From the top of my head, when I think of Anurag Kashyap, I instantly remember Gangs of Wasseypur, Black Friday, Gulaal, Raman Raghav 2.0. While many fear, and I guess so does he, he has been typecast; a director with a profound knowledge of the dark underbelly of India and nowhere else to go. Someone who can uses streets, profanity, nudity and grey to jolt you back to reality from a journey that threatens to appear fictitious. Having never read Sacred Games, I can’t hold up the series of Sacred Games to test, so I judge it simply on its own two legs. But if the series is anything like the book, it is one damn good book.
But the greatest thing that goes to the credit of this indie director is the discovery of India’s most unconventional star – Nawazuddin Siddiqui. And to him belongs Sacred Games. Siddiqui embodies Ganesh Gaitonde, a disenchanted God in the large metropolis of ‘Bambai’. He belongs to Bombay and Bombay is at his mercy. In the 8 hours long, 8 episode series, we come away from the encounters knowing the characters’ in and out. The precision of the characterisation, the evocative cinematography keeps you tethered to the screen, and your eyes follow Ganesh, and his omnipresent voice, wherever it takes you.
Writers Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath have adapted the 900-page book by Vikram Chandra and have established the themes to be the ugly mess that is created when Religion shakes hand with Politics, and twists it into a vice-like grip. What ensues is conspiracy, corruption and chaos, with the timer to a doomsday that reminds you of 24. The stakes are set in the first episode, with both sides of the chess strewn across Bombay and its squalor. Ganesh Gaitonde’s journey, from the Ghats to Bombay’s shore, places him at the centre of the narrative and around him is woven a squalid yet spectacular tale.
This is not your run of the mill hero vs. villain war: Sacred Games has no villains, only antagonists. Ganesh Gaitonde has been the closest anyone has come to crafting the perfect anti-hero. I choose to call him this and not Saif’s Sartaj, although his character also comes on the heel of the same idea. Gaitonde is not the tallest in the room, nor is he a buck-swaggering idiot. He has an alpha-male strut, his presence fills the screen, yet he is not your hero. He has morals, yet they are corruptible. Gaitonde claims to understand the sacred game of politics, religion and how they corrupt, breed hatred – yet he gets sucked in the same vortex, killing at will when a personal loss strikes. He may roar when he is pissed, but he cries himself to sleep when he loses a friend. Anti-heroes are deeply flawed, yet within the crevices of moral corruption, you see little sparks of light. This makes understanding them a lot harder.
Nawaz delves deep into his character, and finally, on the screen, there is no Nawaz, just Ganesh, the mobster, whose life is made and marred by events around him. Landmark incidents like the Shah Bano case, Babri Masjid demolition and Mumbai bomb blasts make the background of his journey. As politically loaded the series is (a matter for another piece maybe) the writers have deftly even taken on themes of sexuality and gave their own spin on a love story, between Ganesh and his muse, Kuckoo. Kuckoo, the dancer, the charmer, the third gender. In the moment that Kuckoo takes off her robe, we are as naked and ashamed as she is, writhing in pain, unable to escape the sad inevitable end that she knows awaits her. For him to shine, she must leave. And our hearts break with hers.
The language, the nudity, the bloodshed, nothing seems forced and that is the beauty of Sacred Games. It captures Bombay, what it was to people who live on the fringe, and the Mumbai of today, a teeming island almost always on the brink. And Ganesh is forever perched on his throne, counting days for this decadent city. The multi-narrative structure flits seamlessly between the past and the present, and the past only enriches our knowledge of the present. The show does not shy away from killing your favourite characters, which makes it as ruthless in its treatment as GoT. It takes the pulse of a riotous urban jungle, where our allegiances are united and divide by a God who ‘is sick of us’.
Another series will follow, and they sure have left the best for the last. Pankaj Tripathi will bring with him another aspect – spiritualism, which is, quite often, the bedfellow of moral decadence, as we have come to see at close quarters. Till then, Gaitonde’s castle in the middle of garbage is as real as Mumbai gets. The city where dreamers come, and where dreams come to live and die each day.