A Netflix show is meant to be binged on. When you finish an episode in the app, within four seconds of the credit scenes you are prompted to open the next episode. This is both a stroke of genius and frightening. You lose track of the time you are investing in a series; Sacred Games fits this strategy perfectly; as a TV show, it is a high-octane thriller. Saif Ali Khan has delivered a perfect deglamourized performance, Radhika Apte (despite the many jokes about her tad too prolific Netflix career) delivers a strong role, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui is… Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The show has gratuitous amounts of violence, enough sex scenes to give the Indian Censor Board members hemorrhoids, and on top of it, it is a very good plot set in one of my favourite cities I have never been to. Of course, I am talking about Mumbai.
Mumbai as a city might be close to your heart. You may be able to relate to it, and genuinely care for the colourful characters. I have never been to Mumbai, neither do I have any friends there; despite what you might think, it lets me glamourize the city even more. I adore gangster movies, gangster sagas, I sheepishly envision a chaotic and dangerous city. It’s not entirely my fault- from Bollywood movies to accomplished writers, everyone has sung a song about Mumbai. While Sacred Games gives us a darker, more grounded rendition of the city, you still want to root for the gangsters and you still want to follow a cat and mouse chase; its partly the reason you sit to watch yet another episode of Sacred Games. You finish the series and you can’t deal with the cliff-hanger, so you mentally prepare yourself with a 900-page tome. All the answers are in there, right? What happens next?
What happens next, dear reader is that you slow down. You begin at the beginning. There are no shortcuts, you begin and Sartaj Singh says “Love is a murdering gaandu.”
You get this. You have watched more than 8 hours of this, so you are ready for more crassness, more violence, and chaos. What you finally understand is this: Sacred Games is about sadness. It’s about people from all walks of life coming together (and sometimes clashing together), with bottled up emotions. Sure, some of it feels like that old high-octane thriller that you enjoyed so much, but you understand that this would take more than eight hours.
A book and its adaptation for a larger audience can be vastly different experiences. I didn’t expect the book to be very different from the series; when the adaptation is closest to its source material, we say it is a good adaptation. However, Sacred Games as a TV show takes some very sharp turns away from the book; sometimes the book and the show feel like estranged siblings.
It felt like Vikram Chandra’s book delivered me the detox I needed for understanding Mumbai beyond its celluloid sheen. Corruption, gang wars, death, murder, all of this and more is somehow delivered as is- it isn’t glamourized or exaggerated. That doesn’t mean that the action stagnates, it just means that it is worth more than your titillation.
Sartaj Singh goes by life in Mumbai with nonchalant glances at moments of beauty. He isn’t a boring character by any means, its just that in the book he is far more fleshed out; he isn’t simply a bad cop with a divorce, he is a man who wants to do the right thing, wants to believe in love. There’s an extremely poignant moment when Sartaj and his subordinate, Katekar, sing along with a Bollywood song playing in their car. There are moments where Sartaj talks with his mother over the phone, with the exasperated yet sweet “Peri pauna, Ma.” He promises to take her to Amritsar one day.
Ganesh Gaitonde is also a much more interesting and realized character in the novel. Through his life, the reader can truly see how a man becomes too powerful, devolves into paranoia and psychosis. His initial independence, his brutality, his pure potency all are lost when he meets “Guruji”, the sinister antagonist of the tale. It’s sometimes uncomfortable to notice how ordinary Gaitonde finally becomes. I eagerly wait to see it on screen. What’s interesting is how little Sartaj and Gaitonde actually interact throughout the novel. Gaitonde’s entire story, of course, is told after his death, but the first-person narrative is simply insidious, like a voice you cannot ignore. A lot of that has been captured on screen too.
The care Vikram Chandra takes with developing Sartaj into a likable, relatable character sets the tone for the further differences you will find as you go along. All in all, more of the characters are fleshed out, and you truly invest in their lives. Sacred Games the novel is a far grander experience.
This grand experience may not be for everyone. It never feels like the story is derailing, but rather the story itself is growing into different spaces. There are stories about Naxalites, RAW agents, refugees, and cheating couples. The one-track nature of the TV show is lost, and that may not be an enjoyable experience for everyone.
It is a challenging thing to create a series from a book such as this, and one of the first things that are struck down and simplified is the ambiguity and the grey areas in the story. The dramatis personae are so varied and brilliant in both the show and the book, yet in the book, they branch out several ways. The show narrows down perspectives quite a bit.
I won’t drop spoilers, but in case you begin this book simply to see “what happens next” (partly my own reason as well), I can tell you now that it won’t be worth it. You are coming from a very different medium; so relax. The ending is anticlimactic, almost immaterial, and you understand more than ever that rather than the action and the chase and the threats, the characters were more important. Every character seems to meet a conclusion, an unambiguous conclusion.
Like real life.
All photographs of Mumbai by Sourav Bhunia
Title Image by Abhijnan Sarkar
Image of the book cover from Amazon
Image of the Netflix poster from Google Images
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