My memories of Indian TV shows are filled with melodrama that the campiest of daytime soaps cannot even dream of ever living up to, depictions of pearl clutching so over the top the metaphorical pearls probably explode, and the production value of an overzealous teenager who just learned to use Final Cut. The country with the most prolific film industry of the world has never really been able to produce TV of the same quality as the best of Bollywood, but Anurag Kashyap’s Netflix series “Sacred Games” points to a promising future.
Kashyap is one of the Indian film industry’s finest directors. From the sprawling gang epic “Gangs of Wasseypur” to the modern adaption of an Indian classic “Devdas” in “Dev.D,” he produces films that are darker, more complex, and ultimately illuminating than the average Bollywood flick. In “Sacred Games,” an adaption of a book of the same name written by Vikram Chandra, he directs a Bollywood legend (and son of actual royalty) Saif Ali Khan (“Chef”) and the more low-key but equally talented Nawazuddin Siddiqui (“Lion”).
Khan portrays Sartaj Singh, a down-on-his-luck Mumbai police officer who is exasperated with both his limited career success as well as the rampant corruption in his police force. In the midst of arguably one of the lowest points in his life, he receives a series of mysterious calls by Ganesh Gaitonde (Siddiqui), an extremely notorious criminal who had not been seen nor heard of for the better part of 15 years. In a conversation that doubles as a tale of Gaitonde’s brutal life, Singh is warned about an impending attack on Mumbai as well as a mysterious link between Gaitonde and Singh’s late father, a Mumbai police officer himself.
In a TV world filled with “Narcos” imitations that never quite live up to the original, “Sacred Games” may seem as another waste of time. However, Kashyap’s experience directing movies such as “Gangs of Wasseypur” shines through and makes “Sacred Games” a compelling watch. The show, mainly through Gaitonde’s narration in the first episode, explore the underworld of Mumbai and the rather hypocritical behavior of some of its most religious residents with a sardonic wit. The flashbacks to points in Gaitonde’s life are seamless and well-executed, showing in graphic detail the contradictions behind Gaitonde’s character. Unlike the aforementioned Indian soaps, “Sacred Games” features crisp editing, with a noticeable lack of dramatic music, making some of the more tense scenes twice as uncomfortable. Moreover, Mumbai feels like a living, breathing metropolis in all of its glory and all of its filth.
Khan and Siddiqui’s performances are solid throughout. Siddiqui in particular is chilling in a strange way, as if Anton Chigurh met Pablo Escobar. His narration in the pilot was easily the episode’s high point, revealing a mix of astounding arrogance and self-hatred within Gaitonde. Khan at points is stilted, but for the most part, his nonverbal acting conveys a sense of emotional depth in Singh’s character that is explored in later episodes.
“Sacred Games” is perhaps India’s finest TV series to date, and a gripping watch for TV lovers around the world. It paints a promising picture towards a future where Indian TV may finally enter its own golden age and capture the hearts and minds of its screen-loving populace.