Entertainment

Netflix's 'Sacred Games' Is the Twisted, Gritty Crime Drama You're Missing Out On

sacred games
Netflix

Sacred Games opens with a horrific act of violence: a small dog careens from a high rise and falls to its death in front of a group of schoolchildren. A point-blank murder of a woman, already injured, immediately follows. The rest of the series is no less punishing. The sprawling crime-drama noir of Sacred Games, Netflix’s first original Indian series, is immediately captivating, its story in the criminal underbelly of Mumbai coiled like a labyrinth. It revels in genre tropes as a tale of a cop who wants to be a hero and a mobster who wants to be God.

Seasoned Bollywood stars Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui play the hero and villain, respectively, and the depth of their film acting shows, each man bringing specificity to their stock types. (Do be sure to watch the series in its original language of Hindi and not the English dubbed version, which dampens the performances.) Khan’s Sartaj Singh yearns to prove himself as a cop able to bring in big cases, thrust into an end-of-days plot threatened by Siddiqui’s Ganesh Gaitonde. Singh is more earnest than his corrupt colleagues in the police force -- less of a modern antihero and more of a throwback good guy -- which makes him weak in their eyes. Sacrifices, of course, must be made for him to get what he really wants: to stop Gaitonde from bringing a plague to Mumbai in 25 days. For Gaitonde, a larger-than-life villain that Sacred Games occasionally attempts to humanize, vengeance, violence, and power aren’t just his motivators. They’re his life force. To him, murderous revenge feels better than sex.

At times, Sacred Games feels as obsessed with violence as Gaitonde. That isn’t to say that the show is all blood and no plot. It’s a visually arresting series with fantastic, ambitious direction, and the spectacle of violence certainly functions as a part of the ever-twisting storyline. Even though Sacred Games is a big swing for Netflix, it seems stuck in the idea that prestige drama must be steeped in macho ruthlessness. It paints a world bereft of romance and full of sexual violence and murder, its sex scenes as disturbing as its torture scenes. With very few exceptions, most of the women in Sacred Games are sex workers who seem to function as props more than as fully realized characters, following a disturbing habit of rushing to flesh out its female characters just before killing them off.

A trans woman named Cuckoo, played by Kubra Sait, has a significant role in the story but doesn’t seem to exist outside of Gaitonde’s objectification, and the writing around her is rife with stereotypes. Radhika Apte plays Anjali Mathur, a desk agent with India’s foreign intelligence committee who pushes back against her male colleagues, and even Singh, when they suggest she’s better suited for the desk than the field. She ends up being integral to cracking the case… for a bit. Despite how fantastic Apte is, Anjali is never granted much space to ever feel like a fully fledged character. She sounds more like a mouthpiece for workplace feminism, a way for Sacred Games to front like it's considering these dynamics more than it actually is.

In that sense, Sacred Games isn’t rewriting the script so much as staging it somewhere new for American viewers. Aspects of the production are striking, and its grandness works in its favor most of the time, crafting an ambitious cops-and-mobsters drama steeped in religion, politics, and history. A close adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s 2006 novel of the same name, the series possesses a mostly cogent and thrilling, if familiar, story structure. Interstitial news footage root the show in India’s complicated political history, serving a crash course of sorts and giving deeper context to the drama.

sacred games
Ishika Mohan Motwane/Netflix

Again, it’s a big play from Netflix, a chance for the streaming service to tap into India’s massive television market and also introduce huge Indian talent like Khan and Siddiqui to American viewers. Netflix also gets to work around India’s strict censorship laws, and does so to a gratuitous extent. As a result, it has caused its fair share of controversy, including a lawsuit over its portrayal of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Stateside, hype around the show has been relatively low compared to other big-budget Netflix series, especially for one as splashy as this. It spent four years in development, and it’s far from a flop, anchored by its strong performances, sharp plotting, and visual storytelling. Netflix is undoubtedly diversifying its portfolio with a series like this, but on a story level, the innovation just isn’t quite there. It’s gripping and well-crafted, but the game it’s playing, rooted in genre pitfalls, sometimes gets stuck.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a writer and critic living in Brooklyn with her cat named after Sarah Paulson. Her work can also be found on Autostraddle, The A.V. Club, Vulture, and more.