh has enough stoic qualities to allow an audience to root for his long-shot, probably misguided path to whatever righteous result might come from unveiling the truth — never mind the fact that he’s also apparently got 25 days before all hell breaks loose. It’s Siddiqui, however, who really owns the series, as his antihero gangster story unfolds. A pulpy noir figure shot through with a philosophical god complex that resonates with originality, the Gaitonde character is never dull. As Radhika Apte’s character, a foreign intelligence officer, begins to have a bigger story, she also magnifies the appeal of the series.
While a lot of references in Sacred Games might get lost in translation — and some of the deeper Hindu-Muslim divides might not register here the way they will with an Indian audience — the story (writers include Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath) is so timelessly American in its mob/cops/city thematic trifecta that any fan of The Wire or even Martin Scorsese can relate to it immediately. Having seen half of the first season, I’m still unclear on whether the greater mystery — Singh having 25 hours to save the city — is about defusing a holy war, a terrorism threat or something more weirdly genre-inspired. But the early ride is a dark bullets-blood-and-sex tale that gets a fresher patina thanks to Mumbai as a central character and the allure of looking at a well-worn story through an international lens.
There are clear flaws to Sacred Games (the story cliches, some avoidable poor decisions that characters make, etc.), but there’s also something riveting about India’s bleaker, darker heart being exposed as opposed to some upbeat, colorful explosion of dance scenes.
If Sacred Games can get even a fraction of the available Indian market hooked on its small-screen storytelling, that alone will validate Netflix’s expansion plans. But the bigger goal might be a Narcos-like play to an open-minded international audience that wants to see something familiar but foreign at the same time.
Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Neeraj Kabi, Aamir Bashir, Pankaj Tripathi
Directors: Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane
Based on the book by: Vikram Chandra
Available now on Netflix